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It's happening again for Jack Smith

By Jon Johnson, May 1999

As tempting as it might have been at times to place Jack Smith in the "Whatever happened to...?" files in the 11 years since he released his last album (a 1988 release on Flying Fish), there have been just enough reports of Smith's live performances in and around Providence, R.I. during the years to dispel any notion he had hung up his rock 'n' roll shoes for good.

The fact is that Jack Smith never went anywhere, though he did scale back his commitment to touring in 1991. In spite of that, though, Smith, 54, always maintained a following that wanted to hear him return to the studio and release a new album.

"I kind of rolled it back a bit," says Smith during a phone interview from his Rhode Island home. "I decided that I didn't want to do it for a living at the rate that it was going. I never stopped doing it, but I started playing less frequently and doing other things to earn money."

"Through all of those years I met so many people who said, 'Jack, you ought to do a record...' So I did. And yet it really wasn't a rockabilly record."Indeed, all of Smith's records on various labels since the mid-'70's have been aimed at a rockabilly/rock 'n' roll market, but his latest, "Can't Help Myself" on the New Jersey-based Run Wild label, is a departure for Smith - a hardcore country album.

Co-produced by Smith's longtime friend Bill Kirchen and Jack and his wife Mary, the album only occasionally exhibits elements of the rockabilly sound that Smith and his band the Rockabilly Planet have been known for since the mid-'70's.

Smith says that though the next album may include a few more rockabilly numbers, the move was a natural one for a man of his years.

"It's an unusual thing, rockabilly. You talk to ('50's Sun recording artist) Sonny Burgess or all those cats who did that music. They never thought they were doing rockabilly. They thought they were doing rock 'n' roll and country. If I do a show, it (still) consists of a great deal of rockabilly. But I found that at my age my writing tended to become more in line with my age. It became very difficult when I began writing those songs to put myself 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."

"I've written five songs (for the next record), and as I'm writing I'm finding myself to be leaning again toward the more mature themes, and it's tending to be more country. I want to do about three or four real rockabilly songs, but I want to make sure that I can get those rhythms out of myself again."

Smith first met Kirchen in the late '80's when Kirchen was playing a reunion tour with his '70's band, Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. "We went upstairs in the dressing room, and there they all were. We all got real tight; Kirchen and I in particular since we both share a lot of the same country interests and personal interests."

"The new album was originally going to be produced by Dave Alvin (who Smith has known since 1982), and at the time I wanted to record, he was also having to do The Derailers' album. I was going to postpone it, but then he ran into Kirchen, and he said, 'Why don't you think about producing it?'"

Though Alvin ended up not producing the album, he contributed liner notes and co-wrote one song, "Hardtown," with Smith and guitarist Jerry Miller.

Kirchen also added some tremendous guitar work to 7 of the album's 13 songs. "Can't Help Myself" also features Smith's regular band, the Rockabilly Planet, which includes guitarists Bill Coover and Jerry Miller, bassist Rory MacLeod, and drummer Doug Hinman.

Smith adds that the next record will be produced once again by Kirchen and will be recorded in Virginia, unlike "Can't Help Myself," which was recorded in Rhode Island. "I'm in a quandary right now as to how we'll be able to do this; whether I can get all of my guys down there at the same time. If I can't, I may end up using Bill's band."

Smith's country roots run as deep as those of rock 'n' roll. "My dad was born and raised in Texas. His influences were my influences. I'd hear Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and Bob Wills. On the other hand, he would also take me to Providence. I was maybe five, and we couldn't get into this club but people came there like Brook Benton and Dinah Washington, and we'd sit in the trunk of his 1949 Ford eating raw onion sandwiches, and he'd give me a little teeny glass of beer. And we'd sit there on Sundays listening to the music coming out of that club."

Though Smith had sung occasionally through his teenage years, he never seriously considered a career in music until about 1974, when his wife encouraged him to keep a Martin guitar that he had purchased cheaply from a hitchhiker that he had planned on turning around and reselling for a profit. Convinced to do so by his wife, Smith took lessons and ended up forming the original version of the Rockabilly Planet a short time later.

But Smith wasn't exactly proidigious, having only three previous releases.

Smith has been gratified by the reaction to the new record so far and is planning on expanding his performance schedule to promote the album.

"I find myself now doing gigs that I wouldn't normally have done. I'm going to go to New York City, which I really had no interest in doing, but now the record's there, and it's seeming to get a good response. I'm getting some top 40 country stations here. They're playing 'King of the Show,' 'Nothing Takes the Place of You' (a Touissant McCall cover), (and) 'All Through.' Just in Rhode Island and Connecticut, but I never even thought those people would be interested."

"If a record goes out there and is selling so well that it can support me and my band, then I'm willing to tour 200 nights per year. I love to play. Someone asked me, 'Gee, Jack, at your age why are you still playing?' Something's missing if I don't play. I literally have to do it. And I'm going to play more because of the record."