Darden Smith’s Love Calling charts romantic byways high (the title track) and low (“I Smell Smoke”). The Austin-based songwriter spoke with CMT Edge about evolving as an artist, how an unexpected writing session with Radney Foster changed his life and his elegant new album.
“A love theme seems to be going through a lot of these songs, which is kind of interesting,” Smith says. “Most of my records are more ‘how you ruined my life,’ but this is more about romance. I went through a period that was really good for a while, and most of these songs were written about that time.”
CMT Edge: Describe how the new album took shape.
Smith: I’ve been going to Nashville since around ’94 and co-writing, and I realized that I was putting together all these songs that seemed to fit. I’ve never recorded in Nashville, and I really wanted to make a record there this time. Two people are really responsible for this record happening — Radney Foster and Jon Randall Stewart. Both those guys are so talented and amazing at what they do. About five years ago, I went, “I want to make a record with Jon,” and we’ve been talking about making this record for five years. Finally, I just started putting together songs after my last record, Marathon, ran its course.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
I wrote that song in France. I was going to Paris a lot at one point. Anywhere there’s another language, it can be quite isolating, and that’s great if you’re a writer. You really start living in a bubble. So I would take a nylon string guitar all the time, and I ended up keeping a guitar there for a while. I found myself playing very differently when I was in France. I used my time there as a way to explore different ways to play guitar and different chords and structures and melodies. I was spending a lot of time staring out the window playing guitar, and one day, “Love Calling” came up. I think I had that title around for a while, and the story popped in.
Did you make a conscious decision to evolve as a songwriter?
Absolutely. I mean, I didn’t go there just to evolve my songwriting, but I constantly want to do that. You don’t want to do the same thing over and over. I get bored really quick. I was also, at a point, looking to really stretch myself. For the last five years, I was looking to go somewhere really different with my songwriting, and “Love Calling” and “Distracted” came from that kind of writing. By the same token, some of these songs harken back to when I was first writing. “Medicine Wheel” is a very straight ahead country-folk story song. “Better Now” is a country song. But, yeah, I’m always looking to move forward.
You’ve said “Angel Flight” has been an important song for you.
Yeah, I was playing a concert in Germany at Ramstein Air Base for 60 soldiers who had just come out of Iraq. I was playing at lunch, and they hated me. It was awful. There was no sound system. No one was listening. My thought was, I have nothing in common with these people, and they have nothing in common with me. I don’t know why I’m even here. I was packing up my guitar, and this guy walked up to me and we started talking guitars. I was playing a Collings guitar, which is made here in town, and he knew about Collings. He said, “Oh, my brother-in-law plays Collings. I haven’t played one in about five years.”
He was a Marine and a great guitar player. I said, “Is your brother-in-law a musician?” “Yeah.” “What’s the name of his band?” “It’s BeauSoleil.” His brother-in-law was David Doucet. I was like, “Wow, I know David. I did a gig with him 20 years ago in D.C.” It led this conversation, and I found out we actually had a lot in common.
That guy introduced me to some people at the Texas National Guard, and I had lunch with those guys and found out I had a lot in common with them, too. Amazing connections. I wanted to write a song specifically for the National Guard in town here. We met for lunch at Threadgill’s and after lunch, I would go over to Camp Mabry once a month and just sit and talk with these guys. At one of the meetings, one of them said, “Angel flight.” I said, “Wow, what a great song title. What’s an ‘angel flight’?” They told me that’s when a soldier dies and they fly his body home. That’s an angel flight. I went, “OK, that’s a song.”
How did the song itself take shape?
Well, I was booked and was going to write the song and make a recording, and I was, like, three days overdue. I was in Nashville at Radney’s house, and after dinner, I went into his studio to write the song. I was about a verse and a-half and a chorus into the song, and I was completely stuck. Radney came out into the studio to get a guitar or something, and I said, “Please, please sit down and help me finish this song. I need help.” He sat down, and within 30 minutes, we had the rest of the song written. It’s probably been the biggest thing I’ve been involved with, even with the songs I had on the radio in the ’90s, and it led to Songwriting With Soldiers. Radney put “Angel Flight” on his record Revival, and he did a video that got crazy YouTube views.
Explain the Songwriting With Soldiers program.
I got a phone call from a guy who wanted me to write a theme song for his organization which helps soldiers transition from military to civilian life. I told him, “I can write a theme song for you, but it’ll be really boring.” I’m never able to pull that off successfully. “What I can do is come out and write it with your soldiers.” I’m really curious and like writing songs with people who don’t write songs. You just take their stories and make songs with them. I went out and did this and had this really powerful experience. I realized that there’s a real great project, and that became Songwriting With Soldiers where we use our craft of collaborative songwriting in service to these soldiers.
What’s Radney’s greatest asset as a songwriter?
He’s brilliant with language. Radney understands country song form and knows how to tell a story really well, when to be specific and when to be general. Also, he’s a fantastic singer. Give me a break. His grasp and the ability to really be clear in the language of the song really impress me. Also, he’s really quick. We write really fast together.
What’s fast — 40 minutes or four days?
Well, “Angel Flight” was 30 minutes. “Mine Till Morning” we probably wrote in 45 minutes or an hour. “Better Now” was maybe an hour and a-half. I don’t know what happens when he writes with other people, but with me, it’s fast. When Radney and I write, I usually come in with a title and a melody and chord ideas, so we have something to go on. We’re not starting from scratch.
Do you prefer co-writing or writing solo?
It’s about 50/50 now. I started writing on my own, and the Marathon record I wrote all by myself. It goes back and forth. I really like co-writing for some songs. It’s a lot faster for me usually to write with somebody else. It’s interesting because I find going to someone else with a song, it’s a really good way to keep yourself out of the way of a song. If you only write by yourself, you can get so deep that you can’t even see it anymore. If you have another person there, they can go, “Um, don’t do that.” (laughs)