Spirited Banjo Man Comes to Town
Nashville singer-songwriter Tom Smith is playing banjo on the Penninsula this week. Smith, who grew up in Palo Alto, moved to Nashville, Tenn. 12 years ago to work as a guitar maker and repairman for national chain Mars Music.
Having taken a break from performing to raise his daughter, Smith is excited to now be back on the road, or as he calls it, on his “Great Walkabout”.
He enjoys playing his acoustic, blues-influenced music at intimate venues.
“I’m having a great time playing in small places for 50 people,” he said.
Smith added that nothing beats the live feedback of an audience. He recounted a recent performance at a bookstore in Charleston, N.C. where, he said, the audience was loving every tune. “One guy hollers out, ‘I bet there’s a story behind that one,’ Live music is just magic.”
Smith, who grew up in Palo Alto, can remember first picking up a guitar when he was 19.”
“That was back when you actually had to listen to tune a guitar,” he laughed.
When he moved to Nashville, he discovered a world of musicians unlike any other.
“You hear about the country stuff, but people like Donna Summers, Peter Frampton, Keb Mo, Larry Carlton live there. All the best live there, he said.”
Smith thinks of himself as a singer-songwriter, except that he writes instrumentals. He does do spoken word things “sometimes.” To him, there is no better place to get inspiration than Nashville, where he socializes with talented musicians on Friday pub gatherings.
He passionately recited lyrics written by songwriter Lisa Carver, who, he said, writes songs for the popular country band Sugarland. “But she also writes just for the fun of it.” he said. “Amazing stuff.”
Smith enjoys being surrounded by such talented singers and songwriters because it pushes him to do better. “You can be a big fish almost anywhere else, but there, you are just trying to do what you do, better.”
Smith’s goals as a musician differ from that of popular music.
“Now, it’s all about downloads,” he said, “[but] what is on the [internet] can’t substitute for moments in life.”
As a songwriter, he said his goal is to capture real moments in time.
“Some music is all about parties and drinking,” he said. “Thats not life, you know.”
He recounted performing for an audience at a festival in Iowa.
“They thought I was from the moon, and I thought they were from Iowa,” he laughed. “But there were men with their boots shined, women with their skirts pressed at this barn dance, dancing like they’re on their first date. After 50 years of marriage. That’s the kind of thing to write about.”
Smith said his sound is difficult to characterize, but that he hears more of a jazz sound than folk sound in his own music.
The structure of his songs differ from the typical verse-choris oganization. His music is instead a series of phrases.
“I want to have each phrase lead to the next one and connect to the last one,” he said.
He said that his listeners don’t want traditional music as much as they want sincerity.
“If you mean each note, it grabs [the audience’s] attention,” he said. “If you do that right, people will just listen all the way through.”
Before moving to Nashville, Smith worked fo an art and literacy program in Los Angeles. He received a presidential commendation for more than 175,000 volunteer hours he generated helping inner-city children “learn how to learn.”
Smith’s latest album, “Live@TheLoft” was recorded last year at the Bohemian Art Loft in Redding, Calif..