or Kenny and Amanda Smith, 2003 was a year of excitement and anticipation as they recorded and looked forward to releasing their debut on Virginia-based Rebel Records, "House Down The Block" (out Jan. 20).
An added surprise came in the fall when they won the Emerging Artist Award at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards in Louisville.
"We were very excited," Amanda says, enjoying time off the road at home in the Blue Ridge of southern Virginia. "That award could have gone any way, to any of those bands. They were all good. We were really honored and surprised to get the award. We were very much excited when they called our name. We really weren't expecting that at all."
Kenny chimes in, "It's a springboard for us to sort of fuel the fire. It was definitely good for us to do that because a lot of people took note of what we were trying to do. But being a new band, we were floored that we actually got nominated for that award, and then to win it, was something else."For this husband and wife duo, the award and album are new mileposts in a personal and professional partnership that began in 1995, when Amanda (now 28) and her parents took a trip down the road from their Davisville, West Va. home to catch a bluegrass doubleheader.
"It was (the) Lonesome River Band and IIIrd Tyme Out," she recalls. "We watched the show and, of course, Kenny was with the Lonesome River Band...I was really impressed with his guitar playing. After the show, I went up to him and talked to him and gave him a cassette I had made - it was like a country tape - and it had my phone number in it. I told him to listen to it and to call if he had any suggestions or any advice. He called me the next day, and we went out a month after that. We dated, I guess, about a year, and then we got married in November of 1996."
Kenny's reputation as a standout bluegrass flatpicker with a distinctive style was well established from his work with the LRB and from his previous stint in the band of Alabama songstress Claire Lynch. Amanda was a somewhat lesser known quantity as a vocalist, but the new album will no doubt introduce her to new fans as a singer with the same kind of clarity and strength as Lynch and another singer whom she acknowledges as an inspiration, Alison Krauss.
"Growing up, I listened to a lot of Southern gospel, the older gospel and a lot of the older country. I listened to a lot of Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton and all of them. I really didn't hear any bluegrass until I was in high school, and a friend let me listen to an Alison Krauss CD. I started buying some bluegrass and a lot of the female artists - I bought Alison's and Claire's."Kenny grew up in Indiana, though his parents were from Tennessee, moving to the Fort Wayne area a couple of years before Kenny's birth in 1967.
"Dad moved up north. That's where all the jobs were, he ended up landing a job there," he says, adding that music was a family thing. "My brother plays banjo, and we started playing pretty early - I was four, and he was six when we started playing. My dad was a fiddler, and my grandpa was a fiddler, so we were pretty much around the music a lot. I learned how to play from these banjo and fiddle contests. I used to back up my brother, and if we went to a contest and a fiddle player or banjo player needed someone to back them up, I'd back them up on guitar. So that's what trained my ear as far as hearing the changes and stuff."
The seeds of his own picking style took root when he saw Norman Blake on a PBS special and acquired a couple of Blake's records. As his interest in bluegrass grew, he went to the local library to find out what bluegrass records might be available for checkout. He found exactly one, the 1975 debut of J. D. Crowe with his band, the New South, featuring a lineup that included young hotshots Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas and Tony Rice.
It was Rice, in particular, who drew the attention of the young Indiana guitarist, and he was far from the first to be captivated by Rice's jazz-influenced "power licks." Unlike many, though, who tried to copy Rice's style, note-by-note, Smith was anxious to put his own personal stamp on his music.
"At the time I was developing my style, everybody was playing like Tony, so I really tried to do the opposite of what sounded like Tony and came up with what I thought sounded totally different. I was trying to come up with something new all the time."
The attention he was garnering from his work with Claire Lynch and Lonesome River earned him entry to that upper echelon of flatpickers - legends like Doc Watson, Clarence White, Dan Crary, Blake and Rice, as well as younger, contemporary talents like Bryan Sutton and Peter McLaughlin, pickers with the rare talent to pick not only fast, but clean - every note gets its chance to be heard and savored.