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Jack Smith returns to rockabilly

By Jon Johnson, January 2001

KIt's funny how an artist sometimes plans Hon making one album and ends up making a different one instead. Case in point...Providence-based rockabilly artist Jack Smith.

IFollowing the release of his 1999 straight-up country album "Can't Help Myself," he initially planned on following it up with another country album.

Two years later, that follow-up emerged and, as it turns out, it's not the Scountry album expected. In fact, "Cruel Red," released on the New Jersey-based Run Wild label that had also released "Can't Help Myself," is a rockabilly album.

"Cruel Red" marks a return to rockabilly for Smith, a genre in which he had not recorded since a self-titled 1989 album on the Flying Fish label, though Smith and his band, the Rockabilly Planet, have always based their live shows around a primarily rockabilly repertoire.

Interestingly, the 1989 release and the new album - though both clearly rockabilly - are rather different in approach. Whereas the Flying Fish album owed a sizable debt to '50's rockabilly (even including a then-rare guest appearance from Rock 'n' Roll Trio guitarist Paul Burlison), the new disc is far more contemporary in approach. If a comparison has to be made, think equal parts Chris Isaak and Dave Alvin-era Blasters (a particular favorite of Smith's).

"In my earlier days, I was maybe more influenced by the guys that started the whole thing," says Smith, 56, in a telephone interview from his home in Rhode Island. "As time has gone by we kind of rely on ourselves now. We don't hear Elvis Tat every note, or Scotty Moore, or Cliff Gallup or Paul Burlison. We hear ourselves now."

In a 1999 interview, Smith said that as he was getting older, it was harder to put himself "in the position of being 19 and not having a waist and having tons of hair. Dave Alvin said to me one time that your themes begin to mature as you do."

"What I said then was true," says Smith today, when asked about his original plans for the new album. "Other than 'Cruel Red,' which was a real car that I did have when I was in high school, these (songs) are things that really happened. 'The Window' was written about the first time I saw Mary (Smith's wife). 'Papa Told Mama' was about my father leaving. 'Sometimes' is about a conversation I had with my mother after my father left. Most every one of those songs on the record, other than the cover (Eddie Zack's "I'm Gonna Roll and Rock"), were (based on) some kind of true experience."

"I think the songs I wrote for this particular record came out better this way. Sometimes you just feel better letting things take their course."

Unfortunately for fans outside of southern New England, Smith stopped touring nationally in 1991 and today confines his performances to the Providence area, with an occasional show in Boston or New York City; a pity given Smith's tremendous onstage charisma and his rock-solid band, including Bill Coover and Jerry Miller, one of the truly great guitar tag teams working in rockabilly today.

"At this particular point in time, we don't have the great desire to tour," says Smith. "Fortunately, we're able to sell enough records to make it worthwhile for everyone. Maybe because for 13 years we did go out there on a regular basis."

Having played rockabilly since the mid-'70's, Smith has seen a huge increase in the style's popularity over the past 25 years with mixed results.

"When we first started doing this in the '70's, there were maybe 80 bands in Tthe country. I'd say there are probably five times that now or more. A lot of young people send us their CDs, and I listen to them. I like them. They kind of inspire me (by) the fact that people are still making that music."

"(But) quite frankly, I think that there are so many bands - and so few places to play - that we're almost putting ourselves out of business. For so many of us that could do this for a living, the financial situation has become ridiculous."

Given his recent track record in predicting what his future records will sound like, Smith is hesitant to commit to a style at this point. "I'm writing right now. I don't know what it is, but I've had this surge lately. But don't ask me what they're going to come out like. I just know what they sound like when I'm playing them here."