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SoundCheck: From Route 66 to Literary Greats, a Songwriter Blends a Lifetime of Experiences

Courtesy of Joe Dillsrom

Childhood memories can be influential on our older selves. Looking through time passed, we find ourselves reminiscing for days gone by. For songwriter Joe Dillstrom, the ability to process and draw on these memories gives life to his songs.

Growing up in Springfield, Joe remembers his mother taking him to diners like Aunt Martha’s and Anton’s. The older crowd at these places stuck in his mind.

“A different part of our postwar Ozarks culture that was just fading away as I was getting older. The sort of remnants of the Route 66 mythology,” said Joe.

The scene is set with a description that sounds like a Norman Rockwell painting.

“A lot of wood paneling, checkered tablecloths, booths, old Chrysler, like, boxy cars, a tape deck with Jim Croce’s Greatest Hits,” he said.

As he got older, Joe got into literature and began to draw inspiration from authors who employed a sense of regionalism in their works. Chekhov was a big influence in the way he wrote about people who were stuck in life and dealing with trivial details.

“Another major writer that really impacted me is Don DeLillo who’s sense of, like, phasing and his sense of meter is just so elegant.”

Pulling everything together into one place, as if it were a giant swimming pool of ideas, Joe began to take the pieces he had picked up throughout life and put them together as lyrics. DeLillo’s lyrical cadence resonated with Joe’s memories of listening to Chuck Berry as a kid.

“That sort of motor-mouth thing that he was able to do – I realized oh, there’s a connection in music between what Chuck Berry was doing as a lyricist and perhaps how Don DeLillo structures a sentence. And somewhere in the middle, I can cobble together something that will, is my own delivery system,” said Joe.

With these heavy-hitting influences, the art of the writing was an inevitable path.

“I always had aspirations to write. I wanted to write novels and stories. I didn’t end up in a room alone with a typewriter or a computer enough. I ended up alone in a room with a guitar.” 

Credit Courtesy of Joe Dillsrom

Like writing novels, songwriting can be a soul-baring experience. Joe started writing songs from his point of view, but wasn’t terribly comfortable with it.

Joe said, “For me, I could never get enough distance to where it didn’t sound really kind of contrived.” So he shifted his pronouns from first person to third and found the distance he was looking for.

“You can inhabit a different skin, that just makes it, at least I found, it much more fruitful.”

Visual art also plays a role in Joe’s lyrical inspiration, particularly the paintings of Edward Hopper and their connection to the post-war years. 

“I mean, take ‘Nighthawks,’ y’know, that’s a very, to me, not quite Ozarkian, but like, we have that tradition of breakfast diners and late-night spots, and y’know, for lack of a better term, American, that his stuff embodies. Right in that wheelhouse is the jukebox that is playing Chuck Berry, and then you have people, these isolated portraits of people trying to figure out their lives. They’re sort of modern characters in a Chekhov story. So, that’s maybe how those elements started to swirl, “said Joe.

The conglomeration of diners, juke boxes, literary giants and post-war art has blended itself well in Joe Dillstrom’s music. As he told me, he’s just trying to paint our experiences with manipulated air.

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.
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