The Best Nashville Picker You’ve Never Heard
"Well, there’s 1352 guitar pickers in Nashville/and any one that unpacks his guitar can play twice as better as I will, sang the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1967. One of the best "Nashville Cats" you’ve never heard of will be unpacking his guitar here on the Big Island. While the name Tom Smith may not be in your musical lexicon, in Nashville, where there are more great musicians per square mile than perhaps anywhere else on Earth, people take note when he unpacks his homemade acoustic guitar-or his banjo-and starts picking. And while he’s flattered, he doesn’t take the talk too seriously. "The Nashville papers seem to like me", Smith said wryly. "The Tennessean called me a virtuoso, not once, but twice in the same edition. This is a town that Mark Knopfler lives in and Chet Atkins built. They’ve got the best in the world in this town and they call me a virtuoso." Smith will play at least two concerts here, both at intimate venues: Ocean View Evangelical Church on Friday, Mar. 31 and Jason Scott Lee’s Ulua Theatre in Volcano Saturday, Apr. 1. Also on the bill are slack key and American fingerstyle guitarist Chris Yeaton, who recently released his second CD, Ho’o Pa’a; plus Bolo and Kona Bob. I’ve never played there before and I’m just kind of curious," said Smith. "I’ve toured over almost all of the U.S. and I’ just trying to get off of the continent. It looks like later this year I’ll be going to Australia and Europe and doing a lot of U.S. touring." Smith, originally from the San Francisco Bay area, has released five albums: Still Life, Musical Pictures, Little Dog, On Any Given Night, and his latest, Juliet’s Window. His influences include jazz, country, blues, bluegrass and classical music, as well as guitarists such as Tuck Andress and Leo Kottke. But according to Smith, it all started with the minimalist approach of the late guitarist and musicologist John Fahey. "The most fascinating thing, you know, is two notes made sense," he explained. "I was going to be a history teacher, but those two notes made a kind of sense that I’d never heard before. I’ve always just done what makes sense and go from there. I envision myself closer to the jazz tradition than anything, even though I don’t play jazz, per se. I don’t get off on limb, but I do stretch emotions. A tune is a tune for me and I don’t go too far from it, but I do stretch the emotions a lot." In his book American Guitar, Italian guitarist and composer Maurizio Angeletti described Smith’s playing as "completely free from the barriers of commercial music…the playing is, and couldn’t be other than a reflection about life, and the conceptual transcription of it into music." And while he is often categorized as "bluegrass" or "American fingerstyle," Smith eschews such labels, preferring to call his style "contemporary guitar." "I play with a kind of an ‘in your face’ attitude," he mused. "Everybody else kind of plays like they’re trying to be quiet and meditative, you know. One of things I like about Juliet’s Window is that it’s kind of outside of being solo guitar. It’s not fingerstyle guitar. For the longest time, people have said ‘fingerstyle guitar is like Will (Ackerman). When he was with Windham Hill (record label), he was trying to set a standard for how you’re supposed to play acoustic guitar. (Michael) Hedges does that. Like, how many people do you hear that don’t sound like Hedges? And it’s very few people, really. Chris (Yeaton) has a very strong Will Ackerman influence, and he’s worked for it." "Me, I’ve been playing bars for so long, all I want is somebody’s attention. I liked it in (San Francisco’s) North Beach where you’re playing for drunks. You’re playing for the scum of the earth. It’s like a Tom Waits thing. And other people would never do that. But the reason that I got past that was to make music, you have to make it real." Smith, who admits to being "quirky as hell," says that he appreciates all the drunks and the scum of the earth he’s played for, because to become the best you can be, you have to play for a live audience, no matter who that audience is. "Music is a terrible hobby." he said. "You don’t have any chance at all of getting as good as you can be. And to me, the definition of that is ‘how much life can you play?’ This new stuff has me amazed because there’s laughter in it and joy. I think it’s a communication and not a series of notes. There is a thought, a communication, a dialogue. Would a car be a car if nobody ever drove it? Or would it be a planter? "There’s a rhetoric of writing something that nobody listens to and it’s kind of self-indulgent. And you can hear it’s self-indulgent. It’s the communication that lets it become a real thing and that happens in a performance. Why would you drive 10,000 miles a week through blizzards and ice storms and insane things to go and play for people something that’s pretty? Because something happens there that you can’t get anywhere else in life, ever. And it definitley doesn’t exist in a rehearsal room. "In a studio, you can twist yourself and get stuff out of it and get it to be really remarkable. In that sense, I’m not sure which is better-the stuff you get out of a studio that you can never get to live, or the stuff get live that’s so sparkling and magic that you never want to go into the studio again." Smith went through what he termed a "disastrous divorce" last year. Against a backdrop of personal loss, he found the ‘how much life can you play’ inspiration to write and record Juliet’s Window. "I’m going through a remarkable period of time," Smith concluded. "Juliet’s Window is a beautiful thing and I really like it. It’s cathartic in the situation that it evolved from. It’s about ‘what is truth?’ You can write something that is absolutely honest and communicates reality. And that, to me, is what you’re trying to do. "It’s a funny business in that you spend all that time hammering out a little fraction of a second of emotion. Have you ever listened to a four-year-old laugh when you’ve kind of got your eyes closed and you’re half asleep? That’s really what music is. They’ve got this kind of little bubbly thing that comes through to the ear and you go, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing! What a sound.’ And you try to figure out how to communicate that. That’s what I do. That’s what songwriters do, sort of. "And you go out and you play it for a room full of strangers. Big rooms, little rooms. You play it on good nights; you play it on bad nights. Why would somebody do something like that? It’s such an extraordinary gift. And I think ‘gift’ is the best word to describe it. And it’s not about me. What it’s about is that somehow or another, you can create a space that is different than anything that exists anywhere, and it can be perfect in that point in time. And you can touch lives with it."