craig smith : liner notes / patrick brayer
When I think of the city of San Bernardino California, I think of a desert dust devil at a yard sale flinging a tattered moo-moo into a sun streaked sky. My suspicion towards divine intervention was once coalesced through that same paradoxical valley of smog and hard wind, amidst the early seventies, when I met a 16 year old Craig Smith. What could be more unlikely, I questioned, seeing the Virgin Mother of Guadeloupe in mud on the door of a Buick Riviera, or an Inland Empire surf rascal with shoulder length blonde hair being in love with, and mastering an Appalachian syncopation, alone and in the dark of his room. I have come forward to give Smith his due credit for the years of working with a clock maker’s precision at his craft, in the humblest of self defined manners. The musical notes are just the residue of the dedication. An applied dedication to create something mysteriously transparent to everything but the heart. That long drawn byproduct is manifest in the commodity called “tone”. Try to steal it and it turns and follows a tumbleweed up the San Gabriels. Segovia had tone, Django Reinhardt had tone, God knows Earl Scruggs lathered with tone. And tone comes from one place, and that place, my life of contemplation tells me, is “the house of process”. The love of the process of music is so much bigger than the music itself, that when the material tries to stand on it’s own, it is almost always considered illusion.
(craig smith, about the time we recorded the ‘cold feelings’ LP (1979) san bernardino, ca. photo by mike brayer)
There was a bohemian coffee house courageously ran by John and Olaya Ingro on Mt. Vernon Street in the ghetto of berdoo that dated back to the early sixties and on into the seventies. It was called The Penny University, and it really was a university to some one like Craig Smith. I can’t stress strongly enough the improbability factor that hovers in a town pulverized with biker bars, truck routes and blunt blue collar sensibilities. I can only suggest today what a rare predetermination it was, that within lottery odds, a receptive child might have access to such musical legends as Son House and Bill Monroe, as well as taking advantage of that same available stage to work out his own conversation within a performance light, no matter how dimly lit.
(Smith won a grammy in 1997 for his part in this tribute compilation to Bill Monroe)
Craig’s early mentor was a colorful five-string character who lived in a commune up along side of the storm-drain/fault-line section of the Inland Empire. His name was Jim Hawkins. he wore a ratty yellow feed store straw hat, he sold guitar strings out of the trunk of his car, smoked an air craft carrier full of cigarettes, and before he died in 1976 at the age of 33, taught a wide eyed Smith that there was something magical in the spirit and the inner most workings of music. I always liked that about Hawkins myself, and together we all saw our first glimpse of how these important lessons can easily be pawned off as eccentricities. The Southern California music scene did in fact have a very strange and underground movement of stringband alchemy going on in and about the psychedelic citrus orchard era of the early 60″s. Groups such as Hawkins’ Poa Pratensis (with mandolin maker John Paganoni), The Hickory Stump Marsh Marmots (with Colonel David Dickey and Ed Neff) and The Dry City Scat Band (with David Lindley, Chris Darrow and Richard Greene) were all accessible entities for early genre establishment. Once again I believe Smith found his way in a bee line for the most sincere portion of the whole movement. It was of such a highly experimental nature that your balance wavered high above it’s original respect for it’s piney wood origins back in the deep and off the grid south of the Carolinas.
(Jim Hawkins, Riverside, CA / photo by June Fraley courtesy of Ruth Fraley Parker)
I witnessed Craig Smith’s dominance over every Golden State five string banjo contest that ever lived. I saw him leave on an airplane at 16 to try out for Charlie Waller’s Country Gentlemen. We even once drank dark wine in the middle of the night on my mother’s grave prior to playing four sets in a tavern in Cucamonga. In other words I had a very good seat and example of how talent can only follow healthy choices. It was at that point I believe, that he discovered the “trinity out”. The rest is about leaping destiny and the three things that life is not built upon, but rooted in. Tone, Timing and Truth. These three type written T’s (TTT) I feel hang in mid-air, in calvary fashion, in the resonating sound chamber directly behind a remo-weather-king pill white banjo head. Craig Smith has already well established his own distinct breed of Tone. Like the reverberation of the above mentioned clock maker, he slept with a metronome under his pillow since he was fifteen. And now he was brave enough to pick up, in a solitary obsession, and move himself closer to his magnetic instinct for the truth. He would not be the first, in any historical stretch, to find the surrounding vicinity of Winston Salem, North Carolina to be the cradle of five string banjoization. Since that move Smith has successfully worked with the brand of musical founders that he never could quite find on the west coast. Not men that were working to re-invent a music, but men that had sweated and suffered to somehow sustain and preserve an original dignity in musical form. Such legends as Charlie Moore and Jim Eanes took him all over the humid south and showed him a stark reality as seen through a tour stained bus windshield and the secret back stage history of bluegrass music.
It is the belief of this project’s producer, Stuart Duncan, that this collection of music should finally seal Craig Smith’s place at the very upper echelon of his chosen profession of “The Granada”. Musicians for years have savored live recordings of Craig’s work, transporting them like some holy cassette grail through airports, through guitar cases, even back stage at The Grand Ole Opry. The praise for his work on Jerry Douglas’ Grammy Award winning album Slide Rule has no doubt seeded more than a buzz of adequate interest. It perfectly sets the stage and supplies a comfortable setting for this circling of the wagon’s of “state of the art neo-primitive acoustic music”. The who’s who theme of backing personnel on this recording reads like an unmistakable history in the making. Jr. Brown, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan and Laurie Lewis all have gathered in the same room with what sounds like an absolute mission.
(patrick brayer and craig smith at the starvation cafe, fontana, ca.)
In the next few years there will be much written about this gentleman’s rise from the white sage and palm lined blacktop to the top of his field in the language of the hearts and flowers fret board inlay. I agree and am happy to only nick the surface, to start a dialogue, and to return to my mortal green tea and cactus gardening. You can rest assured that you have put your power in the right hands of fidelity. Be as kind to someone else as this music is to you and I will want to live in that world.
Patrick Brayer / 1997
(smith is well know for his stellar work with Jerry Douglas (left),Charlie Moore, Jim Eanes, and Laurie Lewis)