Making a Scene presents an Interview with Aaron Smith
Aaron Smith’s songs explore the mystery of human experience, searching for the meaning of love, family, heritage, kindness, doubt, and grace. In vignettes infused with an infectious sense of hope and humor, the unlikely heroes of his songs — grandmothers and grandfathers, street preachers and neighbors, the forgotten and lonely — find courage, salvation, and more than a few laughs.
Influenced as much by Flannery O’Connor as John Prine and John Hartford his songs range from witty jazz to pensive, emotive ballads, to southern roots grooves. Timeless, singable melodies and strong rhythms support Smith’s thoughtful lyrics.
Smith became a Kerrville Folk Festival New Folk Finalist in 2016 on just his second try. In 2019, just three years later, he became a winner at New Folk and the BMG Songwriter Showcase at the Power of Music Festival.
The Legend of Sam Davis, a coffee-table compendium of songs, stories, artwork, maps, and family photos telling stories and legends of Newton County Arkansas, is the second and final album from Aaron Davis and the Coal Biters. In 2013, Aaron met percussionist and vocalist Ryan Gentry, and a year later older multi-instrumentalist George Holcomb joined them to complete the group. Aaron Smith and the Coal Biters released their debut album, The Way the World Turns, in 2015. The death of Holcomb at age 76 brought the trio to an end.
Smith goes deeply into his love of unreliable narrators on The Legend of Sam Davis. “When you can’t trust your narrator, emotional context becomes really important. The theme that emerges in all of these stories is the survival of families,” he says. “What families do to ensure the future. How they learn to live with the fall out when ideologies fall short and they still have to find a way forward.”
“It’s impossible not to write autobiographically. Sam Davis lost his faith and sought a way to find it again in a new form. Although he started with a heroic view of himself, at some point you has to accept certain truths about yourself and the world.”
Smith’s musical career has certainly been one of finding a way forward through various seasons of life. He began writing songs on piano in his childhood church, learning the banjo at home, and playing French horn in the high school band. After majoring in French horn in college, Smith played with the North Arkansas Symphony. He then spent several years in Florida where he went through a rock’n’roll phase with a pink paisley Strat, but finally returned to Arkansas, somewhat disillusioned, and took a break from music.
After his return home, Smith’s interest in Ozark culture was renewed when he heard Kelly and Donna Mulhollan from Still on a Hill at a house concert and was struck by the human connection that powers folk music. He wanted to play music, and he wanted to play it like that. By this time, Smith was assisting the elderly and poor in and around Harrison, Arkansas with their insurance needs. The Mulhollans inspired him to listen more closely to the stories of his clients and to put stories like theirs to music.
Soon after, Aaron came under the influence of veteran troubadour Jack Williams. That was a major turning point. Aaron felt accepted in folk circles and felt free to explore any theme that interested him. The gentle guidance of Steve Gillette proved impactful. Smith also co-wrote a number of songs with Lisa Aschmann who inspired him with “the way she looks at the world, looking for traces of the divine even in the smallest things. Even today, writing by myself, she is like a co-writer. So much of what I write, I could not have written without her.”
Smith already has a backlog of songs for the next album. He is writing a lot of jazz lately and narrative fiction, looking for metaphors in science and the natural world.