Valerie Smith works to stay on top of her game. Never one to shy away from personal growth, the singer/songwriter/entrepreneur realized she needed to make some changes in her career a couple of years ago.
“I’ve been pretty much working on me,” she tells Bluegrass Today with a hearty laugh. “I’m working on my music, learning about the new direction of technology and media in the music business,” adds the owner of Bell Buckle Music.
“When you see these major changes with what people expect, the generation that you’re singing to, I think sometimes you have to stop, drop, and roll and look at yourself and what the changes are. Times, festivals and the economics have changed,” she said.
As a result, Smith has been reinventing her presentation but not her music. With nine albums to her credit, Smith also has been learning other skills like building her website (www.valeriesmith.net) and serving as a one-woman band to shoot and edit music videos of her songs.
She’s stepping up to the plate to face other challenges. For instance, the Holt, Missouri native is a strong, talented singer who has felt confident in that role. But adding guitarist to her repertoire was a different story.
“It’s intimidating in bluegrass when you hear these instrumentalists that are so talented and amazing to watch,” she admits. “That was really scary for me to play in front of folks like that because I thought, ‘Wow they’re so much more talented than I am at that instrument.’
Her bandmates in Liberty Pike—Tom Gray (bass), Lisa Kay Howard (mandolin), Wally Hughes (resophonic guitar and fiddle), Joe Zauner (banjo and guitar)—encouraged her to face her fear. Now, she is the band’s main guitarist.
“I can remember the first time I decided to be the main guitar player on stage,” she recalls, laughing at the memory. “I was literally shaking because I was frightened that I was going to mess up or not do that well. When you’re an artist of 20 years, people expect a certain thing from you, and I wasn’t sure if I could meet those expectations on my own.”
The band’s persuasive support inspired her next CD, Small Town Heroes.
“They’re heroes to me because they encourage,” she says. “They believed in me more than I believed in myself. It’s kind of funny. That was always my thing when I would hire a band member I would say in my mind as a band leader. . . I believe in them more than they’ll ever believe in themselves.”
Smith is working now in the studio on the project. She hopes to have the first single out later this month with a possible album release in April. For this next step in her journey of self-discovery, the former music teacher is producing the album.
“Am I shaking in my boots? Yeah!” Smith answers with a nervous giggle. “I’ve always had someone sitting by my side showing me their craft, and now, I’m putting my craft to the test. This band has allowed me to do that, and they’re enthusiastic.”
“The album is about change. For instance, I wrote a song called The Farmer’s Prayer, and in it, I say it’s a person you seldom see or hear about anymore. I grew up on a farm. My grandpa had a passion for his farm. You don’t see the old country farms anymore. It’s very rare. This is what the farmer tried to do and this is what was important to him to feed his family.”
The CD represents the everyday working person and what they bring to the lives of people around them.
“You can be a hero no matter where you are in life. Am I inspiring people? Am I doing something that will make a difference? That’s pretty much what I’m about artistically and musically and as a person. It doesn’t always turn out the way I want it to.”
Smith wanted to make a difference with her current CD, The Human Condition, a collection of cover songs including The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” Martina McBride’s “Where I Use to Have a Heart,” and Buck Owens’ “I Don’t Care, Just As Long As You Love Me.”
“During my hiatus I studied a lot of documentaries about people that changed the world and people’s conditions in other countries,” Smith explains. “As human beings we need to grow. We’re all very different. We’ve also experienced true happiness and love and our interpretations [of those feelings].”
While Smith’s voice has never fit squarely in the traditional bluegrass box, this album demonstrates more fully her wide-ranging versatility in other genres.
“Bluegrass had always known I was a little different from the rest but accepted me, I think, because I loved the style and genre … and I wanted to stay with that because I enjoyed it,” she explains.
Smith hardly had the time to analyze her situation to decide what worked best for her.
“I think sometimes you can ride on a bus for so long that you kind of start to chase your tail,” she says. “There’s no time to do that because you’re thinking so fast. You have little time to truly think about the direction you should be going with what’s honest for you.”
She sampled the other sides of her music personality with her album, Turtle Wings, and was discouraged by the bluegrass radio community’s shocked reaction.
“I told Miss Dixie Hall, ‘I don’t understand.’ Miss Dixie said, ‘There’s always a consequence whether it’s good or bad when you decide to do something that you believe. Don’t expect others to believe in it right away. In time people do understand you.’” Years later, the style of the album has caught up with times and is sold-out in hardcopy CD, and can only be purchased by digital outlets.
Like a chameleon blending her voice into R&B, pop, bluegrass, traditional country, and a few other flavors, Smith has seen more acceptance with The Human Condition.
“The pleasure of making art outweighs the consequences because it’s something that you do with an honest effort,” Smith believes. “I think back on my life, the choices I’ve made in a lot of ways, musically, professionally, and I don’t feel I would do it differently. I don’t really have any regrets about the road I chose.”
While Smith enjoys making music, it’s even more important for her to be a great mother to her daughter, Josie, who sang Fireflies on her mother’s latest project.
“I didn’t want to get off a bus and see her in a graduation outfit and know that I missed some important moments in my life,” Smith said. “As much as I love traveling and making the music, I love being a mother too. The best thing I’ll ever do in this world is raise my daughter.”
To balance career and her personal life, Smith made the decision to park the bus and end the tour grind. Fortunately, she still finds a way to make the music work.
“I enjoy playing with the bands that I’m playing with and flying to the east coast, rehearsing, recording, still doing shows,” she says. “If I have to travel to them, I’ll travel to them, but I try to fly as much as I can if I’m not gone so long. When it’s time to get back on that bus and do show after show after show, I’ll know it.”