“I started off that record scared to death,” Kim Richey recalls of making Glimmer with producer Hugh Padgham back in 1999 in New York and London. A disastrous haircut, unfamiliar musicians, and oversized budgets didn’t help matters. “It wasn’t the way I was used to making records.”
The way Richey was used to making records was with friends in a vibed-out, low-key setting. That’s how she made her debut album with Richard Bennett, and it’s how she made her new album, Long Way Back… The Songs of Glimmer, with Doug Lancio. So Glimmer was different, and not just on the production side.
Then, as now, the compositions that comprise Glimmer were the Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter’s first collection of true confessionals. Prior to that she’d been a staff writer at Blue Water Music writing from a more arm’s-length vantage point for her first two releases, 1995’s Kim Richey and 1997’s Bitter Sweet. But Glimmer was all her.
Revisiting that history for A Long Way Back was both emotional and edifying for her. “I was pretty broken-hearted when I wrote and recorded most of those songs and I remember feeling that way,” she says. “At the time, I needed to really get out of my head and out of Nashville. I think that was what appealed to me so much about making a record somewhere that wasn’t home and with new people. Recording these songs again was a good way to look back and remember I made it through those times.”
The 20 years of distance between then and now provided another benefit, as well: Richey is more comfortable with her voice, both literally and metaphorically. As a result, Long Way Back sounds like it has nothing to prove and nothing to hide. It’s more spacious, but not less spirited, with Richey’s voice, in particular, feeling more relaxed and rounded than on the original. Starting with “Come Around,” the 14 new renderings take their time to make their points, meandering casually around, much like their maker.
An Ohio native, Richey’s passion for music was sparked early on in her great aunt’s record shop where she’d scour the bins and soak it all in. She took up the guitar in high school and, while studying environmental education and sociology at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, she played in a band with Bill Lloyd. But it didn’t stick… not right away.
After Kentucky, Richey worked in nature centers in Colorado and Ohio and traveled to Sweden and South America. She eventually landed in Bellingham, Washington, where she worked as a cook while her boyfriend went to grad school. Their deal was, she got to decide where they went after he graduated. One night in 1988, some old friends — Bill Lloyd and Radney Foster — rolled through town. She sold t-shirts at their gig, and they talked up Nashville. To drive the point home, Lloyd sent her a tape with Steve Earle and others on it. So taken by the songwriting, Richey and her partner loaded up their Ford F150 and headed to Music City.
In Nashville, Richey cooked at the famed Bluebird Café and gigged around town at writers’ nights. At a show one night at 12t h & Porter, Mercury Records’ Luke Lewis approached her. In classic Richey fashion, she didn’t know who he was. Still, she went to a meeting with him and Keith Stegall, played one song, talked a lot, and got a record deal at the musical home of Billy Ray Cyrus and Shania Twain. Remembering the glory days of major labels in the ’90s, Richey says, “They gave me way more than enough rope to hang myself with. I could do whatever I wanted.”
What she wanted was to work with her friend, producer Richard Bennett. So she did. For Bitter Sweet, she put Angelo Petraglia at the helm, before turning to Padgham for Glimmer. “Bitter Sweet was recorded in Nashville with my road band and friends,” Richey says. “That record was as if the kids had taken over the recording studio while the adults were away. Glimmer was more pro and less messing around having fun. The musicians were all super-talented and gave the songs a voice I never would have thought to give them. Hugh was up for trying anything and really encouraged me to add all those vocal arrangements that ended up on the record”.
For 2002’s Rise, Richey took another left turn, signed to Lost Highway Records, and hired Bill Bottrell as producer. Though it was her first time writing in a studio with a band, the players’ talent and Bottrell’s whimsy proved to be great complements to Richey’s own rule-breaking style. The resulting record was quirky, confessional, mesmerizing, and masterful. And it officially set her outside contemporary country’s bounds which was fine by Richey, whose music had always broken barriers.
A greatest hits collection dropped in 2004, buying her some time to tour, write, and make 2007’s Chinese Boxes with Giles Martin in the UK, followed by 2010’s Wreck Your Wheels and 2013’s Thorn in My Heart, both produced by Neilson Hubbard in Nashville. The latter landed her at Yep Roc Records, where she also released 2018’s Edgeland, made with producer Brad Jones in what she has described as the easiest recording process she’s ever had, despite working with three different tracking bands in the studio.
Through it all, Richey has worn her heart on her lyrical sleeve, revealing herself time and again. “I started writing songs because of Joni Mitchell, probably like most women songwriters of a certain age,” Richey confesses. “I loved being able to write songs because I was really super-shy. I couldn’t say things to people that I wanted to say. If I put it in a song, there was the deniability. If I ever got called on it, I could say, ‘Oh, heavens no, that’s just a song! I made that up.’”
Though she could fall back on plausible deniability, with Richey, what you hear is actually what you get. “I don’t have a lot of character songs because I’m not that good at making things up out of thin air.” Even when it comes to the main narrator of a song like Edgeland’ s “Your Dear John,” Richey demurs with a laugh, “I do think that song is probably just another song about me and I’m pretending to be a barge worker.”
On Long Way Back… The Songs of Glimmer, though, she’s not pretending to be anything or anyone she’s not, and neither are the songs. Richey and Lancio set out to make a guitar/vocal record, but the songs had something else in mind, and that something included drums by Lancio’s legendary neighbor, Aaron “the A-Train” Smith, among other things. “Once we stopped making rules about what could and could not be on the record, the songs spoke for themselves,” Richey says. “I knew all along I wanted Dan Mitchell to play flugelhorn, and the two tracks he played on are two of my favorites. In the end, the songs decided.”
From her move to Nashville to her making this record, for Kim Richey, the songs have always decided.
“When I write a song,” says Darden Smith, “the way it ends up is usually not the way I thought it would be when I started.” And that notion of exploration, of following unexpected paths, has been a constant force in his 25-year career as a musician. Smith has long transcended traditional singer-songwriter boundaries, and his varied, fascinating musical legacy continues to evolve.
His dozen critically acclaimed albums, recorded from New York to Nashville and London to Los Angeles, weave together rock, pop, country, folk and Americana influences with the musical roots of his home state of Texas. Smith, praised by All Music Guide as “a singer-songwriter blessed with an uncommon degree of intelligence, depth, and compassion,” enjoys broad appeal on both the American and British music scenes. Likened to songwriters such as Nick Drake, John Hiatt, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello, Smith is one of contemporary’s music’s most winning and gifted artistic treasures whose consistent creative excellence keeps blossoming.
With Marathon, his most recent release, Smith again pushes into new territory, delivering a sweeping collection of songs that captures the stark panorama of the West. The 15-track album draws its inspiration – and title – from the remote towns and barren landscape of West Texas, the backdrop for the theatre project to accompany Marathon. Developing a dramatic song cycle for the stage is yet one more turn for a singer-songwriter who has also, among other things, composed a symphony, produced a radio documentary, scored dance troupe compositions and founded an innovative program to foster creativity in students.
Growing up in rural central Texas in the 1960s and 1970s instilled in Smith a driven, independent artistic vision. He spent his early childhood on a farm outside of Brenham, the small town where he was born in 1962. “I grew up in the country playing by myself and wandering in the woods and pastures,” he says. He credits those hours exploring alone for “giving me an imagination and a gift for making up stories.” Singing in his local church’s choir, and listening to its pipe organ, sparked a hunger to connect with music, and by the third grade Smith was learning to play the guitar. His guitar teacher taught him how to play every song on Neil Young’s Harvest and After the Gold Rush albums, and, more importantly, instilled in him the idea of writing his own songs. He wrote his first song when he was 10 years old.
After his family moved to the suburbs of Houston when he was a teenager, Smith took refuge from his unfamiliar world by studying the songs of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, and by writing songs of his own. He was soon slipping into Houston clubs to watch established singer-songwriters perform. “One night I was standing near the stage while John Prine played, and he looked at me and smiled,” Smith recalls. “I was a goner.”
Smith moved to Austin “under the guise of going to college,” at the University of Texas, but he instead immersed himself in the burgeoning music scene, where he discovered the blues, reggae, rock, and the music coming out of the U.K. By the time he graduated in 1985, he was a regular headliner on the local and Texas music scenes. After watching a friend double his performance fees by putting out an album, Smith economically decided to follow suit.
He released his debut album, Native Soil, in 1986, featuring fellow Texans Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith on harmony vocals and earning accolades from All Music Guide as “a gem.” It landed him a publishing deal writing songs for Dick James Music. “I was stunned that someone was going to pay me to do what I would do for free,” Smith says. “So was my father.”
Epic Records signed Smith at the inaugural South by Southwest Festival in 1987, and Darden Smith (1988) produced two country chart hit singles, “Little Maggie” and “Day After Tomorrow.” Its release on Epic’s Nashville division came at the same time that country music was headed back toward its traditional roots, and Smith was, admittedly, “miserable.”
Then Nigel Grainge, the head of Ensign Records, introduced Smith to the British songwriter Boo Hewerdine. Four days later, they had eight songs and a record deal from Ensign Chrysalis. “All of a sudden I found that I could write the kind of music I liked to listen to,” Smith says. “The collaboration with Boo was the first glimpse at the idea that I could be more than just a kid from Texas who sings folk songs.” Evidence (1989), his subsequent duet album with Hewerdine, earned a glowing 3½-star review from Rolling Stone, and Smith’s projectory expanded beyond the country music scene.
His major label deal with Epic was transferred to the pop division of Columbia Records, yielding Trouble No More in 1990. Its release coincided with the growth of Triple-A radio, and “Midnight Train” and “Frankie & Sue” drew frequent airplay. Three years later, Smith released Little Victories (1993), which included his Top 10 pop hit single, “Loving Arms.”
Parting ways with Columbia in 1995 foreshadowed one of the many artistic shifts that came to define him. Smith released Deep Fantastic Blue (1996) on an independent label, Plump Records, but he struggled to adapt to the shift from a major label. Then, inspired by previous projects on which he’d collaborated with a local dance/theatre group, the Austin Symphony Orchestra commissioned Smith to write a symphony – even though he’d never learned to read music. “Grand Motion” premiered in 1999 and, as Smith says, “It changed my life. It showed me that I was a musician, not just a songwriter, and that I could do anything I wanted if I would only say ‘Yes.’ ”
When his first several albums began to go out of print, Smith responded by rerecording his favorite songs and releasing Extra, Extra in 2000. And even as he thought seriously about quitting the music business, the first conceptions for Marathon were brewing. “I didn’t want to turn back from that new world after ‘Grand Motion,’ one that seemed infinitely bigger than the ‘singer-songwriter’ label that I was laboring under,” Smith says. “Marathon started here, with a concept about the West, and a desire to push myself out of my comfort zone again.”
Still without a record label – or manager, or agent – Smith, at the urging of two fellow musicians, began recording again. The result, Sunflower (2002), became the first of a stylistic trilogy of albums released on Dualtone Music Group. It included the hit single “After All This Time,” which reached No. 3 on the BBC Radio 2 chart, and, more importantly, revived in Smith the creative zeal to continue making albums. “It really felt like a reawakening, and a reminder to why I do music,” Smith says.
Circo (2004) and Field of Crows (2005) followed on Dualtone in the rich, reflective style established with Sunflower. And it was during this period that Smith more broadly extended his base as a musician. He created a documentary for BBC Radio 2, “Songs from the Big Sky” (2006), skillfully exploring the relationship between renowned Texas songwriters and the landscape of the Lone Star State. He also expanded his nonprofit “Be An Artist Program,” which he founded in 2003 as a series of workshops to encourage students to explore creativity through songwriting. In melding his interests in music, education and community involvement, Smith forged “another career that has nothing to do with the music business,” he says. “Instead, it’s the essence of music – it’s creativity.”
As the “Be An Artist Program” expanded in schools across the United States and Western Europe, and as he focused on writing and developing Marathon, Smith issued Ojo (2007), a limited-edition recording from a series of live concerts in New Mexico. He also established his own label, Darden Music; its debut 16-song release, After All This Time: The Best of Darden Smith (2009), chronicles the evolution of his career with selections from every one of his studio albums since 1986, plus two new tracks, including “Sierra Diablo” from Marathon.
Smith always envisioned Marathon as a song cycle interwoven with monologues, and by the time he finished recording the album in 2008, experiments with scripts, a band, and stage production were well under way. Workshop performances with a full band continued in Austin through 2010, and following the release of Marathon in the fall, Smith continues to refine what he ultimately envisions as a touring theatre piece.
Smith gratefully credits his co-writers, producers and fellow musicians with fueling and supporting his ongoing creative path, and for nurturing his own artistic muse at every twist and turn. And, as the unfolding Marathon project promises, Smith has no doubt that new ventures are ahead, in songwriting and beyond.
“Everything that comes now is a new era,” Smith says. “I’m rooted in my past, but I now know that I’m much more than a songwriter, or a singer, or even a musician. What that is – or what to call it – I don’t know, but I know that I can do anything now, go anywhere.”
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