Kenny and Amanda Smith ready for house down the road – January 2004
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Kenny and Amanda Smith ready for house down the road  Print

By John Lupton, January 2004

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Learning to play like that, Kenny says, involves something of a paradox of coming at it from opposing ends.

"I try to simplify what I'm doing...I slow things down a lot...I'll just oversimplify it and then go from there and sort of gauge what I can do faster. It's hard to put 'stock licks' in some of this stuff. If you keep doing that, it's repetitive, and it all sounds the same then. I go from the melody, what the singer's singing and come up with something I think I'll be able to do fast. For our songs that we do fast, I practice them faster than what the tempo would be. If I can do them faster than what the tempo is, then usually I can hit 'em pretty clean. I go from both ends of the spectrum."

After playing with Lonesome River for about five years, the band suddenly fell apart as Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby and Rickie Simpkins all left in rapid succession, leaving only Kenny and Sammy Shelor.

"I told Sammy that if I was going to start over with a band, I'd rather start one with my wife. Part of that last year I played (with LRB, Amanda and I) had already started (our first album), and I got interested in doing some other stuff and was wanting to start something with (Amanda). It was just getting harder for me to actually leave the house and play with the Lonesome River Band, knowing I could spend some effort with us starting our group...the timing was really right (to leave)."

For Amanda, the opportunity to record and tour with their own band, composed of experienced bluegrass veterans, has been something of a dream come true. Banjo player Steve Huber, for example, has been with Bob Paisley's Southern Grass, Paul Adkins' Borderline Band and David Peterson's 1946.

"(Steve) does a great job," she enthuses. "He's original, he doesn't sound like anybody else, he's real innovative and creative with his playing, so he fits the band really good."

"We've got Ronald Inscore on mandolin," she continues, "He lives up here by Kenny and me, he lives about 30 minutes from us, and of course, he's a great mandolin player. He filled in with Mountain Heart some for Adam (Steffey) when he's been out."

The new album features Greg Martin on bass, but since finishing the disc, Martin has moved on, replaced by Alan Bartram, and while they regretted Martin's departure, Amanda notes that Bartram brings a missing dimension to the band's sound.

"He's also our third voice, he does a lot of harmony vocals and lead singing, too, so we're real excited about him. He's a great singer, and he matches Kenny and me real well on our harmonies. We've always been looking for that, you know, strong third part."

Keeping a band together, they've come to learn, is more about economics than talent and egos.

"It's funny," Kenny says, "I think one of the biggest things is just getting up to the level where you can actually depend on it for your has a lot to do with whether or not you can make a living at it. There have been a lot of people that I know of who have left bands for one reason or another, and it doesn't have anything to do with how well they pick or whether they fit into the group or not. I wish it would get to the point where it would be a standard thing where you could make a living doing it, and I think it's going to get to that point."

The material on "House Down The Block" reflects the Smiths' wide-ranging tastes for songs old and new, inside and outside of bluegrass. Two of the tracks were written by their close friend, Blue Highway guitarist and singer Tim Stafford - "I love his playing and singing," Kenny says, "and especially his songwriting" - but two of the most interesting songs are from "old masters."

"Stay All Night" is from the Bob Wills catalog, written by his longtime vocalist Tommy Duncan. Kenny agrees that it's material that translates well to bluegrass.

"I've always been a big Bob Wills fan, for one thing because of Tommy's singing, but it's got a kind of syncopated chord structure. Some of the stuff he does is real syncopated, in jump time, and that's pretty unique in bluegrass."

The album's title track, on the other hand, is straight out of the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens which, Kenny says, is another long-time favorite for both of them.

"I got to digging and listening to a lot of the older (Owens) stuff. It's still the most timeless (material). I think it will be that way forever. It was new back then, but it's still got a spark now that just a lot of stuff doesn't have."

As 2004 rolls around on the calendar, Amanda notes that, following the album's release, the schedule gets busy - "We're going to be in Nebraska and Oklahoma, opening for George Jones. At the end of (February) we go to Wintergrass (in Tacoma). Hopefully, we should be playing quite a bit this year."

Kenny says another trip into the studio is a foregone conclusion.

"We're definitely going to do another one. We've got enough material to do a gospel album, but we might do another bluegrass album before that happens. Things are sort of wide open for us right now, we don't know how things are going to change, and what's ahead of us, but it's definitely moving pretty fast for us right now."

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