Kenny Smith – Return

One of the most enjoyable recordings I’ve discovered this year is Kenny Smith’s latest, an instrumental guitar project called Return.

The project is special in a number of ways. First of all, it’s the first album from Kenny since his 1997 album, Studebaker, and his first all-instrumental record ever. On top of that, he had access to a trio of exception prewar flattops for use in the studio: his own 1935 D-18, Norman Blake’s 1933 D-28 (sunburst), and a rare bird Gibson jumbo prototype from 1935.

The musicians who support Smith here are special as well, with Adam Steffey on mandolin, Barry Bales on bass, Aubrey Haynie on fiddle and Jim Denman and Adam Hurt on banjo.

Kenny tells us that the title refers to him looking back at his musical roots while selecting material for the CD, which came after conducting an informal poll among fans of the flatpicking.

“I asked a lot of guitar players what kind tunes I should put on this project, and the response was to do some standards in my style. I had to go back and treat each song with a new set of ears and a totally different approach. These were the tunes that got me into wanting to play the guitar in the first place.

I hope Return inspires young people like it did me when I heard the notes of my heroes jumping into the air by the way of a record needle.”

And his style is composed of roughly equal parts of three musical personalities: the in-your-face bluegrass Kenny played with Lonesome River Band and now with Kenny & Amanda Smith, the fiddle tune contest style that won him several top 3 finishes at Winfield and a win at Merlefest, and his more recent fascination with old time fiddle and banjo music.

“I think it was a combination of everything that has influenced my playing down through the years. My Dad’s fiddle playing shows up on there as well as the influence of living in southwest Virginia for thirteen years and hearing great old time music.

Dad always listened to the Grand Ole Opry on the weekends. I heard great players like Billy Grammer, Howdy Forrester plus all the sidemen that would hit the airwaves every Friday and Saturday night. My playing is a reflection of WSM and who walked across the stage.”

Return is the first release from Gat 3, a new label associated with the studio where Kenny has been recording in recent years after having been impressed with owner/engineer Glenn Tabor’s work. In fact, he told us that he had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the studio to get started.

“We had been talking about this for years but never put it into action, which was my fault. If it wasn’t for Amanda and Glenn the CD would probably still be just an idea. I wanted it to be as good or better than Studebaker and was dreading going into the studio because I never thought I was ready. I started to really hammer and woodshed about two years before this project was recorded.

Glenn is one of these guys that’s not just an engineer. He is a multi-faceted person with a vision and a knack for making ideas come to life. Glenn’s wife Susan has the same personality. No matter what you can dream up these people can make it happen.

I am excited to be teamed up with a label eager to try different ways to get the music out there so it can be heard.”

The album starts out with a pair of snappy numbers in the bluegrass keys of A and B, both featuring a similar chromatic figure.

“I loved Half Step the first time I heard it. Jim Denman sent me this song he had written on the banjo right before I was going in the studio. I love catchy melodies and this is one of my favorite tunes I’ve ever cut.

Half Step: []

The second tune, Warren Chapel, I wrote with the idea of using the outside notes in the major scale in the melody. I thought these two songs sounded good together, so they follow one another on the CD.”

Warren Chapel: []

Kenny also takes two familiar fiddle tunes, and brings a new perspective to each of them – not a simple thing on melodies so frequently played and recorded as these.

“This version of Arkansas Traveler was inspired by truly one of the best guitars I had ever had in my hands. I borrowed a 1935 Gibson Advanced Jumbo Prototype from Gary Burnette.

I was lead by the guitar on this song. Sometimes an old guitar has a spirit about it and all you have to do is let it sing.The Texas style arrangement came from meeting and playing with Jim ‘Texas Shorty’ Chancellor over the last year or so.”

Arkansas Traveler: []

“I’m playing Leather Britches out of G with the A string tuned down to G. I have always played this tune with a laid back feel, and when Adam, Barry and I recorded the tune it took on a different feel. The rhythm had a certain drive to it so I went with it.

I love Howdy Forrester’s version of this tune and we borrowed the kick off from him.”

Leather Britches: []

Other strong tracks include a reworking of the old time gems Sail Away Ladies and Cumberland Gap, contest favorites Forked Deer, Black Mountain Rag and Billy In The Lowground, plus two more strong Smith originals.

Throughout, Kenny’s guitar alternates between fully-orchestrated rhythm and penetrating solos. There are few who can match him in either realm, and Return demonstrates anew why Kenny Smith is so highly-regarded by flat pickers, and everyone who appreciates steel string guitar played with passion and precision.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.