Alone Again, Naturally
Darden Smith's latest album, Extra Extra, is subtitled Darden Smith Sings Twelve Songs By Heart. To which you could easily add well, duh. The session, after all, features a dozen of Smith's best compositions from previous releases, all newly recorded. Such a move obviously raises the question, Doesn't he have any new songs to offer?
"I have shitloads of songs," Smith explains with nonchalant confidence over a cup of herbal tea at a South Austin coffeehouse. "As a matter of fact, I'm starting a new record in March."
Then why rerecord a bunch of oldies, even if they are goodies? Why retrace the familiar ground of "Frankie & Sue," a transoceanic tale of searching for love? Or "Midnight Train," the diesel-powered expression of longing? Or the seductive "Loving Arms," which is probably his best-known song?
If you couldn't guess already, Smith's decision has more to do with business than art.
"I started a production company of my own, so I own my records now, and I license them out," he explains. "And four people in, like, the course of a month said to me, 'Hey, have you ever thought of redoing these songs?' Because my records are getting harder and harder to find."
So now he owns master recordings of some of his most popular material, which gives him a naturally inviting item to sell at his shows for a tidy profit. Besides, Smith explains, "I put a lot of work into these songs, and it helps keep the songs alive. It's also like the end of one era of what I've done -- I've been making records for about 15 years now -- and the start of launching a new one. So I figured I'd start it by looking back and forward at the same time. Some people told me it was an incredibly stupid idea, and some said it was a brilliant idea."
The merits of the concept aside, for Smith the experience was "a ton of fun." "It's probably the most fun I've had making a record in a long time," he notes with a chuckle. Why so? "Well, I didn't have to worry so much about the songs, because I knew they worked. And I didn't have to ask anybody permission to go do this record. So I just did it."
After a rather perverse journey through the record business system, Smith relished the chance to make a record on his own terms.
Smith knows something about being his own man. He grew up on a farm in Brenham, where he developed a loner's streak. As such, he was a bit jarred by living in a large social setting when his family moved to Humble. But music provided a safe haven. Smith had started playing guitar at the age of nine and began writing songs at ten, even though his family wasn't at all musical.
"My parents didn't get their first stereo until I started putting out records," he notes. But thanks to local radio stations, he was exposed to master songwriters like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt as well as such "cosmic cowboys" as Willie Nelson and Jerry Jeff Walker. After a year and a half of college at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, he moved to Austin at 19 to pursue music.
Coming from "a non-musical family and a non-entertainment-business family, I didn't have a clue about how the business worked," he admits. But after playing in Austin and doing some touring, "I saw that if you had a record out, you got paid twice as much at your gigs, and people thought you had your act together. So I raised some money and put my own record out."
That debut, Native Soil, gained Smith an entrée into the emerging school of Texas singer-songwriters in the mid-'80s, including Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle. "I quickly learned to never have a record label. I like to say that I ran it into the ground in my own living room. But I also had some really good luck."
Dick James Music, the company run by the man who published the Beatles' music, signed Smith to a deal after a show in Los Angeles. Then Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel took him under his wing and secured him a recording contract with Epic Records in Nashville. But Music City wasn't the right place for Smith and his music. "My band was a three-piece at the time, with me on guitar, and bass and drums. They'd go have us play the obligatory rodeo or something, and people would look at us like we left half the band on the bus," he says.
Although there's a soft echo of Texas music in Smith's tunes, there's also a pop lilt that lifts them out of the roots-music realm. He managed to get himself shifted to Epic's pop division out of Los Angeles, cutting one more album for the label before moving to sister company Columbia, in New York, for another. He also hooked up with English singer-songwriter Boo Hewerdine for the well-received album Evidence.
Columbia eventually dropped Smith from its roster after lukewarm sales. "I thought I would immediately skip into another fabulous record deal and, once again, achieve my place in the realms of pop stardom," he explains in a facetiously self-effacing tone. "But it didn't work out that way." His last album of new material was Deep Fantastic Blue in 1996, recorded for a label run by his manager at the time. "The record went nowhere. But I've built a career on that, actually."
Even if it has taken Smith five years to start preparing for another album of new material, he says he's enjoying music more than ever these days. Having taken up piano, he started composing for the Johnson/Long Dance Company in Austin. Then he got a call from the Austin Symphony, inviting him to perform with the orchestra. "I told them the only way I'd do it is if they let me write a whole new instrumental piece, and do it as a collaboration with the dance company, take it or leave it, thinking, thankfully, I just talked myself out of that gig," he says. The orchestra administration didn't go for the idea, but its conductor Peter Bay had the final word -- and he went for it.
"Once he said yes, I was terrified," Smith admits. "I stayed away from it for eight months because I was afraid of failure. Then they finally called me and asked me what the title was. I said, 'Uh, I'll have to get back to you on that.' Because I didn't have a clue." But with the help of an orchestrator, Smith came up with Grand Motion, which the symphony presented for two nights in Austin in November 1999.
Now there's Extra Extra, a recording session whose old tunes, Smith discovered, had matured like vintage bottles of wine -- they had developed new character over time. "It was interesting to sing songs that were written, some of them, ten to 12 years ago, and find that they mean different things as time goes on, and they resonate differently for me now." Would it be fair to assume that the same thing happens for the listener? "One would hope," quips Smith.
Approaching 40 years old, Smith says, "I like making music outside of the music business. You realize that there's a million ways to make music and get paid for it. I don't have to be a kid anymore, and I really enjoy that. I don't have to pretend that I am reaching for a brass ring, and in some ways I shoot higher than I ever have."
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