I’m a lucky guy. Over the years I’ve had the privilege to meet and talk with some truly amazing musicians. I’ve found that they all have two things in common: they are exceedingly creative and, for the most part, possess more than their fair share of talent. The only true differences, at least that I can discern, seem to revolve around how each artist individually approaches their craft and the style in which they choose to express it. There are players with highly technical skills that can blow your hair straight back, while others rely heavily on performance or precision to “lube their lumbar.”
Then, there are those that move in their given direction, much like a journeyman leans into a 40-hour work week. Head down, collar up with “amplified” tools at the ready. Now, imagine if you will, one performer that incorporates all of these dynamics AND a bullhorn—that, my friends, is Preston Smith.
Depending on the locale, the carnival caravan that is Preston Smith ranges from a solo acoustic guitar and harmonica rack to a full-fledged rock ‘n’ roll band full of “crocodiles” and the occasional brass accouterment. In addition, the diversity of music and styles on any given night can run from ballads and standards through the quirks of Indie rhythms to a straight, deep Delta blues.
Preston Smith is so much more than a bluesman, and the music he plays mirrors that. “It’s just gotta have some soul to it, no matter what I do. Either it’s got to have a great lyric if it’s a song I cover, or I kind of become a stylist, taking other peoples music and making it into my own. I blend styles, like a Hank Williams song and put it into a Muddy Waters feel or pick a Muddy Waters song and put it into a Jamaican-Harry Belafonte feel. I transcend the boundaries.
“But now, I’m focused on my own songwriting and it feels like an amalgamation of all the styles I’ve been playing, really. I’ve been such a big fan and audiophile and have so much respect for those earlier musicians and have learned so much from them. It’s like tipping my hat to all my heroes. I try to give that respect and be truthful to it, keep the feeling while adding a little something with it, too.”
Preston writes in what should be called the shotgun approach… “Sometimes when I write, I’ll get an idea, just a title, or a thought that comes first. I can write a song in just five minutes, sometimes in three minutes or two minutes. If I get a strong title and I know what it’s about, I create the script of verses from there. Some songs are done like an essay, a stream of consciousness, with just what I feel about a certain topic. I feel like now, I’m writing songs in color, where I used to write them in black and white.”
A repertoire that now exceeds 600 songs, Smith is his own music library. “I love all these songs and if I pick up a guitar and play some old Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Beatles, or whoever, I know hundreds of these songs and I love them. Ultimately, every time I play one it teaches me something again; they always keep changing. Change a key, make them better, Delta-tune them or something, a Bob Dylan song with a delta tuning.”
Smith’s instrumentation also varies greatly, “Bonnie Raitt called me up on stage to play with her…. she saw my show and liked the Hank Williams and Robert Johnson covers I did. While backstage she told me, ‘I’m going to go sit in with NRBQ and I’m going to call you up and I want you to play some harmonica with me, okay?’ She called me up and I went up there with my bullhorn. And NRBQ was like, ‘Who the hell is this alien?’ and ‘What the hell is with the bullhorn?’
Finally, if you had to describe Preston Smith’s music, how would you do it? “It’s Americana. It’s a melting pot like Americana really is. Not just blues or jazz or anything. I think its true Americana because America is fusion; it’s a fusion of cultures. And my music has Latin in it; I have American Indian in my blood, English, Irish, Mexican, and Scottish. If you look at my record collection it’s mostly African-American. Its fusion man, not jazz type fusion… Americana Fusion.”
Don’t pass up the opportunity to experience Americana Fusion, fresh from the Preston Smith ovens. He makes a rare San Diego appearance this month at Proud Mary’s, Saturday July 30, 7pm. It’s a musical event you won’t soon forget.