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SoundCheck: How the Ozark Songbirds brought five women together through music and charity

The Ozarks Songbirds (from left to right: Jessamyn Orchard, Kunti Bentley, Melissa Rea, Betsey Mae Graves, Melinda Moon Mullins)
Steven Spencer
The Ozarks Songbirds (from left to right: Jessamyn Orchard, Kunti Bentley, Melissa Rea, Betsey Mae Graves, Melinda Moon Mullins)

This month’s Studio Live features the five-woman singer/songwriter group the Ozark Songbirds. The group consists of Melinda Moon Mullins, Betsey Mae Graves, Melissa Rea, Kunti Bentley and Jessamyn Orchard. Melinda, Betsey and Melissa joined me in the studio to talk about how these five talented musicians joined forces.

The nature of this conversation reflects their friendship with each other, as well as with the author.

MULLINS: There’s bass, there is guitar, Jessamyn does keyboard and throws in some looping and a little bit of homemade beatboxing. And we do originals, we do some covers. I actually play a little bit of percussion, which is a completely new thing for me. Just a little shaky shaky or swish swish or jingle jangle.

BALISLE: I’m trying so hard not to interject this with my laughing so that I can use it. I’m so sorry!

REA: There’s a lot of giggles you’re going to have to edit out here.

BALISLE: So, when did the group actually form?

MULLINS: It was the year of our lord, nineteen – oh crap, not nineteen. This is going well.

GRAVES: Especially, "It was the year of our lord nineteen hundred and..."

MULLINS: The year 2019. Would you like to hear the story?

BALISLE: I would.

MULLINS: Since this is going so well.

BALISLE: I want to hear everything you have to say about it.

MULLINS: So, all of us are musicians, of course, and we all were kind of doing our own thing. Except Betsey and I had been playing together as Layton Hollow Gals, which does the music of my father, Mr. Johnny Mullins. Occasionally, I would do a fundraiser for Care to Learn, or something for the kitties and doggies. And I just had this idea and when I think back at it, I really think it was really some sort of divine intervention because it just came into me. And I was like, "Okay!"

It’s like, I want to do a fundraiser, and how do I get a lot of people to come to this? It’s like, we’ll get kind of a diverse group going. And so, I thought of Betsey first, of course. And then it’s just like, you know, that Melissa Rea, erhmygoodness. If I could get her to sing with us and contacted her. Because, like, I knew Missy, from when you sang some on my album and I used to go see her perform for Lily Bee and the Pollinators. Just had to take a rag with me to get the sweat off of my brow watching those shows.

REA: That’s right!

MULLINS: And she agreed. She liked the idea and Kunti, I had seen her at the Spokane Songwriter Festival. And I was like, "Man, she’s got this voice!" And then Jessamyn, I had seen her perform some, and really, I love what does and she’s unique. She is honest. She’s talented. And I barely knew her, but I threw it out to her and so the five of us just decided, “Hey, let’s do this." And then it’s like, well, what are we going to do it for? And I decided on a wonderful fundraiser for the Rebound Foundation. And we had our first show at Lindberg’s in November 2019 and packed the place out!

REA: It was pretty apparent then that this was more than just a little songwriter in the round-type thing. I know I was really excited to share a stage with you all and wanted to collaborate with everyone if I could. And then it just kind of just snowballed into this thing. And we all just really really like each other.

MULLINS: I remember the first rehearsal basically – it wasn’t even a rehearsal, it was a brainstorming – everybody came over to my house. And all of the sudden the energy was like, "Hey! Have you heard this song by the High Women? And we ought to this one!" And, "Oh gosh, this song that Emmylou Harris does!" Like Kunti, and Betsey and Melissa start already, it’s like they had rehearsed out behind the bushes before they came in my house! They just had this angelic sound come out with all these harmonies.

Balisle asked the Songbirds if that initial gig was intended to be a one-and-done show with them deciding to keep playing after the gig.

GRAVES: That’s definitely what happened, it just stuck.

REA: Yeah, it was pretty much after that we were like, "Well, now we need a band name, I guess."

GRAVES: It was love at first gig.

Be sure to tune into Studio Live this Friday at noon for a performance from the Ozark Songbirds.

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.