Back in 2005, a then-eighteen-year-old Chris Baricevic began laying the groundwork for what would become one of the city's best-known record labels, Big Muddy Records.
"I was coming off of a semester in college in New Orleans and gigging around south city St. Louis in the summertime with my band, Johnny O & the Jerks, and we met the Vultures," Baricevic recalls. "We were kind of the only two bands that were our age — being around eighteen — playing that kind of music: rock & roll with a nod to the '50s and '60s rockabilly and garage-rock influences."
Though Baricevic hadn't yet formalized the Big Muddy label, the core group of musicians who would come to define its sound had already started to coalesce. Alongside Baricevic on drums in Johnny O & the Jerks was now-Hobosexuals bassist Brian Heffernan and singer/guitarist John Randall, currently the frontman of one of Big Muddy's longest-running acts, the Hooten Hallers. The Vultures consisted of Ashley Hohman (Doomtown, Self Help, Veil) alongside multi-instrumentalist Ryan Koenig and bassist Joey Glynn. (The latter two have since played and recorded prolifically both inside and outside of the label, most notably with the Rum Drum Ramblers and former Big Muddy artist Pokey LaFarge.)
"We all became friends and we very quickly realized that we had something special, that we had a little family that was growing," Baricevic says — a sentiment echoed by Big Muddy artists Mat Wilson (Rum Drum Ramblers, Loot Rock Gang), Jack Grelle and Kellie Everett (Southwest Watson Sweethearts).
"We all liked to play music together and fed off of each other, and we had something very special to offer in that regard. It grew out of the music and it grew out of the camaraderie. We were spending a lot of time together — as much as we could — and that summer I moved into St. Louis city proper and decided that, instead of going back to New Orleans, I would stay here and start this record label."
But the familial nature of Big Muddy wasn't the only common theme. Baricevic, Wilson, Grelle and Everett all mention the 2013 death of St. Louis photographer and songwriter Bob Reuter as a sort of turning point for the label, one that brought the group closer than it had ever been.
"It's kind of been a different chapter since we lost Bob," says Grelle. "I think Big Muddy's kind of getting its head back on right now, and having more of a clear focus." Everett seconds that optimism, going so far as to say that "Big Muddy is in the midst of a renaissance." One element of the label's "renaissance" is a roster that has grown substantially to include new acts such as the Loot Rock Gang, Tortuga and the Southwest Watson Sweethearts. Baricevic insists, though, that Big Muddy still bases its growth on the same sort of personal relationships responsible for its genesis.
"We don't accept new acts on a submission basis," he explains. "The current roster kind of builds itself; when it's time to add a new band, we all know."
Wilson answers nearly identically. "Every project's been like that," he says. "It's been a small rumbling that turns into something that we realize needs to be recorded." Those new acts, as well as a few old ones, will be showcased Sunday at Off Broadway for Big Muddy's Tenth Anniversary & Holiday Bash.
The evening will kick off with the Southwest Watson Sweethearts, followed by Bob Reuter's Alley Ghost, the Loot Rock Gang, Tortuga, the Rum Drum Ramblers, Jack Grelle and the Hobosexuals, as well as a one-time-only performance by the Strange Places, a group Baricevic put together to perform some of his own material. In addition to the music, the event will feature food from new south-city favorite Gooseberries.
Asked what Big Muddy has in store in the coming year, Everett says, "We're currently working on a business plan to entice investors so we can reissue the Big Muddy Records back catalog," much of which, she says, was destroyed in a flood. Grelle agrees with Everett, adding that, "the first one we have — and I believe we just officially got the rights to — is Bob Reuter's old band the Dinosaurs, from the late '70s."
When the subject of Big Muddy's future is presented to Baricevic, he lays out more expansive — if vague — intentions.
"I see something a little bit more...fortified. I see a foundation that's a little more airtight in terms of business infrastructure, in terms of having an audience that we have a direct line with, in terms of struggling less financially," he says. But his chief priorities remain the same.
He cites having more energy to do more important things as his main goal: "Like make music and be a part of the community."