Russell Smith: An Ace, An Old Friend + An Echo of a Moment

THIRTY THOUSAND OR so feet above everything, late and tired. With the ear buds in, the demos – all top shelf kind of awesome – go rolling by. Heady stuff, and the kind of songs mere mortals never get to hear, because they’re saved for artists whose singles can generate the kind of money that pays more than mortgages, expensive cars and college tuition.

And then that voice. That voice. The kind of voice that can get on top of a basic rock drum kit with a clean, solid beat and a guitar that coils and swaggers as it works the melody like a hooker in a pair of expensive heels, just let those vowels ride it like the wave they’ve all been waiting for. Six foot nine and glassy, the best waves are all sheen and crash – and the steam coming off that humid tenor, not quite smoky, not quite earthy clay, was undeniable.

I could feel the blood draining from my face. A chorus, everything falls away – except the beat, which finds the voice weighing the reality of the situation as a rush of the tempo picks up and the song builds again. The velocity of the arrangement displays the urgency, the singer stacks the truths, knowing “If I leave right now…,” he can change everything.

But the singer knows, she’s leaving. Not just leaving him, but leaving for somewhere. California, a dream, a life, some other than what she’s had with the hero. Russell Smith, a son of Lafayette, Tennessee, had always been able to twist the complexities of life and wring them into fecund songs.

The demo says Tom Shapiro, no slouch of a songwriter. Obviously, one of – if not the only – writer on ‘If I Leave Right Now’ with the boast, “I could reach around and clip. Those pretty wings/ Before she flies to her California dreams/ She could never say no to me/ I know she won’t go…”

Sit there and drink, chase the girl and bring her back. Is it ambivalence? One more toxic male who won’t bother? Or some hard-boiled cowboy who knows some women aren’t meant to be held down, held back, held.

Mouth dry, my stomach lurched. What do you say? Who do you tell?

In life, there are those moments that seem so significant, then mean seemingly nothing at all. But you’re tagged, by the charge, the laughter, the whispered long distance, coiling and uncoiling the telephone chord in those hours when normal people are asleep. You talk about literature, rock & roll tours, missing the Grammys the year you win “beating Dolly & Porter, and that just shouldn’t happen”. You discuss theories of sobriety, people you know, people you don’t, people you’ve heard of, as well as the holes that open between people, caverns that swallow the good things and leave jagged shores of anger, misunderstanding, frustration.

Oh, and an album called This Little Town.

See, Russell Smith had been the big shot lead singer of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, known for the tawdry unapologetic cheap hook-up ‘Third Rate Romance’, the cheating lament ‘Amazing Grace (Used To Be Her Favorite Song)’ and the Grammy-winning almost. gospel ‘The End Is Not In Sight’. He’d also written big ‘80s hits for John Conlee (‘Old School’), Randy Travis (‘Look Heart No Hands’) and T Graham Brown (‘Don’t Go To Strangers’), later Texas guitarist/vocalist Lee Roy Parnell (‘The Rock’).

Leave it to an L.A. transplant to Sony Nashville’s A&R. Department named Larry Hamby, who also signed Blaster Dave Alvin as a solo and DC folkie Mary Chapin Carpenter, believed the post-Urban Cowboy thrall had room for a sultry Music Row meets Muscle Shoals rocker with roots in gospel, country, bluegrass. The downstroke firm, the ability to hit the note head-on, but also to slither in was a best of both worlds proposition – and the writing was personal, detailed, yet you could see all kinds of people in the laments, the shuffles, the midtempo. ruminations.

It wasn’t an album destined to change the face of anything, but in a lounge lizard Nashville framed by men with back-combed chest-fur pillowing gold-nugget medallions, bolo ties and girls with rooster spiked hair, it felt worn and honest. The songwriting was solid – the title track captured small town communication with the wistful truth “Mrs. White tells Mrs. Brown/Before you know it’s all over town,” the faded kid making do ‘Jenny Hold On’, the dobro-bending, Louvin-feeling harmonies on ‘Anger & Tears’, the big city girl ‘riding through the concrete canyons of New York’ haunting him on ‘The Colorado Side’ – and that voice, equal parts good bourbon, dried tobacco leaves and very old brandy.

More than anything, Smith wrote of loss, compromised dreams, the hard piece of heartache. Even more profoundly, he didn’t write master tragedies, but squalid truths that existed behind bad neon that flickered and buzzed, cheap motels with chipped linoleum, a dank smell and sheets that didn’t feel good. It wasn’t that people weren’t faithful, it’s that life made it so hard to be true; Smith – unblinking – wrote what he saw. 

‘When The Night Comes To Call’, like Joe Cocker’s ‘When The Night Falls’, was a grown-up consideration of congress. But for Cocker, it was the known, the consumed by a fidelity of the soul. Smith wasn’t that holy; he recognized the raw desire and the need to feel another, especially one who evoked what was already lost. There was a stateliness to hanker, the right hand on the piano rising and the left kneading bottom chords, a Bob Seger-feeling acoustic guitar. sweeping up any stray bits of emotion.

No regrets here, no judgement. Sometimes being lost in the flesh is all you can do. Why look back? Why look down? Burn the moment ‘til it’s gone, embrace what is – and feel that delivery by. raging fire.

Country music used to be for adults. There was a sexual knowing, frankness even, and acceptance. True love isn’t always, but the need for release, for connection, the illusion of kindness is relentless. And so, This Little Town.

Liz Thiels, a publicist with unwavering taste and a strong sense of narrative, understood why an artist like this, one more tangential than straight WSM Country would move me. Not just the Eagles tours, or Don Kirschner’s “Rock Concert” appearances. Opening acts were once as strong as the headliners, often – like Little Feat or NRBQ, even the Replacements – more adventurous. 

The interview – by phone, the first of so many ponderous phone calls – was vast: how songs formed, truths pulled away from the obvious, hooks done properly held them down. Was it for Country Song Round Up? Tune-In? Tower Pulse? Doubtful The L.A. Times, or Rolling Stone. 

Doesn’t matter, like so many of the publications above, Russell Smith is gone.

Just saw the news, somewhere. Russell Smith, RIP. Basic facts, a few song titles, the request – in lieu of flowers – to donate to the Macon County High School Band. Internment in the Testament Primitive Baptist Cemetery says that, finally, the man who sang, “my soul cries out for rest, but the end is not in sight…” has found his final reward.

Funny the things you remember about first meetings. He wasn’t much taller than me, and his hair was like soft, dark brillo. Wearing all black, slimming, lengthening. Not auspicious for a man seeking to be a country star – something he laughed about, appreciating the irony; later skewering fame jockeying with ‘Jerry Fontaine (& His Screaming Guitar)’. Somehow, with eyes that sparkled with life, it felt right for the songs. 

Like a captured animal, he was killing time in a holding banquet room in the Stouffers Hotel, where he would soon sing in a ballroom for people he needed. Was it Country Radio Seminar? A NACA Convention? IBMA? IEBA? I do not remember, nor did it matter.  He’d written hits; he’d won a Grammy. He didn’t need, just wanted a reason to get out there and play.

And for all the Southern soul to his soft rock-tempered country, he really liked the hard stuff. Loved Tammy, as well as Conway, and Jones. He would talk about obscure tracks, laugh about the way vowels got stretched, notes tumbled or suspended, then smack his lips about how good it was.

A member of MENSA, a kid who watched Tennessee find its way, a seeker or maybe a wonderer, he was mostly a father of two boys, a recent divorcee with a wife who left for the one thing a man can’t give her. He was bitter, trying to cope, seeking higher ground, hoping for more, harder than he ever intended. He was funny, and he liked to talk.

And so we did. Politics. Religion. Broken hearts. Promises that unraveled. Hopes that you steer by. Al Green. Foster & Lloyd. Movies no one saw. Faulkner. Twain. Laughter. Outrage. Sam Kinison. What was going to happen to country music. Would it matter? And why are existentialist wells such a pain to fall into?

You fall into confessions and communion with people. Never planned,  rarely sacramental. Just there you are, profane and seeking. In this case, I was California – and he was Tennessee. He told me he thought I looked like a kid, couldn’t believe I was the music critic Holly Gleason. I replied something about sounding taller on records. We laughed.

For a period of time, we would meet up. David Kidd, when it was two stories. Hide and seek in a book store, or more “find me”. But you could park yourself somewhere interesting, and when the other showed didn’t matter. And when they did, always plenty to talk about.

And as intriguing as his singing voice was, there was something about his speaking voice. Warm, with a real strength to it. And softness. A voice you could sink into, feel welcome and reassured. Everything we’re looking for in life, only it’s a mirage. You could hear them when he talked.

Funny thing, though, about being friends with grown-ups, real life takes them away. You can twist for days in someone’s life, run your fingers over their books, marvel at their heavy wooden furniture, or family photos, but it’s not the same as being there day in and out. It’s not like pitching a tent, claiming your ground and dropping an anchor.

No, you drift and the line breaks. What you love about the other person, it doesn’t go away. Occasionally, you’ll have a random encounter, a run-in or an overlap. You smile the smile of one who roots for the other, asks all the right questions, look all the way to the. Back of their eyes – and watch the soul shine.

One latte spring night we sat outside the Bluebird, on the curb, talking about nothing. Just because. The night bugs weren’t swarming, but had to occasionally be wiped out of our mouths, and still we sat, talking and laughing. It was easy like that, elusive in ways the sex he often sang of wasn’t.

Not quite that last bit before daybreak, he made some joke about being old and hoping he could get up. Then confessed he had the boys coming over early, reached out, offered me his hand and said,  “We both probably oughta be getting home.”

And that was that, melting into the steel grey of a new day fixing to happen.

It’s been years now since whenever the last time I saw him. There were incredible songs – the heartbreaking post-divorce ‘The Home for Unwed Fathers’ comes to mind – and Amazing Rhythm Aces reunions; collaborations as the hilarious soulgrass Run CnW, with his friends Jim Photoglo, Bernie Leadon and Vince Melamud.  

What you have with people can be so vivid, so incandescent, it always shines when you close your eyes. You can hear the voice, and that butterscotch thread melts inside you. It’s easy to keep moving, working, being – and get pulled away.

Until you’re sitting on a plane, slicing through those same lost hours, hearing a voice without introduction and everything gives way.  Even when you hold your poker face, your inner dam collapses.  But after so much time, what do you say?

Tonight, nothing. Russell Smith is gone. But really, he’d been gone, just a hint of scent on the humidity here and there. Maybe someone who knew we knew each other, carrying news. Or a random bit of music. And it’s okay, or as okay as it can be.

Having had that life intersect mine for however many months, it was glorious. As glorious as the music, as alive and flickering as a flame. I could rue the time lost, or I could be amazed at what was. Me, I’ll choose the music, and the memories, be thankful for what I had – and maybe remember to embrace the ones who’ve moved beyond a little more.

© Holly Gleason, 15 July 2019

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