For Darden Smith, the creatively expansive Texas troubadour, Love Calling represents both. The album opens a new chapter in the artist’s prolific career, and circles back to his musical roots. The release is Smith’s first in three years and the first for his new label, Compass Records. Surprisingly, Love Calling also represents the first time Smith has recorded in Nashville, co-writing much of the material with some of the city’s stellar songwriters and working with top studio musicians, under the co-production of Jon Randall Stewart and Gary Paczosa.
Yet for Smith, whose career has taken him all over the map, musically as well as geographically, the release also represents an artistic homecoming. The organic arrangements invoke the sound that established him as a breakout artist from the Texas club circuit in the mid-1980s, when he forged his style and found an audience that extended from country-folk traditionalists to those more attuned to contemporary trends.
As a young Lone Star storyteller, Smith’s songs paid proper homage to the likes of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. Yet his ear for melodic invention and his embrace of modern recording technology subsequently suggested a pop sensibility with greater commercial potential. His roots nourished his music without inhibiting his artistry. During those formative years, Smith befriended many kindred spirits also getting their start. Some of those same musicians are now among the established veterans whose talents contribute so much to Love Calling. He recalls,
“I first met (bassist) Michael Rhodes in 1988 on the road with Rosanne Cash, and Jon Randall Stewart and I met in 1989, at a festival in Switzerland. Radney Foster and I met in ‘89 at Austin City Limits. So, it’s coming full circle with a lot of different relationships and friends. And, in a way, the sound on this record is closer to my first record, Native Soil, than anything I’ve done since. ‘Medicine Wheel’ on Love Callingis not really that different, structurally, from something I could have written when I was 25.”
Born in Brenham, Texas, in the wide open spaces between Houston and Austin, Smith released the indie Native Soil in 1986. Strong critical response led to a deal with Epic Records in Nashville. His 1988 Darden Smith debut for the label landed two singles on the country charts. But country music was changing, and so was Darden. He switched to the New York division of Columbia Records, began a fruitful songwriting partnership with Britain’s Boo Hewerdine (with whom he released Evidence, 1989), and earned critical raves and a wider audience beyond country with Trouble No More (1990) and Little Victories (1993). The former included “Frankie & Sue” and “Midnight Train,” both of which received significant airplay on the emerging adult album alternative (or Triple A) radio format. Little Victories featured “Loving Arms,” a Top Ten hit. Next, Smith moved to an independent label, Dualtone Music Group, with whom he produced a more personal trio of acclaimed albums: Sunflower (2002), Circo (2004), and Field of Crows (2005).
Smith is known for pursuing new creative paths and pushing himself past his comfort zone, keeping his music fresh long after others have fallen into the recycling routine. One such path was forged in the mid-1990’s when Smith began collaborating on dance/theater productions in Austin. This led to an even bigger challenge when he accepted a commission from the Austin Symphony to compose “Grand Motion,” performed in 1999. Both of these projects, which could be called sidelines, informed Smith’s self-released Marathon (2010), a haunting song cycle named for a remote town in West Texas. As Smith puts it,
“Exploring this other work forced me to look at how I was pigeonholing and limiting myself. Am I just a songwriter? A singer-songwriter? A folksinger? A musician? This opened up how I defined myself, no longer as just one thing. I was about 40 then and the last decade or so has been the most creative time of my work life.”
Though the melodies and arrangements of Smith’s new album may recall his earliest recording days, the lyrics have the maturity of a veteran songwriter with experiences, both personal and professional, that he couldn’t have anticipated, let alone written about, a quarter-century ago. He’s the same Darden Smith, and he’s a whole different songwriter, with a different perspective on his artistry. “I’m not a kid,” he explains.
“I’ve been writing songs for 40 years and making a living at it since I was 23. There was a time when I was very into music as a way to achieve something. And now I look at music as a way to live. It’s not like I write songs in order to get anywhere. It’s what I do. I view the world through writing songs. I look at music as this blessing I have, not like a choice. It’s a necessity. Writing the song is all that matters, and I love writing songs, more than ever.”
Such love permeates the album, which looks at romantic relations through a variety of lenses. There’s the devotional love of “Seven Wonders,” the redemptive love of “Reason to Live,” “Better Now” and the title track, the sensual love of “Favorite Way,” the crazy love of “Distracted,” the love on the rebound of “Mine Till Morning.” But there’s also a darker strain, in the jealous love of “I Smell Smoke” and the shattered love and salvation of “Baltimore.” “That’s as dark a song as I’ve ever written,” says Smith. “But it’s a love song, too. I thought about this record being a collection of songs that held together, and it just so happened that a lot of them were love songs.
“As for the production, we talked a lot about what instruments we would use, creating some boundaries, because I wanted this record to sound a certain way,” he continues. “No machines. Acoustic instruments whenever possible. And let’s see how few instruments we can have on the record and still make it full. What if we don’t have lead instruments? What would that be like? I wanted to move in a direction I hadn’t gone in a long, long time.”
Smith’s expansive vision for his music extends well beyond being a singer-songwriter. “Love Calling” developed organically as Smith immersed himself in projects that kept him out of the spotlight but profoundly influenced his music—and the life his music reflects. In 2003, he launched The Be An Artist Program, which uses songwriting to help students discover their own creativity. From there, Smith created SongwritingWith, a program that taps into the power of collaborative songwriting to awaken creativity and give people faith in their own voice. Participants have ranged from homeless youths at Covenant House in Newark, New Jersey, corporate clients seeking conflict resolution, and service members returning from combat. Fall 2013 marks Smith’s second year as Artist-In-Residence at Oklahoma State University’s Institute For Creativity and Innovation, where he explores creativity with students in the classroom and in mentoring sessions.
Recognizing the plight of veterans suffering from PTSD and other injuries, Smith started SongwritingWith:Soldiers in 2012. But the first seed for this program was planted in 2009 with “Angel Flight,” which Smith wrote with his friend Radney Foster. The song honors pilots who fly the planes that bring fallen soldiers home. After Foster’s version and accompanying video achieved wide acclaim, Smith saw the healing possibilities of pairing professional songwriters with wounded soldiers. Smith’s take on “Angel Flight” appears on Love Calling. “Between heaven and earth, you’re never alone,” sings Smith in the voice of a pilot flying casualties from the battlefield. “On the angel flight, come on brother, I’m taking you home.” In its intimacy and purity, it’s another love song of sorts, a love that springs from empathy and respect rather than romance.
“With a lot of the work I’m doing now, these big projects, I kind of had to start operating beneath the radar. This allowed me the freedom and flexibility to look outside myself,” says Smith. “I just opened up to these new possibilities, new ways of working. And the more I kept opening up and saying yes to new ideas, the more fun I had, the more creative things got. And the more songs I wrote.
So, for Smith, Love Calling represents something of a culmination, a milestone, a circle completed. The album finds him pushing forward while looking back, bringing together projects that ultimately share the same creative energy.
As Darden maintains, “To me, it’s all the same, all music. Just music.”
— Don McLeese