By STEPHEN HU FOR THE FREE LANCE – STAR
A revolutionary female artist in bluegrass music recently moved to Somerset, Orange County. When Valerie Smith started her career 25 years ago, bluegrass was a very narrow genre based on a tradition started by Bill Monroe in the 1940s. Many fans disliked the musicians who tried to take music in new directions, including female band leaders (as all first generation artists were men).
“When I got close to bluegrass at that time, it made people really angry because they didn’t think I was playing bluegrass,” said Smith. “The purists were very angry with me at the first IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association]. That was when they were in Owensboro, Kentucky, so it was a while ago. I did some shows and people got really mad at me and banged chairs in front of me and walked away. I will never forget those really hard years of rejection and anger from bluegrass audiences. I wasn’t trying to piss them off, I was just doing what I do. “
Overcoming obstacles was nothing new to Smith. Growing up in a small Missouri town, she struggled to be successful in school as a person with dyslexia. Music provided an escape from that frustration.
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“I never say that I have decided to devote myself to music, the music has chosen me. … It was difficult for me to understand the world around me backwards. Music was a language I could wrap my mind around and communicate with and it was something I was good at. When you were dyslexic when I was born, there wasn’t much help. They simply didn’t understand it at all. “
With great effort and perseverance, Smith was able to score high enough on her SAT to enter the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where she majored in music. She returned to her hometown and started her career as a music teacher. She also got married, which resulted in a fortuitous move to Nashville when her then-husband found a job there as an engineer. This rekindled Smith’s desire to become a songwriter and performer.
“I was overwhelmed by the whole Nashville scene,” Smith said. “I still wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t know how to do it. It’s a whole social system in Nashville. Everyone knows everyone. I just started jumping into writers’ nights at these different bars, recording myself on a sheet, getting up and introducing my music. That’s how I met people in Nashville. They started calling me to do scriptwriter shows. They started calling me to do collaborations in writing. I did some demonstration work for people. This was all a lot of fun. I met many great Opry legends around town. I met Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall and Garth Brooks. I started working in some of their writing publishing houses ”.
Although Nashville is primarily known for country music, Smith was drawn to more acoustic-based sounds, which suited her direct emotional songs. This was before American was a genre, so the closest form to her style of hers was bluegrass. Smith formed her band, Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, and recorded her first album, produced by Alan O’Bryant of the Nashville Bluegrass Band. O’Bryant had a lot of bluegrass experience and gave Smith some good advice on how to go his own way.
“I appreciate Alan O’Bryant for staying true to his guns and for saying, ‘This is a good sound; this is your sound We shouldn’t change who we are just because others think we should. There is a difference between learning and improving in your craft, and changing your craft to fit another person’s narrative of who they think you should be, ‘”Smith said.” He said nothing great is ever was created that way. “
Smith continued to perform and release music in his style and build his audience. In 2000, she signed a deal with Rebel Records, which helped increase her distribution and expand her following. Her band has undergone many staff changes over the years with some notable alumni who later became famous in bluegrass circles.
“I’ve had some wonderful people: Chad Graves, Matt Leadbetter, Becky Buller and many others,” said Smith. “Many of them last about five years. But my current band lasted nine years: Tom Gray, Lisa Kay Howard Hughes, Wally Hughes, Joe Zauner and me. They are very nice people, very professional, talented and fun ”.
Smith now runs his own label, Bell Buckle Records, which releases music by Smith and other artists. She was nominated for a Grammy for her duet with Ralph Stanley in 2001 on her album “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts”. The music industry has caught up with her style and her most recent album “Renaissance” made it into the top 50 of the American folk, bluegrass, roots and country charts.
His recent move to Somerset was prompted by a desire to live in a beautiful rural area and reconnect with people outside of Nashville.
“I needed peace and quiet,” Smith said. “I needed to get away from the thrust of the business. I wanted to come to a peaceful place where I can write, have friends, still work on my music and release albums. Technology allowed me to go wherever I wanted to go and still have a business. So I still have Bell Buckle Records. I have over 13 artists on my roster. Are all well. I still have my career. I keep recording, but I can slow down a little, smell the roses and play for fun. “