“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.”