Kenny and Amanda Smith ready for house down the road

John Lupton, January 2004

For Kenny and Amanda Smith, 2003 was a year of excitement and anticipation as they recorded and looked forward to releasing their debut on Virginia-based Rebel Records, "House Down The Block" (out Jan. 20).

An added surprise came in the fall when they won the Emerging Artist Award at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards in Louisville.

"We were very excited," Amanda says, enjoying time off the road at home in the Blue Ridge of southern Virginia. "That award could have gone any way, to any of those bands. They were all good. We were really honored and surprised to get the award. We were very much excited when they called our name. We really weren't expecting that at all."

Kenny chimes in, "It's a springboard for us to sort of fuel the fire. It was definitely good for us to do that because a lot of people took note of what we were trying to do. But being a new band, we were floored that we actually got nominated for that award, and then to win it, was something else."For this husband and wife duo, the award and album are new mileposts in a personal and professional partnership that began in 1995, when Amanda (now 28) and her parents took a trip down the road from their Davisville, West Va. home to catch a bluegrass doubleheader.

"It was (the) Lonesome River Band and IIIrd Tyme Out," she recalls. "We watched the show and, of course, Kenny was with the Lonesome River Band...I was really impressed with his guitar playing. After the show, I went up to him and talked to him and gave him a cassette I had made - it was like a country tape - and it had my phone number in it. I told him to listen to it and to call if he had any suggestions or any advice. He called me the next day, and we went out a month after that. We dated, I guess, about a year, and then we got married in November of 1996."

Kenny's reputation as a standout bluegrass flatpicker with a distinctive style was well established from his work with the LRB and from his previous stint in the band of Alabama songstress Claire Lynch. Amanda was a somewhat lesser known quantity as a vocalist, but the new album will no doubt introduce her to new fans as a singer with the same kind of clarity and strength as Lynch and another singer whom she acknowledges as an inspiration, Alison Krauss.

"Growing up, I listened to a lot of Southern gospel, the older gospel and a lot of the older country. I listened to a lot of Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton and all of them. I really didn't hear any bluegrass until I was in high school, and a friend let me listen to an Alison Krauss CD. I started buying some bluegrass and a lot of the female artists - I bought Alison's and Claire's."Kenny grew up in Indiana, though his parents were from Tennessee, moving to the Fort Wayne area a couple of years before Kenny's birth in 1967.

"Dad moved up north. That's where all the jobs were, he ended up landing a job there," he says, adding that music was a family thing. "My brother plays banjo, and we started playing pretty early - I was four, and he was six when we started playing. My dad was a fiddler, and my grandpa was a fiddler, so we were pretty much around the music a lot. I learned how to play from these banjo and fiddle contests. I used to back up my brother, and if we went to a contest and a fiddle player or banjo player needed someone to back them up, I'd back them up on guitar. So that's what trained my ear as far as hearing the changes and stuff."

The seeds of his own picking style took root when he saw Norman Blake on a PBS special and acquired a couple of Blake's records. As his interest in bluegrass grew, he went to the local library to find out what bluegrass records might be available for checkout. He found exactly one, the 1975 debut of J. D. Crowe with his band, the New South, featuring a lineup that included young hotshots Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice.

It was Rice, in particular, who drew the attention of the young Indiana guitarist, and he was far from the first to be captivated by Rice's jazz-influenced "power licks." Unlike many, though, who tried to copy Rice's style, note-by-note, Smith was anxious to put his own personal stamp on his music.

"At the time I was developing my style, everybody was playing like Tony, so I really tried to do the opposite of what sounded like Tony and came up with what I thought sounded totally different. I was trying to come up with something new all the time."

The attention he was garnering from his work with Claire Lynch and Lonesome River earned him entry to that upper echelon of flatpickers - legends like Doc Watson, Clarence White, Dan Crary, Blake and Rice, as well as younger, contemporary talents like Bryan Sutton and Peter McLaughlin, pickers with the rare talent to pick not only fast, but clean - every note gets its chance to be heard and savored.

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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •