Photo by Jeff Wilson
Darden Smith has always been an enigma. Since the mid 1980s, his music has walked along the edge of country and folk, presenting Smith as an Austin version of James Taylor. His songs were always literate and well-mannered but rarely overly emotional. Smith wasn’t as funny or outgoing as Lyle Lovett or as rocking or intense as Alejandro Escovedo. Even as a younger man, Smith looked like a music professor who maybe moonlighted at night in some club his students would never traverse.
But James Taylor has written some great songs, and so has Darden Smith. Beginning in 1986 with the album Native Soil, Smith wrote songs that dug deep into the psyche of a young man looking to understand the world around him. Major labels noticed, and Smith was quickly snatched up by CBS — his eponymous album was released in 1988. Songs like “Two Dollar Novels” and “Love Me Like a Soldier” showed a songwriter who balanced a keen eye for detail with a solid sense of melody and rhythm.
Trouble No More, released in 1990, brought even more national attention, but the album was the epitome of major label serenity. This was safe music designed for background listening. “Midnight Train” was a hell of a song, but it needed a hell of a producer to turn it from coffee house to something riveting and righteous. After the album Little Victories, Smith found himself without a label.
2002’s Sunflower had Smith perfecting his new, small-label vision of a singer/songwriter no longer tethered to folk or country. Songs like “Perfect Moment” and “After All This Time” were confections of a darker, jazzier tunesmith. The freedom to do what he wanted was evident throughout and Sunflower may well be Smith’s best album.
However, albums such as Circo and Field of Crows continued Smith’s transition into a Joe Henry–styled songwriter, a person looking at everyday events with a deeper understanding of the darker details of everyday life. The songs were not pop, folk or country, but some intelligent amalgamation of it all.
Which brings us to Western Skies, Smith’s most recent effort, a piano-based, confessional album that takes on the entirety of Darden Smith’s career. The album spurns light folk or any semblance of jazz or pop, an approach in search of answers for a man approaching 60. Produced as music and a book, Western Skies looks and sounds like a man ready to come to terms with his own legacy or his lack thereof. Songs like “Running Out of Time” and “Turn the Other Cheek” are self-explanatory ruminations of a life gone astray but brought back just in time.
Darden Smith may well be the best songwriter many people have never heard. And he may well be content with connecting with a few brave souls who have hung with him over all of these years. Great music doesn’t necessarily need a huge audience; it just needs great respect.
See him live at Still Austin Whiskey on March 18 for Texas Music’s annual Bands to Watch event.