BY STEPHEN HU FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
A revolutionary female artist in bluegrass music recently moved to Somerset in Orange County. When Valerie Smith began her career 25 years ago, bluegrass was a very narrow genre based on a tradition started by Bill Monroe in the 1940s. Many fans did not appreciate musicians who tried to bring music into new directions, including female band leaders (as all first-generation artists were male).
“When I got into bluegrass back then, it made people really angry because they didn’t think I sounded bluegrass,” Smith said. “The purists were very unhappy with me at the first IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association]. It was when they were in Owensboro, Kentucky, so that was quite a while ago. I was doing a few shows and people were getting really mad at me and slamming their chairs in front of me and walking away. I will never forget those really difficult 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 for Smith. Growing up in a small town in Missouri, she struggled to do well in school as someone with dyslexia. Music provided an escape from this frustration.
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“I never said that I decided to pursue music, music chose me. … It was difficult for me to understand the world around me upside down. Music was a language with which I was able to understand and communicate and that was something I was good at. When you were dyslexic when I was born there wasn’t much help. They just didn’t get it at all.
With hard work and persistence, Smith managed to score high enough on her SAT to get into the University of Missouri–Kansas City, where she majored in music. She returned to her hometown and began a career as a music teacher. She also married, which resulted in a chance move to Nashville when her then-husband got a job there as an engineer. This rekindled Smith’s desire to become a songwriter and performer.
“I was overwhelmed with the whole Nashville scene,” Smith said. “I always wanted to be an interpreter, but I didn’t know how to do it. It’s a whole social system in Nashville. Everyone knows everyone. I just started hopping on writers’ nights at these different bars, signing myself up on a sheet, getting up and pitching my music. That’s how I met people in Nashville. They started calling me to do writer shows. They started calling me to do writing collaborations. I did demo work for people. It was all so much fun. I’ve met a lot of great Opry legends in town. I met Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall and Garth Brooks. I started being able to work in some of their writing publishing houses.
Although Nashville is primarily known for country music, Smith was drawn to more acoustic sounds, which suited her straight emotional songs. This was before Americana was a genre, so the closest form that matched its style was bluegrass. Smith formed his own band – Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike and recorded his debut album, which was produced by Alan O’Bryant of the Nashville Bluegrass Band. O’Bryant had a lot of bluegrass experience and gave Smith great advice on going his own way.
“I appreciate Alan O’Bryant for sticking to his ideas and saying, ‘That’s a good sound; it’s your sound. We shouldn’t change who we are just because others think we should. There’s a difference between learning and getting better at 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 was ever created that way.”
Smith continued to perform and release music in his own style and grow his following. In 2000, she signed a deal with Rebel Records, which helped increase her distribution and expand her customer base. His band went through many personnel changes over the years with some notable alumni who later became well known in bluegrass circles.
“I’ve had some great people – Chad Graves, Matt Leadbetter, Becky Buller and many more,” Smith said. “A lot of them last about five years. But my current band lasted nine years – Tom Gray, Lisa Kay Howard Hughes, Wally Hughes, Joe Zauner and myself. 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 his album “Clinch Mountain Sweethearts”. The music industry has caught up with his style and his latest album “Renaissance” reached the top 50 of the folk, bluegrass, roots and American country charts.
Her 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 business rhythm. I wanted to come to a place of peace where I could write, have friends, continue to work on my music and release albums. Technology has allowed me to go anywhere I wanted to go while having a business. So I still have Bell Buckle Records. I have more than 13 artists on my list. They’re all fine. I still have my career. I’m still recording, but I can slow down a bit and smell the roses and play for fun.