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Valerie Smith follows her dreams

By John Lupton, July 2000

She didn't know it at the time, but a turning point in Valerie Smith's later musical career - maybe even the birth of that career - took place on her eighth birthday, while traveling with her family in South Dakota.

"I had a dream," says the Tennessee resident. "It was in the morning, that my grandpa had died, and the dream in the song is an exact description of what had happened. It kind of haunted me for a long time that my grandpa had died that morning, and I had had that dream."

The song she's speaking of, as she talks from the bus taking her to Dollywood, where she and her band Liberty Pike are a mid-July attraction, is "Sweeter Field Of Clover," a tune from her new Rebel release "Turtle Wings" that she wrote with help from her husband Kraig Smith and Nashville Bluegrass Band's Alan O'Bryant. He also produced her debut, "Patchwork Heart."

Smith's version of Gillian Welch's "Red Clay Halo" from that first album became an instant hit on bluegrass radio across the country, and before long she and her newly formed band were making the festival rounds.

Like "Red Clay Halo," "Sweeter Field Of Clover" is a hopeful, optimistic view of the passing that awaits us all, but as Smith tells it, the song was a long time in the writing. Her dream haunted her for years, but it remained a childhood memory until she and and her husband visited the Mark Twain homestead in Hannibal, across Missouri from her home town of Holt near Kansas City.

On seeing a lone oak tree in a field on the grounds, her dream came rushing back, but this time with snatches of melody and lyrics that eventually became a song which, once written, was filed in her portfolio as more of a keepsake than an album candidate, even when she and O'Bryant began to choose songs for the new album.

"I wasn't going to bring that to the table, I figured it was just too personal. I didn't know if people would be really comfortable with that song."

Fortunately, although she says that she and O'Bryant tend to think along the same lines - a key factor in the artistic success of both albums - in this case O'Bryant disagreed.

"Sweeter Field Of Clover" became one of the highlights of "Turtle Wings," again striking some of the same chords with listeners that "Red Clay Halo" did - an emotional song that dealt with death, yet in a positive, non-morbid way.

There's much more on "Turtle Wings," of course, including the title cut, a Tom Roznowski song that speaks to all who are tired of watching the hares race ahead of the rest of us.

"The lyrics got me more than anything...it's a song about feeling like you're moving slower than the whole world around you sometimes. I move slow, and I am like a turtle. I do move slow. I think that everybody feels like someone's doing something more than the next person beside them...we've just got to get control of that, and just be proud that we're turtles sometimes and be OK with that aspect of our personalities."

"Patchwork Heart" featured three songs by one of her favorite writers, Sarah Majors, and there are two more on "Turtle Wings," including "Someday Came Today," done with an acoustic arrangement that highlights Smith's ability to comfortably straddle both bluegrass and mainstream country.

"I'm a big Sarah Majors fan, she's extremely talented, and I rarely ever get a song that's not well-crafted and written from her. I think what she has to say in her songs is how we all kind of feel at one time in our life or another."

"Turtle Wings" is clearly not a clone of its predecessor. For one thing, although many of the same studio musicians appear on both, the new album features several cuts with Liberty Pike (Shelia Wingate, bass; Travis Alltop, guitar; Allen Watkins, banjo; Andy Leftwich, mandolin) that give a strong sense of what it's like to see them on stage.

It wasn't always a sure thing that she would eventually become one of the most refreshing talents to come to Nashville in years. As a teenager in Holt, she dreamed of being a country singer, inspired by the likes of Emmylou Harris, Bill Monroe, George Jones, Rose Maddox and many others, but after an early fling at the business, she found herself studying music at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

After graduation, it looked like she was settling into marriage and a teaching job, when fate intervened in the form of a business transfer for her husband to, of all places, Nashville.

With the music mecca so near, Smith began showing up at the clubs and songwriter circles. She soon became a regular at the Bell Buckle Tavern operated by J. Gregory Heinike, who became her manager.

After trudging through a snowstorm to O'Bryant's house to meet him and convince him to produce her debut ("Bring me some milk and bread," she says he told her), her career was off the ground and flying at full speed.

Smith initially released the album on her own, but Rebel Records, the respected Virginia bluegrass label, eventually started distributing it. Rebel also signed aboard for "Turtle Wings."

"I look at my music as a 'painting' of the environment that influenced my expression of sound...it is never too late to be influenced or grow as an artist. I went to bluegrass festivals in the South and studied the music, so I could learn to produce the sound I had fallen in love with, music that comes from the depths of one's soul. My music is a mixture of country, folk, blues and bluegrass. The songs are simple and direct, reflecting experiences that I believe are common to us all. The songs rule the sound."

Clearly, women have come a long way in bluegrass, but what of the future?

"I think women in bluegrass are headed in a really positive direction...as short a time as I've been in it, I feel like it's growing. I find that a lot of young girls are saying 'I want to sing bluegrass, I want to do that,' and all you can do is encourage them and say 'learn as much as you can and enjoy it, don't be afraid to step forward' and hope that the next generation can be even stronger."