Despite an International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Emerging Artist Award under their belts and two accomplished albums behind them, Kenny & Amanda Smith - co-founders of the Kenny & Amanda Smith Band - have not forgotten their roots.
The high and lonesome married singers still love a good old-fashioned 'pick' to the point where this summer, they scheduled a break in their tour to jam and hang out with some old time fiddlers.
Calling from Galax, Va., the Smiths are camping out with a flock of fiddlers, enjoying some all-night picking sessions at the 70th Annual Old Fiddler's Convention.
According to the festival's website, a newspaper item from 1935 states that the convention was dedicated to "keeping alive the memories and sentiments of days gone by and make it possible for people of today to hear and enjoy the tunes of yesterday."
Seven decades later, it's not surprising to learn that this same spirit of togetherness and preservation of old time traditions are still what fuel the fiddle festival and bring bluegrass lovers back year after year.
"Every year, we camp down here for a week," Kenny says. "There is a lot of good music going on, and there is also a lot of camping. Usually, around four or five o'clock in the afternoon, everybody starts pickin'...a lot of times, we'll pick all night long."
"That's sort of how the band got started. Every year, we always looked forward to going to this thing. It was a chance for me to sing with Amanda and all of her friends...it turned into a career move for us."
Hangin' out at this fiddler's fest also turned into a career move for the band's latest addition - mandolin player Jason Robertson. Robertson, who joined the band prior to the recording of "Always Never Enough," recently released on Rebel, is also the group's youngest picker, who grew up near Galax in Giles County, Va.
"He's a young boy we met down here at the Fiddler's Convention," Amanda says. "We met Jason through some friends of ours when all he could do was chop a mandolin. We watched him progress all these years, so it was nice to get him to play with us. He had played with maybe one local group before joining us. So, when our other mandolin player left, he was the first one we called."
Since the release of "Always Never Enough" in July, the group has been ramping up their publicity machine, having made an appearance on both the popular Nashville breakfast TV show Tennessee Mornings with Charlie Chase and Kelly Sutton and gracing the Grand Ole Opry stage for the second time in their young careers.
"We had a good response," says Amanda of the Opry show. "We also played the Ryman, opening for Ricky Skaggs at the end of June and got a standing ovation."
"Always Never Enough" continues the band's bluegrass evolution by showcasing heartfelt harmonies and combining a mix of traditional and modern compositions. The Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley title track kicks off the disc on a memorable note, with Amanda's candy-coated lead vocals singing about a "pillow-top sky." Kenny describes this song as "an identifier for our sound," a sound marked by songs with storied lyrics.
"It starts with the words," Kenny says. "We always look for a strong song ...we like story songs such as 'Danbury Jail' and 'Young Heart'...they are story songs. Then we just go with what we think might fit our sound. From the past two albums, we have got a sound and style that we are going after. We will usually start with two to three songs and then pick the songs that will work with those."
With three albums now under their bluegrass belts, the Smiths admit that they have found some favorite songsmiths that they return to again and again for material.
"We like Becky (Buller), and we always contact her before making a record," Kenny says. "She usually has something that we like...we also like Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford. Most of the people that we contact, it's important for us that the song makes sense...not only does it have a good beat or a good melody, but we like the words most of all."
While the band has penned their own compositions in the past, other than one song their bassist Alan Bartram contributed ("She's On My Mind"), there are no other Kenny and Amanda Smith Band originals.
"We had so many good songs that other people had written that we really didn't need anything else for the album," Kenny reveals. "We have a couple of older songs on there. A good friend of ours has a pretty extensive record collection with a lot of older kind of obscure country songs...so we had a couple of those on there. Mel Tillis' 'Thousand Miles to Go' is one of these. Probably the oldest song on the album though is 'Going Across the Sea'...that goes back a long ways...it's a traditional song. When I was learning how to play the clawhammer banjo, I found that song on a clawhammer banjo record. We arranged it and just took the words and went with it."
"Gulf Stream Dreaming" is one of Amanda's favorite songs on the new disc while she says that "Dig a Little Deeper" was one of the "funnest songs" to record. "It's just one of those songs that you always hear and say: 'I wish I could get hold of a song like that and get to record it,'" she says.
"Always Never Enough" continues the band's musical journey and raises the musical bar even higher for a band that's still in its infancy.
The group genesis occurred as an indirect result of a fateful meeting between Kenny and Amanda following a Lonesome River Band concert in West Virginia in 1995. At the time, Kenny was the band's guitarist, and Amanda was a fan.
The two met, shared a similar taste in faith and bluegrass, and the rest as they say is history. What followed was a marriage and from this union, the band was formed. The band's debut Slowly But Surely" (2001) was met with rave reviews. This was followed up with "House Down the Block" in 2003.
Kenny's history with bluegrass goes back to growing up in Nine Mile, Ind. where this old time music ran in his blood.
"My dad was a fiddler, and my grandpa was a fiddler, and music has been in my family for a long time," says Kenny, a two-time IBMA Guitarist of the Year. "I started when I was four, and my brother started when he was six, so I've always been around it. Nobody in our family made a profession out of it. It's just something they did."
Growing up in West Virginia, Amanda's discovery of bluegrass and her musical maturation took a little longer. "I didn't even own a bluegrass CD until I was out of high school," she says, describing her bluegrass epiphany. "This was not by choice, I was just never around it."
"Nobody played music in my family, but I always sang in church and stuff like that. Then, when I got into high school and I wanted to learn how to play guitar, I started going over to an auction house that had music every third Saturday of the month, which was pretty close to mom and dad's (house)...I heard some bluegrass, and they would have some CDs...some of the first CDs I heard were Alison (Krauss) and Rhonda (Vincent)...once I heard that stuff it interested me real quick and I went out and started buying CDs and going to festivals."
"It's funny because I always listened to old country and a lot of southern gospel, and when I first heard bluegrass, it was so different from those two genres that it didn't take long for me to fall in love with it."
Speaking of falling in love, one wonders what it's like for the bluegrass lovers to mix business with pleasure.
"We don't treat it as a business just because of the guys in the band...it's pretty much our family," Kenny says. "We have wanted to do this since we got married. It's just kind of a dream come true for us. It's a lot better being on the road together because before, when I was in the Lonesome River Band, we were apart a lot."
"It's nice to have each other to lean on for business decisions or things that come up on the road or just trying to deal with being away from home," adds Amanda.
While the band has started to garner a grassroots following and they now have the help of a record label behind them, the pair admit that making a living in the music business is still no easy road.
"It's really tough when you are kind of a new band," Amanda says. "It's getting easier for us each year, but it's still tough as far as gaining your fans and with promoters and stuff and trying to get them to believe in you and book you. We are heading in the right direction though." She adds that CD sales from the band's website are also a big help.
"In the winter months when we don't have many playing jobs, if it wasn't for our website we couldn't survive," Kenny adds. "It gets down to eating mayonnaise sandwiches."