Rising up from what could have been very debilitating losses personally and professionally, Valerie Smith has a new album, a positive feeling and an optimistic outlook for both her brand of music and that of her genre.
"No Summer Storm" is the title of her new disc for Bell Buckle Records, but both the fact that it has been released and has been so widely praised are both remarkable considering the obstacles that were put in its path.
There was a new approach planned for the album.
"We wanted to put a unique twist to it," explains Smith, who combines bluegrass and country. "I wanted to record it live in the studio to give it a rootsy sound. The band and I had been traveling together for over a year. Then we lost (band member) Eddie Miller in an auto accident. His brother, John, who was also in the band, decided he couldn't go on either. It was very hard to continue this album."
"No Summer Storm" includes four songs recorded prior to the fatal accident. The liner notes for the disc have a collection of heartfelt tributes to Eddie Miller.
Finally after some soul searching, the decision was made to go forward. "We decided that Eddie wouldn't have wanted us to just drop the project and the band," says Smith. "I found a guitarist and a mandolin player. But then we only had a few days to work on the songs before going into the studio. I was very apprehensive about what we'd get."
Stephen Mougin became the guitarist, and John Wesley Lee added mandolin. They joined Becky Buller on fiddle and guitar, Daniel Hardin on bass and Randall Conn on Dobro and banjo. The group jelled quickly in the studio, and the end result was everything that could have been hoped for.
"I was so pleased with the folks I had chosen," says Smith. "It was like they were all meant to be there - meant to be together at that point in time. This music has an edge to it."
Besides that edge, it turns out that there are several other bonuses for working in a structure where the band has a lot of input and where that band is the same one that goes out on the road.
"I'm enjoying working with this band on the road," says Smith. "I think it is exciting to any musician to have a voice in the music, that they have contributed. It isn't very stimulating to go into the studio and just be told note-for-note what to play. These musicians are always coming up with new ideas. Everything's been good."
Having the band out on the road with her provides some benefits to the audience as well. "After a show, a fan wants to be able to come to the table and buy a CD and have it be the same music they heard on stage," says Smith. "With this group, I can do that now. A lot of people come to the show not having heard us previously, so that's important to me."
Fortunately, some people come to hear the band because they've previously heard the music on the radio, at a record shop or on the internet. All of that gives Smith a lot of hope about the more traditional country sound and its future.
Smith's fascination with music began at the age of five. Her mother, who played bass and sang, and her father, a Dobro player, introduced her to bluegrass and country music in her hometown of Holt, Mo. It was there that Smith began listening to and identifying with such pioneer artists as the Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams and Lorretta Lynn.
Smith earned her degree in vocal music education from the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri in Kansas City where she studied jazz, pop, Broadway and opera. Her love of bluegrass music never dimmed, however, and she interwove the music into plays and musicals for her elementary school.
Eventually Smith and her husband, Kraig, made the move to Nashville. They became regulars at Bell Buckle Cafˇ in Bell Buckle, Tenn., where both participated in writer's nights. Smith found a home for her music there and became a regular with the "Front Porch Pickers." This was the start of her association with J. Gregory Heinike. Together, the Smiths and Heinike formed Bell Buckle Records.
"Five years ago, nobody had heard my music," recalls Smith. "When I got up on stage, I had to work very hard to win them over. Now, it feels very good that some people are coming to my shows to hear the songs they bought on the CD."
Whether that is the case at any point in the tour depends on the location. "There are more Americana stations out there now than there used to be," says Smith.
But she also sees some changes in the mainstream fare, though admittedly there is still more room for improvement.
"I think a change has already started," she said. "I think we've already made inroads from the 'Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?' soundtrack. I think that is so good. The problem has been that the music all started sounding alike. It is so good that some artists are trying something different. A lot of them can rip a song. I don't understand why there can't be more variety. What's wrong with putting a song in that has some banjo? For a long time, you never heard a song on the radio with a banjo. But I am just tickled with any type of change. I think it's important to stay positive."
Smith isn't one of those artists who wants to run the modern country off the radio. "I don't have a problem with that sound," she said. "I'd just like for there to be more variety. I like a lot of the modern country."
The radio seems to be expanding the opportunity for bluegrass. The stations that program it are on the rise, and the average number of hours per week for the genre has increased from just over two to nearly six.
Yet, Smith admits that mainstream country radio is probably still not the best chance for bluegrass and traditional country music to get exposure. Fortunately and perhaps ironically, today's technology advances are making more of this music easily available to those who will take the time to go out and seek it.
"I think with satellite radio becoming more and more popular at home and in cars that this music will get out there," says Smith. "There is so ' much available to the listener right now, it's just wonderful. I can only see things get better."
Some examples of how things are getting better can be found on the road.
"We're playing bluegrass festivals that have been getting record attendance," says Smith. "We've played festivals where we've been the only bluegrass group and still have gotten good response."
Smith has also gotten good response to "No Summer Storm," which has been gratifying to both sides of her singer/songwriter equation. "I really didn't know what type of reaction there would be until I went out on the road," says Smith. "I felt we'd made a good record. I was proud of it. It has an edge to it that the previous records didn't have. It seemed to work so well that my feeling is we'll try it again on the next record."
Smith has both sides of the singer/songwriter equation filled. "I don't separate the writing from the singing," says Smith. "To me, they both go together. You can't have a great vocal on a poor song, and a song isn't good unless it's sung well."
But she wrote only two of the songs on the new disc. "I don't consider myself a heavy duty songwriter," admits Smith. "I write when I feel like I have something to say. I usually can't just sit down and decide it's time to write something. Even after I do I look at the song and often I decide it's not the strongest song of the batch that I'm considering."
So, she is left with the same chore that faces a lot of contemporary singers - finding material. It is a tough job to get in touch with material and then to make a decision about what to select. The band members get into the act by suggesting things they have come across in their libraries or their listening experiences.
For Smith, the whole process is a very inexact science. "For me it's an instinct thing," she says. "I look at the lyrics first. When someone sends me a song, I always like it when they include the lyrics. That way I can sit down and read them to find out if they say something to me. Then I'll consider the melody. I always try to picture myself singing the song and see if I think I would be convincing singing this song."
Even if Smith were a more prolific writer she would still be very cautious about using just her own material to fashion an album.
"I would be afraid the whole disc would end up sounding alike," says Smith. "That wouldn't be very interesting."
Becky Buller and Randall Conn wrote one of the new album's songs, "Jacob Spence," and that's an option for material she is likely to explore more as the group gains more cohesion and familiarity with one another.
The current tour will need to come to an end soon as Smith and her husband are expecting a child in four months, but she is looking upon the impending birth as something to enrich her life and not something that will mean an end to this blossoming career.
You can't tell she's pregnant by looking at her demanding schedule, which included a large number of dates in Germany at the end of October. She has also purchased a new bus, which is being remodeled to make the entire touring experience more comfortable for the band. It doesn't sound like this act has any intention of slowing down soon.