August 1, 2018
Jim Drake’s Entertainment Blog
Real life blues: Jimmy Smith figuring out the next step
Once upon a time, there was a band called The Gourds. Based in Austin, these guys got together in 1994, and for the next 19 years, managed to tour, make 10 studio albums, generate a good fan base, have their music played on TV shows HBO documentaries, and land a gig on the storied Austin City Limits show in 2006.
Unfortunately, the band broke up in 2013.
Jimmy Smith, the Gourds’ bass-player and longtime band member, became wary of the Austin music scene and he and his family decided to relocate to the Northwest, Missoula MT, to be exact, a few years ago. Putting emphasis on trying to give his kids exposure to a more rural lifestyle, and giving them opportunities that he just didn’t see feasible with the Austin scene, gave me a chance to reflect on the myriad of difficulties a musician must face when your longtime band calls it day. The musical change, the change from a touring schedule, the financial life change - must be quite overwhelming. I got a chance to talk to Jimmy Smith last week, as he’ll be visiting Hood River on Aug. 3, playing at the River City Saloon. We talked some about his new “power-duo” format, and some about his songs, and even some about his time in The Gourds, who had an early connection with the town of Missoula when the band was starting out.
But what I really think came out of the interview, was something on the order of how musicians cope with change, and how do they have to step back and ask themselves “how am I going to survive without the (band) that I was dependent on?”
It’s a hard question, and for Jimmy Smith, part of the answer seems to be taking it step by step.
Interview with Jimmy Smith
How would you describe your music to someone not familiar with your old band the Gourds?
“Well, it’s definitely stripped down, but the duo puts out as much noise as a three piece band. I have to admit, it’s low overhead, which is kind of key, because it’s almost impossible to financially run with a proper rhythm section, so I cut the drummer out of the picture by learning how to play the foot-drum. Once I got control of that , I think that was the biggest green light I’ve had post-Gourds.
I tried to get a band together after we went on hiatus, but we couldn’t make enough money to keep it afloat, and everyone kind of saw the writing on the wall, and pursued other interests, so that’s kind of what’s going on,” Smith said.
“I was playing solo with an electric guitar, which I thought was a step up from the average singer-songwriter touring around with an acoustic. There’s nothing wrong with that, I just wanted to have things a little more punchy, and a little more rythmically interesting, I guess. But, without the bass, it just wasn’t full enough. I just kept going around solo, as much as I could, playing the gigs I could get, and I was kind of holding out for the right guy, or girl, or right person to kind of run into and get this power duo, which I guess we’re calling it, going.
Who are you playing with?
“It’s this guy Pat McKay, and he lives in Missoula, where I reside now. He’s been playing here since 1989, he’s had a musical presence here playing in bands like The Ramen, Cold Beans and Bacon, plus he played with his friend Charlie who played harmonica, and they had a blues duo. I ran into him and we decided to give it a try playing together, there really wasn’t much too it, (laughs). So we carved out some time to practice and see what we could come up with, and it turned out to be a really good fit. We’ve been together since November of 2017.
Has your move from Austin to Montana changed the way you’ve written songs or has the lifestyle change impacted your music in any way?
“We’re still uphill’in it, and we’re almost settled. Austin is kind of a utopian place, I moved there in 1989, and it had all the things you want as a rock and roller, and we managed to get The Gourds rolling there.
We made a lot of good friends and connections and made the scene into, and that was something that I’ll never see again.
But that’s not discouraging to me, that’s just kind of the way things turned out to be. I’ve seen so many of my heros playing the clubs that we used to play, and they’re the ones that should be playing the 1500 seaters or more.
Everyone’s taken a hit, you know what I mean, but the quality of life in Austin, like a lot of places, for me, went downhill, and all the iconic places that we used to play have kind of gone away. The quality of life, especially for my kids, we had to get them out of there because there wasn’t much for them to do, with the 8 month long summer, and the 24-7 gridlock traffic. My kids now have some wilderness action and Missoula seems to be the right fit.
The Gourds used to come up here once a year for 10 years, maybe 12, so when it came time to figure out a place to settle, Missoula was on top of the heap.
I’ve got a four date Texas tour coming up in September and I can’t wait to get back to Austin to play. It’s been two years since I’ve been back, and I can’t wait to see everybody again.
This will be your second or third time visiting the Gorge, are you glad to be coming back? “ Yes, we just got out of a Colorado run, and the routing was a little funky, so this upcoming itinery looks a little better. I also ate some chineese food in Billings that ripped my guts out, so stay away from that - there’s a travel tip for you (laughs).
“Oh yes, I think we did play at the Double Mountain Brewery last time. Pat’s got this old friend, he’s from Amarillo, Wrayal, who works for Double Mountain, and he’s a wildman.
I think I had the best breakfast down there, there’s a bar on the edge of town, and got a $10 rib eye and a bloody mary. I was a happy dude. So that’s Pat McKay’s connection, and I just ran into that crew on the last tour. They go way back to Amarillo. They were wild. I was a little wild, but not like that. That was cool.
Could you choose a song and tell us what it means, why you play it and why it’s in the set?
“We haven’t got to the stage of writing original music yet, and that’s the next hurdle. We’ve been playing a bunch of Gourds songs that I wrote. In that band, Kevin (Russell) wrote half and I wrote half, so we’ve been playing the oldies, I guess.
If I was gonna pick one, I’d have to go with one that I wrote in the next band I was in after the Gourds, called The Hard Pans, which had Claude Bernard (who was in The Gourds), and Mark Creaney who did sound and managed for The Gourds.
We made a record called “Budget Cuts,” and that was an indie, DIY kind of thing we did in my garage, on a reel to reel 8-track. We mixed it and produced it all ourselves, and I was really happy with it, it was a record I always wanted to make.
Anyway, it had song called “Mount Bullsh&%” that we’re playing right now. We’ve kinda changed it up rhythmically, it’s kinda funky on the record, it’s kind of an hommage to The Minutemen. Not that the minutemen are funky, but they do have these momments where they do funk-out, accidentally. We didn’t do it on purpose, but we recorded it that way and a friend of mine, who’s a critic, says this sounds just like the Minutemen, if they were funky, and I said “wow, that’s the biggest compliment that I’ve had in a long time.”
Despite that, I can’t really pull that off on footdrums, so we kind of swung it, so we’re swinging it now, and it’s taken on a new personality.
What is it about? It’s about the disapointment of a band, you know I thought it was as good as it was gonna get, and the band goes down for bad reasons, and then having to go do this all over again, back at the ground floor, you know what I mean?
“I mean, I was definitely going to stand up again and try again, because I’m a lifer, and the only thing I’m really gonna do is climb back up Mount Bullsh*# again. It’s really about that struggle. So, that ong and a few others are hitting really good, and we’re playing a lot of covers, we’re really trying to enjoy ourselves.
What kind of covers are you gravitating toward?
“Oh, we’re all over the map. He’s from Texas, so he’ll sing Tea for Texas, and I’ll sing Soul Man. It’s pretty schizoid. We’re just trying to have fun and make a living.
Pat McCay has a day job of interior/exterior painting, and I’ve been going on jobs with him, painting and caulking, doing primer, etc. So I guess I kind of have a day job now, but it’s not like I have a boss to answer to (laughs).
That’s why I called the band Smith and McKay All Day. We’re not going to get anyone else, we’re going to try and make this work.
It’s definitely a different world now, even from back when the Gourds were active, with the internet, and so many other musicians trying to make a living. I’m happy with just getting the gigs that I am playing, and it’s good to be happy with that.
Can you tell a story of playing a show with the Gourds that stood out?
“I’ll tell you why Missoula was special - we got booked with our first Northwest/West Coast tour, and it was long one. We had driven up from Austin to Moscow, Idaho, which was a long trip. Anyway, we made it to this place in Missoula called “Jays Upstairs,” and we got billed as “Arizona Hardrock,” which was a total communication breakdown, which was funny.
We laughed, and loaded upstairs to the gig, and then we find out this bar was a heavy metal bar, where all kinds of heavy metal dudes must have hung out. So, we set up, did a soundcheck, but not one person came through the door. We were all set up, so we just kind of made a practice out of it, and played for our friends that came with us, and the doorman and the soundguy and the bartender. That was about 1998.
Fast forward 10 years, we came back to Missoula, and we played the River Roots Festival, where they just turn the whole downtown into a venue, and we headlined that, and we played for 5,000 people. So, going from zero persons to 5,000 at a show 10 years later, just off the top of my head, that would be the epitomy of the Gourds.
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