The next recording project by Kenny & Amanda Smith, Live And Learn, is due from Rebel Records on September 9. This will be their fourth CD with Rebel, the fifth since Kenny left Lonesome River Band in 2001 to launch this new venture with his wife, Amanda.
Students and fans of flatpicking guitar have followed Kenny from the time he first placed in the National Guitar Flat Pick Championship at Winfield in 1992, and followed him through stints with Claire Lynch and his two Guitar Player of the Year Awards from IBMA while working with LRB.
For most bluegrass fans, their first taste of Amanda’s singing was a single track she sang on Kenny’s Studebaker CD, released in 1997, or her debut release with Kenny, Slowly But Surely.
I had a chance to sit down with both of them recently to listen through the entire CD, after which they answered a few questions about the music and the songs included on Live And Learn, which also features regular band members Zach McLamb on bass and Aaron Williams on mandolin.
Kenny was especially enthusiastic about this project…
“I couldn’t ask for a better CD. This one just captured the sound we were after, and I’m delighted with the result.
At the beginning of this project, we had still not hired a full time banjo player. This had gone on for a year with different players filling in. Terry Baucom and Ron Stewart had filled in with us during the summer, and we just didn’t get in a hurry finding someone with these guys filling in. Plus, we were having a blast with them picking with us.
We were going to cut the project regardless and leave the banjo spot open and deal with it later when we called Ron about overdubbing fiddle later on. He told us he was available the week were laying down the rhythm tracks. So Ron showed up with banjo and fiddle in hand and we cut some of the best music the band has recorded to date.”
The first single from the album, Randall Collins, has been released to radio and is starting to get airplay. It’s a re-cut of a great Norman Blake song from the 1970s, one of Kenny’s favorite guitarists while he was learning to play.
“When I was growing up in Nine Mile, Indiana I used to mow yards in the summer for $3.50 a yard. I did that all summer and it was my first real job. It was enough to keep gas in my minibike and buy records.
There was a record shop near home that was going out of business and I bought every Norman Blake album that was on the rack. On one of those album was the song Randall Collins. We were jamming back stage one day and I was messing around with the tune. Zach remembered it and joined in, and before long we were working it up.
I hope our cut inspires some young pickers just as Norman did with me.”
The album is filled with great songs, a couple of which were written by Kenny and Amanda themselves. One of those is Icicle Canyon, a nice medium-tempo number that tells of heartbreak and regret.
“When we play at Wintergrass, we always stay with a good friend of ours, Rob Newsom. He lives in truly one of the prettiest places I have ever been, Icicle Canyon. It was snowing one day when we were staying with him and I looked at Rob and said, ‘Lets write a tune.’
There is a sign up at his place that says 8 miles to Icicle Canyon, and that struck me as a great name for a song. I have been friends with Rob since my first trip to the Wintergrass festival in Tacoma and always wanted to co-write with him.”
Another track that really grabbed my attention was Cruel Willie, a lovely old song with a distaff flip on the classic murder ballad genre. It’s performed as a duet with sparse accompaniment.
“Cruel Willie was a song we kept hearing in the old time circles while I was listening to other claw hammer players. We love story songs, and what a story this one is!
This one is a perfect example of what I like in a song – great story, simple catchy melody. I absolutely love Ron’s fiddle break on this tune and remember being totally engaged in the rhythm track when we cut this one.
This was a first take song and we stayed away from doing anything to mess with the vibe of how it happened in that particular moment. I love the intro and ending riff with the mandolin.”
Drive That Fast, written by Arty Hill, shows off the expressive quality of Amanda’s voice perfectly, and is just the sort of more contemporary bluegrass song that this group does as well as anyone.
“We met Arty Hill at the Collings both at IBMA a couple of years ago. We got to talking and exchanged CDs. Arty told me he would love to send some songs he had written.
One of the first one he sent was one he wrote especially for us, and that was Drive That Fast. I love this song. I think it defines us as a band and our particular sound.”
Kenny volunteered that his favorite track is the opener, Changing. It’s a song written by Blue Highway’s Tim Stafford, along with Brandi Hart and Buddy Woodward of The Dixie Bee-Liners. It tells the story of Brandi and Buddy making the tough decision to move from New York to Virginia to pursue a career in music.
“Tim gave us a demo with Changing on there and I loved the tune the first time I heard it. We fooled around with the tempo and keys and settled on E.
This tune has a haunting quality about it which I can’t really explain. It’s a different kind of song for our band, and uncharted territory for us. It truly is one of the finest songs we have ever gotten the chance to record.
Not long ago, Buddy called us up out of the blue and said, ‘We are having a cook out and would love for you guys to stop by.’ We did – and can that guy cook!
I brought along our recorded version of the song and we all stood around a jam box in Buddy and Brandi’s backyard and listened to it all together. That was the first time we had played a song for the songwriters before the CD had come out.
Just before it started playing I remember being nervous and wondering if they would like the way we arranged their song. It was a special moment for all of us just to watch them react to the changes as it played, and to see their expressions of the little nuances of the song they created, which came from a place much deeper that only a songwriter can explain.
It was an emotional moment for all of us there that day.”
Live And Learn is being sent out to radio this week, so keep an ear open for music from this fine new CD wherever you listen to bluegrass over the air or online.
The album is beautiful sonically, another Kenny & Amanda trademark. Kenny’s rhythm guitar fills up each track, and his lead work is alternately lyrical and playful. Amada also shines throughout, showing how well she can adapt her voice to a variety of styles.
It’s a good’n, folks.