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Lone Star Fate

Texan Darden Smith Goes Back to His Down-Home Roots With His New Album, 'Deep Fantastic Blue'

November 15, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Singer-songwriter Darden Smith looks like his music sounds. He's got that Texas-troubadour aura about him--steely eyed but sensitive, long and lean with a handsome, roughhewn masculinity. Rumpled to a degree where he appears comfortable but not seedy, Smith looks like he'd smell of the outdoors air mixed with stale cigarette smoke.

Smith, who performs Saturday at the Coach House, has a new album out on Plump Records called "Deep Fantastic Blue," his sixth release since his 1986 debut, "Native Soil." According to Smith, the album is something of a musical coming home after a number of more commercial-minded, complex projects for such major labels as Columbia and Epic, where he'd been recording since 1988.

"The one thing this record does is sort of come full circle to the first record I made," Smith said in a recent phone interview. "It's a much more straightforward, clear production than my last record. . . . I really wanted to get [back] to a simpler way of presenting things."

The instrumentation on "Deep Fantastic Blue" is mostly basic drums, bass, acoustic/electric guitar and vocals. Stewart Lerman's production is bare bones but crystalline, a perfect complement to the material and an effective mood-setter.

Most important, Smith's songs are unadorned windows into the artist's mind.

"You know those Merle Haggard songs with two chords and one verse? I've always been fascinated with that," Smith said. "How can you get something done really simply? Some of the most powerful songs have always been the most simple songs. I find that, as a songwriter, a lot of people tend to get in their own way."

Smith, 34, grew up in rural Brenham, Texas, moved to Houston as a teenager and lives in Austin. He's Lone Star State to the core, the product of a long, proud and eclectic musical tradition.

"The first musical thing I remember is my grandpa; he was a breakdown fiddle player," Smith said. "He also played western swing stuff and played harmonica. That sort of thing--going to dances with your family--that was [a] cultural thing you did. And I was [a] kid during the whole Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings/Jerry Jeff Walker thing in music; I was definitely influenced by that.

"I used to sneak into clubs in Houston when I was a teenager to see a lot of the bands that were around in Texas," he said. "I saw them all when I was in high school. That was the music that was around me, and that was big part of me growing up."

*

Another Texas legend that seems to have affected any musician who ever saw him perform is Joe Ely.

"I didn't know about him until 1981," said Smith. "When I finally got to see him, I thought I'd seen God. You just can't put more passion into a performance that he does when he's on. He's an amazing artist, and he's had a big influence on me."

All these impressions can be heard in Smith's difficult-to-define music. He goes from sounding country to pop to rock to folk, sometimes in the course of a single song.

Smith's pretty but earthy baritone well serves his journalistic material, some of it detailing his own take on life and love, some of it snapshot-like portraits of people and places he's encountered. To Smith, the song is all.

"If I can't sit alone in a group of people and play a song, it doesn't work for me," he said. "The true test is when I sing these songs for people on my own; if it still works, then I know it's good. That's the tradition I come from. I come from the vein of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and John Prine on through guys like Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Dylan."

The songs on "Deep Fantastic Blue" run from the tough exclamation of independence that is "Silver & Gold" to the touching, sentimental ballad "Broken Branches," which humanizes the homeless in poetic fashion:

Can you count the teardrops

Falling from a mother's eye?

Hey that's somebody's daughter

Hey that's somebody's son

Somebody's pride and joy

Turned out to be

The broken branch off the family tree

"I was in a truck with my kid," Smith said in recounting the song's genesis. "The window was down, and this [homeless] guy walked up and put his head in the truck. Well it scared the [----] out of me, but my kid just kind of looked at him and said, 'Hi!'

"It was powerful in that it made me realize that we're all somebody's kid, and these people are no different," he said. "There's probably somebody worrying about where they are and how they're doing right now."

Smith has done the music-biz dance for years now, driving the country in vans to play for small crowds, recording for a number of labels. He retains his dreams of better things but counts himself lucky just to be a singer-songwriter by trade.

"It's a good gig to have," he said. "I'd be lying if I told you I didn't want to sell a whole lot of records. But it's easier to keep writing songs."

* Darden Smith, Will Glover, Boo Hewerdine and Steve Corey & the Saddledogs play Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $8-$10. (714) 496-8930.

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