Small Town Heroes is something of a departure for Tennessee-based Valerie Smith. It’s the first album with the latest iteration of her touring band, Liberty Pike, and was recorded away from home at Tom Mindte’s studio in Rockville, MD.
The reason for tracking in Maryland was simple. All the members of her new band live in the greater Washington, DC area, and it just made sense for Val to travel to them than to bring them all out to where she lives south of Nashville. Of course it didn’t hurt that Tom has produced a number of first rate albums in his Patuxent Records studio in recent years.
Another departure is finding Smith in more of a straightahead bluegrass setting, after a number of concept albums that pushed hard on the boundaries of the style. Liberty Pike now consists of DC-area notables Tom Gray on bass, Joe Zauner on banjo, Lisa Kay Howard on mandolin, and Wally Hughes on fiddle, and they seem to ground Val with a smooth, grassy sound.
We also find Smith less heavily featured as a songwriter, though a number of fine new songs of hers are presented. She sings a couple of old time favorites, Little Liza Jane and Wayfaring Stranger, giving each a largely traditional reading, though her vocalizations on the latter are classic, jazzy Valerie Smith. Nashville songwriter Sarah Majors contributes three new songs, showing her keen understanding of our world with her cowrite with Erik Shannon Lawson, Bluegrass Dollars. Hint: they come few and far between. Majors also penned the title track with Penny and Katy Clark, a feel-good song about folks who live simple lives away from the bright lights and big cities. And on Wall Street, written by Majors with Shannon Lawson and Tiffany Goss, Val follows a typical Gospel-style arrangement for a song about having champagne dreams.
Our own David Morris has a pair of writer credits here, on the album’s first single, Something About A Train written by Mitch Matthews, Dawn Kenney, and Morris which won first prize in the bluegrass division in the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest. It’s an easy-going song about how trains can stir memories. So Long, Lindytown is a bluesy bluegrass song, from Morris and Chris Dockins, a song of regret seeing one’s hometown disappear. Smith gives it an enthusiastic delivery.
Val’s own new songs, Winter’s Dream and Farmer’s Prayer, both created with Kraig Smith, show she hasn’t lost a step as a clever songwriter in bluegrass. The latter features Hughes on reso-guitar.
A special treat is the record’s final track, which finds Tom Gray up front on lead vocal for Bessie’s Tune, a quasi-novelty song he wrote about his bass, full of onomatopoeia and good humor. One imagines this being a big hit when the band performs live.
Small Town Heroes is another fine statement from Valerie Smith, proving again that you never know what to expect from one of her CDs. The album is available wherever bluegrass music is sold.