Alternate Path 

Highly touted Nashville singer Mindy Smith chooses independent route

Highly touted Nashville singer Mindy Smith chooses independent route

Mindy Smith

One Moment More (Vanguard)

Playing 1 p.m. Jan. 31 at Tower Records on West End and later that night at 12th & Porter

For Mindy Smith, stubbornness equals strength. Her debut album, One Moment More, succeeds in large part because of her single-mindedness. On her way to her first recording, Smith broke rank with Nashville’s rules of order. The further she climbed up the system, the tighter she clung to a simple but important objective—she wanted her music to remain true to the sound that echoed in her head and heart.

Along the way, she ran into her share of resistance. A singer since her childhood in Long Island, and a songwriter since her post-collegiate days in Knoxville, Smith owes the concise power of her lyrics and melodies to the commercial schooling that Nashville provides. She moved here five years before she signed her first record deal, and like nearly every other young artist to make the plunge, she initially followed the well-traveled path record execs tell every wannabe to take.

Smith played the open-mic nights. She collaborated with other writers. She attended workshops. She hustled for introductions. And she eventually found an open door, gaining a writing contract with Word Music, the city’s leading Christian song publishing company.

Then she started to rebel. Word Music advised Smith to soften her lyrics and to ditch the darker aspects of her melodies and arrangements. She was told her songs were too gut-wrenching and personal. Her instincts told her otherwise. “I got dropped, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Smith says.

She sought another publisher, but this time with her own set of demands. In 2002, Smith signed with a small, independent company, Big Yellow Dog Music, because executives Kerry O’Neill and Carla Wallace trusted her instincts. They let her record her demos in the style she felt worked best and didn’t interfere with her lyrics or arrangements.

Her work immediately drew an enthusiastic response. Three of the city’s most respected talent executives—Tony Brown at Universal South, James Stroud at DreamWorks and Paul Worley at Warner Bros.—pursued her.

As bowled over as she was, Smith stood firm. Her music wasn’t a custom fit for country radio, and she realized that major-label promotion departments might not be as excited about working with a nonconformist as the talent chiefs were. She’d heard stories of how labels sit on artists for years without releasing albums, sometimes hounding them to make their music less complex and easier to digest.

Smith had one other offer, from the California-based independent label Vanguard Records. Steve Buckingham, a talent executive and producer for Vanguard, was just as vigorous in his pursuit of Smith as the other labels. Buckingham also had produced the recent comeback albums of Dolly Parton, and Smith greatly admired those recordings. Against conventional wisdom, Smith signed with the California independent rather than a major label on Music Row.

One Moment More celebrates the wisdom of Smith’s choice, at least creatively. While it’s too early to tally her album’s commercial success—it was released Jan. 27—Smith’s artistic vision is evident throughout. She wrote all 11 songs by herself, and she co-produced the album with Buckingham. A Nashville label likely wouldn’t have allowed her either opportunity.

She also recorded the entire collection in two weeks with a small, hand-picked band of inspired musicians. Acoustic guitarist Bryan Sutton helped with the charts, and the band includes highly regarded musicians like guitarists Kenny Vaughan and Will Kimbrough, bassist Glenn Worf, steel guitarist Dan Dugmore, drummers Paul Griffith and Shannon Forrest, and keyboardists Matt Rollings and Steve Conn. That’s an impressive crew, but the driving force behind the record is Smith’s haunting soprano and songs.

As a vocalist, Smith draws frequent comparisons to Alison Krauss because of the clear, beautiful tone they share. But Krauss’ voice gains its power from its carefully modulated subtlety, while Smith sings with a more wide-open range. Angry one minute, tender the next, her voice soars, bites and whispers while always maintaining its radiant center.

But it’s in her songs that Smith distinguishes herself: There’s the dark gospel deliverance “Come to Jesus,” a modal spiritual for the grunge generation. There are the open insecurities of poverty in “Raggedy Ann,” a modern “Coat of Many Colors” stripped of its positive message—in this case, the young girl is poor, dressed in rags and overwhelmed by her embarrassment and disconnection.

“The Train Song” is about a woman waiting for her man to return. She could be a soldier’s wife, a spurned spouse or an anxious lover unsure if or when her partner will come home. It starts as a love song, but takes a poignant turn: “I’ve been crying, trying to make sense of all this shit he left me to tend / And I’m just wondering, I’ll ask again, is my sweet man on that train?” By having the song teeter on the line between hope and desperation, Smith captures the multiple levels of emotion a left-behind loved one goes through while trying to persevere.

Smith can be just as sunny as she is dark. A song like “It’s Amazing,” with its bouncy chords and its message about rediscovering joy, is upbeat enough to play over the credits at the end of an animated film by Pixar.

Ultimately, however, Smith is at her most powerful when she depicts those overwhelmed by pain, or when she contends that even the most wretched among us can be saved. She knows Music Row isn’t necessarily interested in such complex characterizations. Nevertheless, she believes there’s an audience out there that is.

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