Posts Tagged ‘Darden Smith’

Another From Darden Smith

May 18, 2022

Originally posted September 10, 2009.

As I wrote in February 2007 (for Saturday Single No. 2!):

[T]o be honest, Darden Smith these days is not strictly country. That’s where he started some twenty years ago, but he’s evolved to where his music occupies a place somewhere near the intersection of country, folk, pop and rock.

That’s an interesting place to live, musically, but it’s an awful place for the marketing and promotion folks to figure out. So they don’t try. That’s the only reason I can figure out to explain the public’s failure to elevate Smith to the level he deserves.

That was all true then, when I was writing about “Levee Song” from Smith’s Little Victories CD, a 1993 release, and it remains true as I try to figure out what to say about Deep Fantastic Blue, a CD Smith released in 1996.

Well, it’s got plainspoken songs, with a few nifty metaphors – “Somebody’s pride and joy turned out to be the broken branch on the family tree” for one – and some fairly muscular musical backing (not muscular in a rock sense, with lots of loud, but in a country-folk sense; I think you’ll hear what I mean when you listen).

Here’s what All-Music Guide had to say about Deep Fantastic Blue (and about Smith’s career, ca. 1996):

“When CBS (now Sony) signed Darden Smith in 1987, they may have hoped they were getting another country-pop singer-songwriter like Rodney Crowell. By the time a couple of albums had suffered undeserved anonymity, however, they may have been hoping for a critics’ favorite with a modest commercial breakthrough like John Hiatt. But major labels do not wait forever for even the most promising artist to start exceeding his advances, and with this, his fifth album, Smith is now recording for his manager’s indie label. It turns out this is all for the better, artistically, anyway. Darden’s well-written songs are sufficiently straightforward enough to answer to any one of several production ideas. A good country producer could take them in a Garth-like direction, and a good rock producer could find another Tom Petty. Instead, Stewart Lerman has assembled a stellar backup unit of relative unknowns — anchored by bassist Graham Maby from the old Joe Jackson Band, and guitarist Richard Kennedy and drummer Stanley John Mitchell from the late, lamented Drongos — for a restrained folk-rock treatment that emphasizes the songs. Smith’s lyrics cover familiar ground, touching on restlessness, hopelessness, hope, despair, freedom, aging, and, oh, yeah, lust. But he often has unusual ways of putting things, and he sings with conviction. There may not be a place for him on a major anymore, but he continues to grow as a songwriter and performer, and perhaps an audience will find him yet.”

Okay, so who are the musical referents in that review? Rodney Crowell, John Hiatt, Garth Brooks, Joe Jackson and the Drongos, (who were – and I had to look this up – a pop-rock band that released two albums during the mid-1980s). That’s a wide swath of influences and reflections. No wonder it seems hard to figure out what kind of performer Darden Smith is.

It’s easy for a listener, actually, once you get hold of one of his CDs. Put the sucker in the player and let it run, Track 1 through 10. Wash, rinse, repeat. Listen to it the way people used to listen to music, as an entire piece of work. And during a quiet time on the next Wednesday evening or something like that, you’ll have a melody running through your head, and you’ll realize it’s “First Day of the Sun,” or it’s “Drowning Man,” or maybe it’s “Hunger.” Whatever it is, it’s one of Smith’s songs from Deep Fantastic Blue that’s worked its way inside you, the way the best music does.

(That’s always a risk, of course. If a listener’s life is in turmoil or worse, the music may attach itself to that time of his or her life and how it felt to be there. I came across Darden Smith during a difficult portion of my life, and some of the songs on the first CDs of his I bought pull me back to my apartment on Bossen Terrace in Minneapolis and to a time that, well, wasn’t very pleasant. Somehow, though, Darden’s music only lightly recalls that time; even though his CDs were never far from the stereo then, they are, thankfully, not reminders of grief. On the other hand, Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia, which I loved and put into the player about as frequently, is these days still nearly unlistenable for the sonic reminders it brings.)

In any event, Deep Fantastic Blue is a worthwhile listen. I checked at Amazon this morning, and it’s available – one copy through standard means, others through other dealers. There’s also an import version available. (Those listings seem to change from day-to-day.) And most of Smith’s other work is available there as well, with all of it save Little Victories still in print.

If you like what you hear, explore the rest of Smith’s catalog. I’ve posted most of what he recorded up to 1996. (I don’t recall if I’ve ever posted Little Victories, but next week might be a good time for that.) He’s continued to write and record, though it’s been three years since his last release, Field of Crows.

Deep Fantastic Blue by Darden Smith [1996]

First Day of the Sun
Broken Branches
Running Kind
Silver & Gold
Drowning Man
Different Train
Stop Talking

Deep Fantastic Blue by Darden Smith [1996]

I got an email the other day from the operator of the fine blog The Vinyl District, asking me if I’d tell last week’s tale of Echoes In The Wind for a feature he calls “TVD Pop Over.” I did so gladly, ripping five favorite tunes from vinyl to accompany my words; the post went online today. My thanks to Jon. And some advice for regular readers here: If you don’t already do so, you should make TVD one of your regular stops in blogworld.

Sorry, Not Today

May 17, 2022

Originally posted August 26, 2009

A Six-Pack of Tomorrows
“Today Was Tomorrow Yesterday” by the Staple Singers from “City in the Sky” [1974]
“Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Brighter Day” by Jim Croce from “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” [1972]
“Getting Ready For Tomorrow” by Johnny Rivers from “Changes” [1966]
“Tomorrow Never Comes” by Big Head Todd & the Monsters from “Sister Sweetly” [1993]
“After Tomorrow” by Darden Smith from “Darden Smith” [1998]
“Beginning Tomorrow” by Toni Brown & Terry Garthwaite from “The Joy” [1977]

A Gift Of Coins In Blue Folders

July 27, 2011

Originally posted August 15, 2008

It was, I think, the summer of 1964, so I would have been ten when I got a phone call from Rose, the lady who lived across the street. She wondered if I could come over for a few minutes.

Rose and her husband, August, were what we now call senior citizens. I think August was already been retired from his career in banking when we moved to Kilian Boulevard in the early part of 1957. So on the day I got the phone call, both of them would have been securely in their seventies, an age that was beyond comprehension to me. I don’t recall knowing them well: They were the older couple who lived across the street. But I’d done a few errands for them. So I was puzzled but unconcerned as I made my way across Eighth Street Southeast and climbed the steps.

Rose was seated at the kitchen table and motioned me inside. There were five blue folders, a red book and a magnifying glass on the table in front of her. I sat down and she showed me the folders. They were coin-collecting folders, two for Lincoln pennies, two for Jefferson nickels and one for Roosevelt dimes. The book was a 1964 guide to American coins.

They were all mine, she said, if I wanted them. She was an avid coin collector, and the folders she was giving me were partly filled with extras from her collection. There were coins dating back to, oh, 1920 in the first of the two folders for Lincoln pennies (first minted in 1909). The earliest Jefferson nickel she had for me was 1939, I think, which would have been a year after the coin was first minted, and the earliest Roosevelt dime she gave me came from 1946, the first year of the coin’s existence.

But there were plenty of gaps for me to fill in the blue folders, if I wanted to become a coin collector myself. For most U.S. coins in those days, there were three different versions every year: Those minted in San Francisco were marked with a small “S,” those minted in Denver had a small “D” and those minted in Philadelphia had no mint mark at all. So there were three slots to fill in the folders for each year. Rose’s extra coins filled a lot of the places but by no means all. I’d have a good start at a collection, but I’d have plenty of coins to find, if I accepted her gift. Which, of course, I did.

I’d never thought of collecting coins before. I’d dabbled in stamps and found that unsatisfying. I couldn’t tell the example of one stamp from the next in the poorly printed album I’d gotten for Christmas a few years earlier. But with coins, it was fairly easy: check the date and then use the magnifying glass to check for a mint mark. I soon got in the habit of checking every coin I got in change when I spent money, and Dad frequently let me go through his change.

Over the course of a few years, I filled gaps in the folders, filling in the pennies all the way back to 1917 or so and up to 1965; I had a few from before 1917, but not many. A couple of those – including the earliest minted penny I ever owned, one from 1912 – came from a coin shop in Chicago, which my dad visited while on a business trip there. Within about five years, I’d not only filled in the penny collection back to 1917, but I had a complete set of Jefferson nickels from 1938 through 1968, and a complete set of Roosevelt dimes from 1946 through 1964 (the last year that dimes were solid silver). Not all of them were in great condition, but they were there. After those five years, though, there came a day when I put the coins in a dresser drawer and thought no more about them.

I took the coins out of the drawer in my old room sometime during the 1990s, taking them home to Minneapolis with the last other bits of my childhood treasures that had stayed in St. Cloud. And the other day, while going through boxes in the process of packing, I came across the red book and the five folders Rose had given me so long ago (and the one folder I added, for Kennedy half-dollars).

One of the goals the Texas Gal and I have as we prepare for our move at the end of this month is to trim where we can. Now, my childhood coin collection wasn’t taking up a lot of space, but I wasn’t using it, either. And I figured that putting the coins back into the collecting world was better than having them sit in a box. None of the coins I had was particularly valuable; I think the most ever paid for one of my coins was about three dollars, for one of those pennies Dad brought back from Chicago. (Of course, three dollars in 1966 would be worth about nineteen dollars now, but still, that’s not a tremendously expensive coin.)

So I took the collection over to the local coin dealer, who runs a pawnshop downtown (located in the building where I used to buy my back-to-school clothes forty-five years ago). He skimmed through the folders, nodding and frowning, and offered me fifty-five dollars. I took it. I hope some collectors find my coins valuable. I’d be especially pleased if some of them end up in the hands of a neophyte collector ten or eleven years old. Of course, I’ll never know, but it’s nice to think about.

As for the money, well, I thought I should spend at least a part of it on something that could stand for the gift Rose gave me so long ago. I’d long had my eye on CD versions of Darden Smith’s first two albums. I have them on vinyl, but they’re not in superb shape, especially 1988’s Darden Smith. (I could have dug further online for better vinyl copies, but I tend to leave my vinyl purchases these days for things that are a little more rare.)

So the coin collection Rose gave me more than forty years ago brought me two CDs: Native Soil and Darden Smith. I shared the first in a rip from vinyl here a while back. Today, I’m posting the other.

Darden Smith was released on Epic in 1988, the first of two major label releases for the Texas-based singer. (Trouble No More, posted here recently, was the second major label released, coming out on Columbia.) It’s very similar to Native Soil, which came out in 1986 on the Watermelon label, in fact sharing three songs with the earlier release: “Two Dollar Novels,” “Little Maggie” and “God’s Will.”

The first two of those are pretty standard country on Darden Smith, as they were on the earlier album. “God’s Will” had a Cajun feel on the first album, and seems to have shifted to straight country, but mid-way through, we’re heading back to the bayou again. I’m not sure the remake works on that one.

The new songs on Darden Smith range from again, pretty standard country – “Place in Time,” “Want You by My Side” and “Love Me Like a Soldier” – to the folk of “Coldest Winter” and “Driving Rain,” the jump blues/Fifties rock ’n’ roll of “Day After Tomorrow” and the unclassifiable catchiness of “Talk to Me.” Roland Denney played bass on the record, with Paul Pearcy handling percussion, and along the way, Smith got some help as well from Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith.

As regular readers know, Smith’s tendency to move from genre to genre and style to style is one of the things that make his music interesting to me. One can say that his songs have become perhaps more complex over the years – the work on his last release, 2005’s Field of Crows, bears witness to that – but that doesn’t mean the earlier work was lacking.

I acknowledge that Smith is one of those artists whose work I like so much that it’s hard to be objective, but I honestly believe that any of his work is worth a listen. Darden Smith might have come out twenty years ago, but it still shines pretty bright today, maybe as bright as a newly minted penny placed in a blue folder.

Two Dollar Novels
Want You by My Side
Love Me Like a Soldier
Little Maggie
Day After Tomorrow
God’s Will
Talk to Me
Coldest Winter
Place in Time
Driving Rain

Darden Smith – Darden Smith [1988]

Another One From Darden Smith

July 20, 2011

Originally posted July 18, 2008

One of the reasons for my vinyl madness of the 1990s was proximity: I first lived five blocks from Cheapo’s on Minneapolis’ Lake Street and then, after the store moved into larger digs (made possible, I am sure, by my patronage alone), about ten blocks from the store. As a result, between the beginning of 1992, which was about when I moved to the neighborhood, and the end of July 1999, I bought about 1,500 records, boosting the collection to about 2,300.

In August of 1999 (as I related here at least once), I moved further south in Minneapolis, about six miles from Cheapo’s but only maybe three miles from a Half-Price Books in the Highland Park area of St. Paul, just across the Mississippi River. I became a pretty regular customer at HPB (though not the super-regular I’d been at Cheapo’s.) I also found a Cheapo’s about another two miles further into St. Paul, and I spent some time and money there, too, but HPB was a more regular stop.

In the early days of 2000, about six weeks or so before I met the Texas Gal, I was struggling. In the past five months, I’d lost a good chunk of my health, I’d lost a job because of my ill health, and I’d lost a fiancée because of the depression I fell into after losing my health and my job. I was surviving, thanks to my parents being in a position to help and to several governmental agencies. With careful planning, I had $5 to $10 each month for music.

And, as I related at least once here before, Half-Price Books in Highland Park kept a cart near the front with its clearance CDs, almost all of them $1. In the middle of January, I’d found Darden Smith’s Little Victories there for a buck. Having liked it as well as I’d liked Evidence, the album Smith had recorded in 1989 with Brit Boo Hewerdine, I was looking for more.

On a Sunday trip near the end of January – the football playoffs must not have I interested me, or else I was too restless to watch – I found a Darden Smith CD titled Trouble No More. It, too, was $1, so it went out the door with me. I made a quick stop at the St. Paul Cheapo’s that afternoon, as well, and found a third Smith CD, Deep Fantastic Blue, for a couple bucks more. Satisfied, I went home.

Of the two, the later disc, Deep Fantastic Blue, is more adventurous, but Trouble No More is more quiet, more soothing, and it quickly became one of my favorites, never straying far from the Aiwa.

As I wrote the first time I posted anything by Darden Smith, his music “occupies a place somewhere near the intersection of country, folk, pop and rock.” It’s a fascinating place to stand, I think I wrote, but it’s a hard place from which to be promoted. And Trouble No More stands right at that intersection, accessible to folks who come to it from various directions.

The opener, “Midnight Train,” is one of the more clear-headed assessments of the rapid and dizzying feelings we go through during the course of our first enduring relationship.

“When I was seventeen
“As far as I could see
“All that mattered was running free
“But then I heard that midnight train
“Calling out your name, yeah,
“And oh baby, yeah, some things never change.”

I sat in my small living room in south Minneapolis, shaking my head, wondering why this guy wasn’t better known, a question that I still ponder almost nine years later, with six more of his CDs in the rack.

From the light-hearted love story of “Frankie & Sue” through the melancholy of “All the King’s Horses,” from the joy of “Trouble No More” through the sad acceptance of “Bottom of a Deep Well,” Smith’s music spoke to me in a way no performer’s music had for a long, long time. And Darden Smith’s name went on the list of performers whose stuff I will always buy.

Here’s Trouble No More.

Midnight Train
Frankie & Sue
All the King’s Horses
2000 Years
Ashes to Ashes
Fall Apart At the Seams
Trouble No More
Long Way Home
Listen To My Own Voice
Johnny Was A Lucky One
Bottom of a Deep Well

Darden Smith – Trouble No More [1990]

A Baker’s Dozen from 1988

June 1, 2011

Originally posted December 26, 2007

I was out on the prairie in Minot, North Dakota, for not quite two years, from August 1987 to the end of June 1989. That makes 1988 the only full year I spent there, living in the front end of a duplex on a quiet street not all that far from the state university where I taught.

That summer was the warmest year since the Dustbowl and droughts of the 1930s, with temperatures routinely topping the hundred-degree mark. With the university not in session, I moved my computer from my home – which had no air conditioning – to my university office and wrote there. My weekday routine during most of that summer was a good one: Mornings, I’d edit and revise the previous day’s production, and late afternoons and evenings, I’d go back to the office and write new material, working on a novel with a writing partner in Minnesota and another one that was solely my creation. (The first has never been finished, though work resumed on it during this past year; the second was finished in 1989 but has never been published.)

For some reason, the state of North Dakota allowed its university faculty members to take their salaries over the nine months that school was in session or spread out over only eleven months. That second option meant that at the end of the summer, there would be one month with no income, and for those whose budgeting skills were challenged – and here I raise my hand without hesitation – that meant finding another source of income during that last month of summer. Accordingly, I found myself in the office of a temporary staffing firm, being interviewed by a young woman.

She glanced over my application and smiled brightly. “Now,” she said, “tell me about yourself. What specialized training have you had?”

I thought for a moment. I’d been a public relations writer, a reporter, an editor, and I’d taught all those things at one time or another. I’d also taught the history of journalism. As I finished my mental cataloguing, I chuckled. The young woman looked askance at me, the wattage of her smile dimming a little.

“I’m a journalist,” I said. “Beyond that, I have no specialized training.”

She persevered, still smiling. “What do you do well?”

I smiled back. “I read and write very well.”

Her smile dimmed appreciably, and – as it turned out – she had no place for me to work. Now, reporting is more than just reading and writing, of course. Research and analysis, interviewing techniques, the ability to listen carefully and other skills are essential. But reading and writing are the core skills of a good journalist. And I was being honest.

I wound up spending fifteen days late that summer doing telephone sales, calling individuals in Minot who’d expressed an interest one way or another in joining a health club, trying to sell them memberships. I was pretty good at it, but I was relieved when I walked out of that office for the final time, my pocket holding a check large enough to tide me over until I got the first check of the new academic year from the university.

I continued to make the rounds of the flea markets and the garage sales that summer, scavenging LPs wherever I went. I also made plenty of new purchases in stores around Minot and during a quick trip back to St. Cloud in August. It was during that year that music publications like Rolling Stone and others began to publish pieces about the death of the LP in the face of the popularity of the newly marketed CD. I began to find new LPs a little more difficult to find.

As always, the music I did find helped ease my way through the year, providing solace during a year of massive personal and professional challenges, about which nothing more need be said than that they existed.

A Baker’s Dozen from 1988
“Love Me Like a Soldier” by Darden Smith from Darden Smith

“Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen from Chimes of Freedom

“Silvio” by Bob Dylan from Down In The Groove

“Trouble in the Fields” by Nanci Griffith from One Fair Summer Evening

“Zimbabwe” by Toni Childs from Union

“I’ll Tell Me Ma” Van Morrison & the Chieftains from Irish Heartbeat

“Never Die Young” by James Taylor, Columbia single 07616

“Eternal Flame” by the Bangles, Columbia single 68533

“To Love Is To Bury” by the Cowboy Junkies from The Trinity Session

“Loving Arms” by Livingston Taylor (with Leah Kunkel), Critique single 2486

“Last Night” by the Traveling Wilburys from The Traveling Wilburys

“Let It Roll” by Little Feat from Let It Roll

“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, Elektra single 96412

A few notes about some of the recordings and artists:

I’ve shared much of Darden Smith’s early work here. “Love Me Like A Soldier” is from his major label debut, which also includes reworkings of three songs from his first album, Native Soil. This track, I think, is one of the better ones from Darden Smith, which found the Austin-born performer getting some help from such luminaries as Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett.

This version of “Born To Run” is the slowed-down acoustic version that Springsteen performed frequently in the 1980s. In a short story around that time, I described the transition over the years between the two versions like this:

He used to end his concerts with ‘Born to Run,’ guitars and drums and saxophone wailing while the road went by and he and the girl on the cycle roared toward whatever tomorrow would bring them because they knew it had to be better or at least no worse than what they had tonight and the roaring of the cycle that the narrator rode got mixed up with the roar of the crowd at the Boss’s feet and the music pounded and thundered with a noisy momentum that carried the E Street Band and its Boss and the audience in the arena toward some wonderful finish, and baby, we were all born to run.

But when he toured a few years later, at the end of the shows, when the audience might have been ready to rock but when Bruce and the guys with him were ready to go home, he’d play it slow. Solo, with only a quiet acoustic guitar. It was almost thoughtful and sad, and the crowd was quiet. And it was right to do it like that: We had what we had, even if it wasn’t what we all dreamed of. And none of us were running anymore.

Bob Dylan’s Down in the Groove is kind of a ramshackle album, pieced together – or so it seems – from bits and pieces that Dylan found himself with after a series of low-key sessions. It’s an amiable album, but it makes no grand statement – nor any statement at all, actually. Still, it’s a fun album, a mix of originals and covers, and “Silvio” is pretty representative.

Toni Childs and Tracy Chapman were two members of a diverse group of young women who came to prominence in the late 1980s, a group that the observing media carelessly lumped together in the category of New Folkies. Among the others so lumped were Suzanne Vega and the Indigo Girls. Sometimes the category fit well – as it did with Chapman and the Indigo Girls – and sometimes it didn’t, as with Childs. She was a singer-songwriter, but her work was more ornate and opaque, with production techniques being laid over her swirling songs in a way that didn’t happen with the others. Union was Child’s first release, and to my ears, the parable of “Zimbabwe” is its centerpiece. Two more albums followed: House of Hope in 1991 and The Women’s Boat in 1994. All are well worth finding. The same holds true for the larger output of Tracy Chapman, of course, which to my ears is more rooted in folk than is Childs’ work. From her first self-titled release – “Fast Car” was the first single – through her most recent release, 2005’s Where You Live, Chapman has been firm in calling for change, both internally in her listeners’ hearts and externally in the world in which she and her listeners live. The narrator of “Fast Car” is hopeful but realistic, a posture that seems more reasonable than most. And it was a great radio single, too!

“Let It Roll” is the title track from the first Little Feat album recorded when the group reconvened following the death of founder Lowell George. Some fans were offended by the band’s regrouping, but the fact was that George’s involvement in the band’s efforts had diminished more and more during the years he struggled with the difficulties that finally took his life. Let It Roll is a pretty good album by a group that decided to go on doing what it did best: make music.

A Baker’s Dozen for the Texas Gal

May 17, 2011

Originally posted October 26, 2007

Sometimes the Texas Gal and I look at each other and marvel that we ever met, that our lives took the turns they did to bring us together, first in a small corner of the Internet and then – in a leap that took courage and faith for both of us – in a small corner of Minnesota.

Other times, we smile and acknowledge that, well, where else could we have ended up? As I’ve written before, we find the places and the people we are meant to find, no matter how crooked our paths might have been. And she and I are where we belong.

We’re not young, but there were reasons – ones we’ll never know – that our meeting was delayed until midlife. We find solace in knowing that the lives we led before we met are what made us each who we are. Those lives – we hope – have provided us with some level of wisdom that has guided us during the seven years we’ve known each other and will continue to guide us.

If this sounds solemn, it is. This afternoon, we’re going to go down to the courthouse, where we’ll formalize the marriage that took place long ago in our hearts. It’s something we’ve been planning to do for a while, and it’s time.

So here are some of the songs that have been important to us during the past seven years (with one ringer that I threw in). This is a Baker’s Dozen for the Texas Gal, who from today on will be my wife.

“Loving Arms” by Darden Smith from Little Victories, 1993

“Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer from Sixpence None the Richer, 1998

“Rest of My Days” by Indigenous from Circle, 2000

“Don’t Dream It’s Over” by Crowded House, Capitol single 5614, 1988

“I Knew I Loved You” by Savage Garden from Affirmation, 1999

“If I Should Fall Behind” by Bruce Springsteen from Lucky Town, 1992

“Precious and Few” by Climax, Carousel single 30055, 1971

“Truly Madly Deeply” by Savage Garden from Savage Garden, 1997

“This Kiss” by Faith Hill from Faith, 1998

“Levee Song” by Darden Smith from Little Victories, 1993

“Two of Us” by the Beatles from Let It Be…Naked (recorded 1969)

“Wedding Song” by Tracy Chapman from Telling Stories, 2000

“Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison from Moondance, 1970

Music From The Cheap Seats

April 26, 2011

Originally posted July 16, 2007

I’ve written a bit about Darden Smith before, both as a solo artist and in his one-album collaboration with Boo Hewerdine, Evidence. I shared the tale of finding Evidence pretty much by accident during one of my sprees at Cheapo’s in south Minneapolis.

That’s about how I found Little Victories, the first of Smith’s solo albums I came across. By the end of 1999, I’d moved, going further south yet in south Minneapolis. In fact, I was living about as far south as one can in the city. Only one apartment building and a street separated me from the freeway called the Crosstown, which marked the southern boundary of the city. On the other side of the Crosstown lay the international airport; it was a noisy – and relatively inexpensive – place to live.

Along with the change in address came a change in the places I rummaged for music. I was only seven or so miles from Cheapo’s, but moving to a new neighborhood made me aware of new places to look, one of which was a Half Price Books location in the Highland Park area of St. Paul across the Mississippi River (closer by about four miles than Cheapo’s). I spent a lot of time sorting through the LPs and CDs – and the books – in the store’s basement clearance room. And up on the main floor, there was a library cart that displayed the most recent acquisitions that were headed for clearance.

Not everything I found in the clearance room or on the main floor cart was a keeper, of course. But at the time, the clearance CDs were generally priced at $1, possibly $2 for something deemed rare and more valuable than the rest. This was a good thing: I got to listen without much financial risk to a lot of artists that I either didn’t know or else didn’t know a great deal about. And one day in January 2000, I happened upon Little Victories, one of Smith’s solo CDs, released in 1993.

All I knew of him at the time was Evidence, the collaboration with Boo Hewerdine. I’d liked it a great deal, and $1 didn’t seem like an awful lot to pay to check out more of Smith’s sound. So I took it home and popped it in the Aiwa. And I loved it.

As I wrote in one of the earlier entries about Smith’s music, he occupies a place “somewhere near the intersection of country, folk, pop and rock.” Little Victories has less of a country influence than do his earlier recordings – Native Soil, which I shared here earlier; Darden Smith, his major label debut; and Trouble No More, which immediately preceded Little Victories – but the influence is still there, varying a little from song to song, with “Levee Song” being the most so influenced.

But that’s a concern only for country purists, I would guess, and with the steady march of most country music to a point where the only difference between country and pop-rock is often the presence of a fiddle, that concern is pretty much a moot point. But if you don’t get country when you listen to Little Victories, then what do you get?

You get music that’s very hard to pigeonhole, as I indicated above, but music that is wonderfully written and is performed and produced about as well as music can be. From the first strains of “Place In The Sun” through the last little echo of “Only One Dream,” I shook my head as I listened. How, I wondered, could somebody this good be so little known? Well, that was easy to answer: Injustices large and small abound. And, yes, in the vast scope of the world and its ills, Darden Smith’s lack of fame is a small injustice, and – as he continues to record and release music – it’s something with which he’s no doubt come to terms.

But it never hurts to have a few more people listening. So, here’s Little Victories from 1993. (And the Texas Gal knows that “Loving Arms” is for her.)

Note: Boo Hewerdine dropped by during the sessions and helped out with vocals on “Loving Arms, “Little Victories,” “Love Left Town” and “Levee Song.”

Track listing:
Place In The Sun
Loving Arms
Little Victories
Love Left Town
Hole In The River
Dream Intro/Dream’s A Dream
Precious Time
Days On End
Levee Song
Only One Dream

Darden Smith – Little Victories [1993]

Congratulations to JB, the DJ, for marking three years of The Hits Just Keep On Comin’. It’s one of my regular stops as I wander the blog world both for his tales of radio and of life and for his impeccable taste in music. You’ll do yourself a favor by stopping by.

A Third Time Through the Junkyard

April 22, 2011

Originally posted June 4, 2007

As I didn’t get an album ripped yesterday, and Monday morning brings with it a longer list of things to do than I’d normally see – and longer than I’d like to see, certainly – I decided to go back to something I did a couple of times during the early days of this blog (that is, if a blog less than five months old can be considered to have early days).

I thought we’d take a fifteen-song walk through the entire junkyard and see where we end up. But, I considered as I made up my mind, do I make it a random start, or select something? And if I select something, how do I do so?

Well, I watched the first three games of the Stanley Cup finals this past week, and was pleasantly surprised Saturday evening when the Ottawa Senators managed to take a game from the Anaheim Goons –oh, sorry, they’re called the Ducks – in Ottawa. The Senators’ victory left them still trailing the Goons by a two games to one margin, but it appeared for the first time as if the Senators could have a chance in the series. The first two games out in Anaheim were close but the Senators didn’t look like the team I’d seen during the first three rounds of the playoffs. The turnaround the Senators showed on their home ice pleased me because there is no way in the name of Lord Stanley that I want to see the Goons win his cup.

I can see the looks on readers’ faces: This is a music blog, ain’t it? Why’s he talkin’ hockey? Relax. There’s a point to this.

I’ve written briefly at least one other time about the annual tabletop hockey tournaments we have at my place – my friends Rick, Rob and Schultz and I. They’re a one-day continuation of the competitions we used to have when we were in high school, after I got the tabletop game for Christmas 1967. We’d have regular seasons that lasted anywhere from twenty games to fifty-two games, followed by playoffs.

These days, Schultz dominates the competition. Back then, before he joined us, Rick was the best player of the three of us, but he wasn’t quite as dominant as Schultz is now. From time to time, Rob or I could slide a team past him in the playoffs. And in our fourth season, which ended in the spring of 1971, Rob took the title with his New York Rangers. All through that season, when he had the Rangers on the ice and felt momentum turning his way, Rob would begin to hum a song under his breath. I’m not sure why he chose the particular song that he did, but it was a song that seemed to work for him.

And Saturday evening, as I watched the Senators fall behind three times and return to tie the game three times and finally take the lead and the game with a gutsy performance, I found myself humming under my breath. When I realized I was doing so, I chuckled, and then nodded. It was Rob’s old fight song I was humming.

And so, I’ve decided – in honor of the Ottawa Senators and their chances of winning the Stanley Cup – to begin this random fifteen-song walk through the junkyard with Richard Hunter’s solo harmonica version of Rob’s old fight song.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” by Richard Hunter from The Act of Being Free in One Act, 1995

“Here Today” by Paul McCartney from Here Today, 1982

“Standing at the Crossroads” by Elmore James, probably Enjoy single 2020, 1961 or 1962

“Rocky’s Reward” by Bill Conti from the Rocky soundtrack, 1976

“Dr. Dancer” by Sutherland Brothers & Quiver from Reach For The Sky, 1975

“Waiting” by Daniel Lanois from For The Beauty Of Wynona, 1993

“Endless Summer” by the Sandals from Endless Summer soundtrack, 1966

“Silent Eyes” by Paul Simon from Still Crazy After All These Years, 1975

“My Time After A While” by John Hammond from Southern Fried, 1970

“Precious Time” by Darden Smith from Little Victories, 1993

“Disco Inferno” by the Trammps from Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, 1977

“Love (Can Make You Happy)” by Mercy, Sundi single 6811, 1969

“Bermuda Triangle” by Fleetwood Mac from Heroes Are Hard To Find, 1974

“String Man” by the Mamas & the Papas from Deliver, 1967

“Hell to Pay” by Bonnie Raitt from Longing In Their Hearts, 1994

A few notes on some of the songs:

The loudest ovation I’ve ever heard at a concert came at the best concert I ever attended, when I saw Paul McCartney at the Xcel Center in St. Paul in September of 2002. About nine songs into the show, as the applause for “And I Love Her” faded away, McCartney began to introduce “Here Today” by saying, “I’d like to do a song now that I wrote for my dear friend John.” Applause burst out, and Paul beckoned to the crowd and said, “Yeah, let’s hear it for John.” And the arena filled with a sustained roar like nothing I’d heard before. From that moment, the concert – which up to then had been good – became magical for me.

“Rocky’s Reward” is the faux-classical string piece – motet? fugue? my bits of classical music awareness fail me – that is used under the final credits for the 1976 film Rocky. I’ve always thought that Bill Conti’s score for the film, the first in what became a series, was a brilliant piece of work, primarily for his imaginative use of recurring themes in a wide variety of settings and arrangements. It was an injustice that Conti was not nominated for an Academy Award for the score (the award went to Jerry Goldsmith for his work on The Omen). And don’t get me started about the award for Best Original Song going to Barbara Streisand and Paul Williams for “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)” instead of Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now.”

John Hammond’s “My Time After A While” comes from his Southern Fried album, recorded at Muscle Shoals with its legendary rhythm section. Duane Allman stopped by to add his slide guitar to four of the cuts on the album, but not, sadly, on “My Time After A While.” That’s Eddie Hinton playing that sweet lead part.

“Precious Time” comes from my favorite album by one of my favorite unknown performers. Well, Darden Smith isn’t entirely unknown; he sells enough CD to be able to keep recording. But as I noted when I posted one of his songs as a Saturday Single in February, if there were any justice in the world, Darden Smith would be a household name. The song sounds as if it’s written about a military draft: “They’re calling up numbers now,” and “How many men and boys will it take to win?” That was odd enough for something written in the 1990s, but it’s chilling now. No, there’s not a military draft right now, but, well, I won’t be surprised if there is one soon.

Heroes Are Hard To Find is a Fleetwood Mac album that I don’t know very well. The Mac was in a transitional state in 1974, just about finishing its shift from a blues band to the powerhouse of smooth California rock it became when Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined up. “Bermuda Triangle,” melodically and thematically, sounds an awful lot like “Hypnotized” off the Mystery to Me album from the year before.

The Long Road To Country

April 18, 2011

Originally posted April 9, 2007

For a long, long time, I didn’t care much for country music.

Part of that was the era of my youth: In the later 1950s and through the 1960s, country was – as it had been since its rise in the 1920s – the music of kinship for those on the land, almost certainly giving those Americans whose lives were still rural a stronger sense of identity. (The fact that the rise of country music also gave performers, producers, radio stations and record companies a strong source of income is not lost on me, but country music had, I believe, as strong a social function as it did a commercial one.) And as I grew up in a small city during that time – St. Cloud had a population of just more than 30,000 in the early 1960s – the last thing we city kids wanted to be was country kids.

I imagine that not many of us were more than one generation removed from the land ourselves – my mom grew up on a farm and my dad spent at least part of his childhood living on a farm. But it seems to me, looking back, that being from the country – even in elementary school – laid a burden on kids. I know for sure that by the time junior high rolled around, the hotshot cool kids – whose contempt for others, I imagine, was nothing more than an attempt to persuade themselves that they were okay – had no greater insult for another kid than to call him or her “farmer.”

And none of us listened to country music. Most kids, by the time, say, 1965 rolled around, were listening to rock and pop; the administration at my junior high school allowed us, when we were finished with lunch, to walk down to the gym and listen to records. I have a vivid memory from seventh grade of a young woman named Marlys dancing energetically, perhaps to the Stones’ “Get Off My Cloud,” in her short-for-the-times skirt, chartreuse tights and glistening silver boots. (I recall teasing her about her tights and boots at a reunion years later; she replied, “But you noticed me, didn’t you?”)

The point is that none of my contemporaries listened to country. Nor did I. I listened to lots of things that weren’t rock: Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass and Al Hirt were my favorites, which left me outside, listening in, a lot of the time, but not as far outside as I would have been had I loved country music.

Oh, there were country radio stations around. The adjacent small town of Sauk Rapids was home to WVAL, which played country from the time it came on the air at sunrise to the time it went off the air at sunset. And on Saturdays when my dad would putter around in his basement workshop or do something out in the garage, his radio was tuned to 800 on the AM dial, WVAL. I’m not entirely sure if he really liked country music or if his choice of WVAL was because he didn’t really understand the music beginning to be played at all times of the day on other local stations. Or maybe he liked the reactions he got from me and my sister when we had to ride somewhere with him in his cherished ’52 Ford and had to endure the sounds of Dottie West, Buck Owens and Marvin Rainwater, whom Dad once saw in concert.

I didn’t listen. Even when I was in the old car and I heard the music, I didn’t listen. I guess I didn’t really listen to the music until I was in college, and then only sparingly. I went one evening to a showing on campus of the film The Last Picture Show, which uses for part of its soundtrack country from the era of the film, the late 1940s and early 1950s: songs by Frankie Laine, Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell and more. I was caught by the music, filed away in my head the idea of sometime checking it out, and then forgot about it.

Time moved on. I spent some time in the late 1980s romancing a lady who was living in Kansas, and I spent three months in a small town there. I heard a lot of country music, certainly, but it didn’t grab me, although I was polite when my lady played selections from her cherished Alabama collection. I was back in Minnesota when country boomed in the 1990s. I was aware of the boom but still didn’t listen much. I knew by then, certainly, that country was one of the two major well-springs from which much of American popular music arose (the blues being the other). But it wasn’t until two separate events occurred at about the same time that I began to pay any more than polite attention to country.

When the Texas Gal entered my life in 2000, she brought with her a long appreciation for country. (She listens to other things as well, certainly: Her favorite group all-time is the Doobie Brothers.) And I began to listen more closely than I ever had, and I enjoyed a lot of the country I heard, finding myself especially drawn to Brooks & Dunn. And about the same time, I discovered Darden Smith, a Texas native who began his career as a straight country singer and has since moved, as I wrote in my notes on an earlier Saturday Single, to a place near the intersection of country, folk, pop and rock.

In many ways, the LP I’m sharing today – Native Soil, Darden Smith’s 1986 debut – reminds me of the bedrock country music that was used for The Last Picture Show, although it doesn’t quite have that level of grit. But like the music of the neo-traditionalists that filled the airwaves in the mid-1980s, Native Soil stays close to the roots of country. The sound is guitar, voice and fiddle and a few other stringed instruments for the most part, with piano and drums, and on rare occasion, some horns coming into the mix; along the way, Smith gets some help with harmony vocals from Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Smith wrote all the songs, and the writing is clear and eloquent in its marshalling of day-to-day events and images, especially in “Two Dollar Novels” and “Painter’s Song.”

Track listing:

Bus Stop Bench
Red Sky
Little Maggie
Veteran’s Day
Sticks and Stones
Keep An Open Mind
Painter’s Song
Two Dollar Novels
God’s Will
Clatter and Roll

(There is a skip – maybe two – near the end of “Sticks and Stones” that I could not repair.)

Darden Smith – Native Soil [1986]

Saturday Single No. 2

April 17, 2011

Originally posted February 17, 2007

If there were any justice in this world, Darden Smith would be a household name and his songs would greeted with cheers as they played on the radio.

There is, however, far less justice in this world than one would like, so Darden Smith remains a Texan whose music is cherished by his fans and is utterly unknown by the larger country-listening public that has made acts like Toby Keith, Brad Paisley and Dierks Bentley household names. Now, there’s nothing wrong with those three acts – or any of the others who populate country music – becoming big stars (although I weary of Toby Keith’s bombast). And to be honest, Darden Smith these days is not strictly country. That’s where he started some twenty years ago, but he’s evolved to where his music occupies a place somewhere near the intersection of country, folk, pop and rock.

That’s an interesting place to live, musically, but it’s an awful place for the marketing and promotion folks to figure out. So they don’t try. That’s the only reason I can figure out to explain the public’s failure to elevate Smith to the level he deserves. He began his career with a self-titled independent release in 1986. His major label debut, on Epic, came with Native Soil in 1988; that album included reworkings of three of the cuts from Darden Smith and also included backing vocals from Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett.

After a collaboration with Boo Hewerdine of the British act, The Bible, resuled in the exquisite album Evidence in 1989, Smith shifted his solo focus just slightly from his country and folk roots for Trouble No More in 1990 and moved a little further away from those roots for 1993’s Little Victories. And 1996 saw the release of Deep Fantastic Blue, which All-Music Guide called “folk-tinged pop.”

Despite the stylistic distance Smith was placing between him and his country origins, the roots were still there, though perhaps no longer poking as near to the surface. Still, there was no drop-off in the quality of songwriting, nor has there been in the past decade, as Smith has released the delicious, if occasionally quirky, trio of  Sunflower (2002), Circo (2004), and Field of Crows (2005). He also revisited some of his earlier songs and did new – and interestingly different – versions of them for Extra Extra in 2000.

Perhaps Smith’s evolution means he’s no longer strictly country. If so, that’s only symptomatic of the blurring of the lines between genres in American popular music that has accelerated in the past twenty years. Good music is good music, and today’s Saturday Single, “The Levee Song” from Little Victories, remains bluesy, gritty and sexy and is as good an introduction as one could get to the music of Darden Smith.

Key line: “You say you don’t love me, but I think you might.”

Darden Smith – “Levee Song” [1993]