Like an eager beer novice who feels compelled to slurp fruity lambics and cough down bitter porters while secretly thirsting for a crisp and friendly lager, bluegrass chart-topper Valerie Smith did a fair amount of musical dabbling before deciding just to trust her instincts.
The Holt, Mo. ,native grew up listening to The Carter Family, the Louvin Brothers and Emmylou Harris, but opted for a formal musical education that included studies in jazz, pop, opera and Broadway at the University of Missouri’s Conservatory of Music. Bluegrass continued to fiddle with her career, however: During a stint as an elementary-school teacher, Smith was known to introduce many an old-time tune to her students.
After marrying accordion player Kraig Smith and settling in Nashville, Smith became a favorite on a popular live bluegrass radio show broadcast from Bell Buckle, Tenn. In short order, her first CD, Patchwork Heart (Bell Buckle Records, 1998), was released; the newcomer’s soulful treatment of “Red Clay Halo” (written by Gillian Welch) quickly leapt to the number one position on the Americana charts.
Smith’s wistfully clear vocals made Patchwork Heart a sweet, swift classic. On-stage, though, she reportedly does more swaggering than ladylike sashaying: Wielding a stage presence once likened to “a thermonuclear explosion,” the singer admits that she’s wont to engage in a little “bluegrass aerobics” from time to time.
Giving kudos to her impressively variegated band, Liberty Pike (whose members include 17-year-old fiddle prodigy Andy Leftwich and banjoist Allen Watkins, formerly of the Lonesome River Band), Smith notes understatedly that their live shows are “really active and energized. … A lot of bluegrass performances are about [the musicians] just standing and presenting the music, which is fine — but we move around a lot.
“Our shows make you feel like dancing,” she continues.
Striking the same pleasant balance she exhibits in her songs, Smith declares, “Tradition is very important to me, but I feel it’s equally important to bring in a fresh perspective. You really can’t have one without the other.”
For every witty lyric or troubling tale in singer/songwriter Tom Roznowski’s story-rich debut album, A Well Traveled Porch (Roseheart Productions, 1999), a thousand more remain unheard. The Indiana-based musician claims to have written about 1,500 songs, but that creative itch never developed into performance fever. “The term ‘singer-songwriter’ is two ends of a hyphen pulling in opposite directions,” he once told No Depression magazine. “Singing is a public exercise, but songwriting is a very private process; it’s something you do alone. It took a long time for me to develop the public part of it.”
Despite his ever-expanding output, Roznowski prefers to nurse inspiration from life’s smaller reflections: “Seems that every life I see/Moves much faster than me/… I dream of seeing everything/Oh Lord, let me fly so high on my turtle wings,” he croons in “Turtle Wings,” expertly managing a broken falsetto. In fact, Smith was so impressed with the song that she plans to name her next album after it.
“I’m a big fan of [Roznowski’s],” she reveals. “He co-wrote ‘Bittersweet’, [from] my album.” The Brewfest marks the pair’s appearance on the same stage, however. “Our music has the same flavor — very traditional, though with a new twist.
“But he’s much more Americana, while I’m on the edge of both Americana and bluegrass,” Smith continues, adding excitedly, “It should be very interesting to see how we fit together.”
The third annual Great Smokies Craft Brewers Brewgrass Festival runs 2-9 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 18, at Asheville’s Memorial Stadium. In addition to Valerie Smith and Tom Roznowski, catch the heady bluegrass vibes of Rusty Bucket; the honky-tonk heartbreak of White Heat; and the dazzling, progressive-bluegrass gymnastics of Sons of Ralph, featuring Ralph Lewis of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys fame.
Brews will be dispensed by Asheville Pizza and Brewing Company, Blue Ridge Brewing, Carolina Beer and Beverage, Cottonwood Brewery, Frederick Brewing Company, Green Man Brewing, Greenshields Brewing Company, Highland Brewing, Huske Hardware House, Johnson Beer Company, Mad Boar Brewhouse, New Knoxville Brewing, Palmetto Brewing, Pinehurst Village Brewery, R.J. Rockers, Rock Creek Brewing Company, Rocky River Brewing Company, Rogue Ales, Smoky Mountain Brewing, SweetWater Brewing, Thomas Creek Brewing and Tomcat Brewing Company. Tickets ($20 ) are available at Barley’s Taproom (42 Biltmore Ave.). Call 255-0404 or 281-3910 for tickets/more info.