"My family used to listen to old, mellow stuff on eight-track, people like Willie Nelson and Don Williams. In the car, it was mostly talk radio," says the lead singer/guitarist of Brother Luck. "Kids in school were talking about Erasure, and I had no clue, so I would say, 'Yeah, they're great!' "
But he would really have to perfect his Tony the Tiger impression when the family moved to Katy in the early '90s. "It was a total culture shock, just all the music you were exposed to and everything. In Abilene, if you wore Izods, you were rich. In Houston, kids drove BMWs."
Nonetheless, Smith feels that living in a musical cocoon saved him by allowing him to approach the art form with a unique slant. He describes the result -- the CD Beautiful -- somewhat convolutedly as "acoustic-driven, mass palatable folky modern rock with some electric backing."
"But I see myself as just a songwriter in a good band," he's quick to add. Sitting next to him, drummer Kevin Smith nods. The pair are the only remaining members of the quintet that released Beautiful. A mass exodus has found them trying to rebuild the band just after its greatest triumph.
Last year, Brother Luck beat out 11 other local acts in a Hard Rock Cafe-sponsored battle of the bands. As the representatives of Houston, they were then entered in an online competition with the winners from 11 other cities. A panel of judges considered the top three vote-getters and chose one for the grand prize: a slot opening for Sammy Hagar and Smash Mouth at Hagar's Cabo Wabo Club in Mexico.
Brother Luck made the top three, but the letdown of not winning the whole shebang caused some members to re-evaluate their dedication to the band. Vocalist and lead guitarist John Cordes and guitarist Hank Hamberg split to spend more time with their families. Bassist Matt Vinca, whom Rozino Smith calls "an amazing musical prodigy," quit to go to college.
"The timetable for the possibility of doing this full-time kind of changed. This was our big shot, and it didn't happen," Smith says. "So [Hank and John] decided that the sacrifice was too much for them. I hated to see them go." Brother Luck was left with a new record and new clout, but no way to capitalize on either.
The road to this impasse began at Baylor, where Smith bought a "crummy old Ovation" guitar and began jamming with his next-door neighbor, whom he remembers as "one of those 30-year-old professional students that never went to class, but he did know a lot of chords."
Smith then transferred to Sam Houston State University, where he got reacquainted with Cordes, a classmate from Katy High. Cordes invited Smith to play bass in the band he was in, and despite never having touched the instrument before, he agreed. "We sucked really bad, but people kept clapping and we kept getting shows," he says. After deciding that he could sing better than their vocalist, Smith kept edging more and more of his own material into the set list. He says this "pissed off" the rest of the band (except Cordes), and they all quit. So the pair struck out on their own, forming Brother Luck in 1998.
Though there was a flurry of lineup changes over the next few years, Smith and Cordes were firm on one point: The band would play only original music. "We never thought of playing covers -- we weren't good enough!" Smith laughs. He also further developed his lyrics, which on Beautiful aren't always easy to decipher.
"I don't set out to try to write songs that are vague," he says. "But I'm afraid to write, 'This is what happened, this is how I felt, and this is how I got screwed.' " He even wrote a song for his wife and performed it at their wedding ceremony, but the musical inspiration of his betrothed would prove somewhat limited.
"I was telling her that I didn't want to write about her, because she made me happy," he clarifies, before dusting off one of the late Mickey Newbury's songwriting adages. "And if I'm happy, I don't want to write songs. I want to go play golf."
Last year, Smith and the band felt that it was time to put something down on record, but only if they could reproduce the material live: no strings, horns or funky arrangements. The group entered Houston's Dewlen Studios to lay down tracks. Smith was surprised at some points to find himself thinking more like an investor than a musician. "It was nerve-racking, because I was cutting the checks," he says. "So if somebody fluffed a riff and it had to be redone, I'm thinking, 'Hey! That's $20 there!"
The 11 autobiographical songs that ended up on Beautiful, though, aren't always as pretty as the title suggests. "Memory Remains" and "I Still Remember" are wistful recollections of a fling gone awry; "Cool for August" and "The Slig" chronicle the pitiful downfalls of friends; and "Wake the Angels" and "So Innocent" both recall miscarriages, one of which involved Smith's sister.
But it's the title track that has gotten the most attention in concert and is Smith's favorite to sing. It's a tune inspired by an acquaintance of the band whom Smith calls the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. "Whoever ends up marrying her is not going to be worthy," he says. (And for the record, Smith doesn't have to worry about passing or failing that test, as the woman in question is not his wife.) Too scared to tell his muse about the song in person, he e-mailed the revelation. "Yeah, I was chickenshit," he admits.
Oddly, the track (which Smith performs solo) was just tossed off at the end of their studio time one day. It was the song he spent the least time and least money recording. "It amazes me that that's the song people always remember and ask for," he says, shaking his head. "I'm like, 'Hey! Why don't they like the songs that cost us more?' "
Brother Luck regrouped only weeks ago as a quartet, with Chris Loocke and Preston Hill joining on lead guitar and bass. Smith still isn't sure music can be his full-time gig, but he hopes to take the band into the studio this month to record some acoustic material. This time he wants to add those strings and things that didn't make the first record. It will be something more akin to the tastes of his Don Williams-loving father.
"He's so proud, it's kind of funny," Smith says. "He'll be like, 'My son's in this great band! It's called Brother something, I don't remember the rest.' "