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Tim: Preston Smith - The Real Deal

Preston Smith
The Real Deal

By T.E. Mattox

'm a lucky guy. Over the years I've had the privilege to meet and talk with some truly amazing musicians. To a person, they've all had two things in common. All have been exceedingly creative and for the most part, possessed more than their fair share of talent. The only true differences, at least that I can discern, seem to revolve around how each individually approaches their craft and the style in which they choose to express it. There have been players with highly technical skills that can blow your hair straight back, while others rely heavily on performance or precision to 'lube your lumbar.'

Then there are those that move in their given direction much like a journeyman leans into a 40-hour work week. Head down, collar up with 'amplified' tools at-the-ready. Now imagine if you will, one performer that incorporates all of these dynamics AND a bullhorn…that my friends, is Preston Smith.

One of my favorite memories from the Preston Smith scrapbook wasn't a planned performance or scheduled gig. It actually came in the middle of Sunday Brunch at our favorite local bistro. While enjoying a leisurely meal with Preston and a small group of friends and neighbors, the restaurant staff began making a fuss over the table immediately behind us.

As we turned heads, collectively as one, the waitressing crew was surrounding an elderly patron, smothering her with hugs, kisses and well-wishes. When our server brought coffee, she informed us this woman was a café regular and today was her 102nd birthday. Again, as one, we all turned our heads in her direction but this time we joined in the revelry and accolades along with most of the other customers.

Preston Smith
Courtesy of Preston Smith

A balloon with 102 emblazoned across it suddenly appeared on the back of her chair and words of praise and encouragement came from every table. As I turned back to my few remaining home fries, I noticed Preston was missing. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him coming back into the eatery carrying his guitar. I'm thinking this is going to be a little different.

Preston pulls a chair right up in front of the birthday girl, whose cheeks are turning rosier by the moment. I hear him ask her if she has a favorite song and without hesitation she responds, 'Pennies from Heaven.' Pres smiles, strums two or three chords and begins to sing quietly just for her, 'Oh, every time it rains, it rains pennies from heaven.' I look at the woman; she's wide-eyed, grinning from ear-to-ear and I could swear she's looking younger with every refrain. As the rest of the clientele begin to recognize what's going on, the restaurant becomes totally still. Even the fry cooks are peering out the food pass-through window. '…if you want the things you love, you gotta' have showers,' Preston sings, oblivious that the entire place is frozen in its tracks. He's singing for an audience of one. 'They'll be pennies from heaven, for you and me.' As he finishes the song, quiet applause ripples through the building.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Preston Smith Show. Expect the Unexpected.

Depending on the locale, the carnival caravan that is Preston Smith can go from a solo acoustic guitar and harmonica rack, to a full-fledged rock and roll band full of 'Crocodiles' and the occasional brass accouterment. And the diversity of music and styles on a given night can run from ballads and standards through the quirk of Indie rhythms to a straight, deep Delta blues.

Preston Smith is so much more than a bluesman, and the music he plays mirrors that. "It's just gotta' have some soul to it, no matter what I do. Either it's got to have a great lyric if it's a song I cover, or I kind of become a stylist, taking other peoples music and making it into my own. I blend styles, like a Hank Williams' song and put it into a Muddy Waters feel or pick a Muddy Waters song and put it into a Jamaican-Harry Belafonte feel. Transcend the boundaries.

But now, I'm focused on my own songwriting and it feels like an amalgamation of all the styles I've been playing, really. I've been such a big fan and audiophile, and have so much respect for those earlier musicians and have learned so much from them. It's like tipping my hat to all my heroes. I try to give that respect and be truthful to it, keep the feeling while adding a little something with it, too. Ultimately all the great musicians were innovators, even if you think of somebody as traditional as Muddy Waters. At that time that was considered psychedelic blues because it was the first electric band."

"I feel like now, I'm writing songs in color...
where I used to write them in black and white."

---- Preston Smith

Preston writes in what should be called, the Shotgun approach… "Sometimes when I write; I'll get an idea, just a title or a thought that comes first. I can write a song in just five minutes, sometimes in three minutes or two minutes. If I get a strong title and I know what it's about, I create the script of verses from there. I've written so many songs now, I rhyme almost naturally. I've learned so many…hundreds and hundreds of songs and written hundreds, that I have more of a songwriting vocabulary to draw on now days."

If there is one constant (the word 'obsession' fits nicely here as well) in the life of Preston Smith, it has got to be his ongoing study in word craft and setting lyrics to music.

"Some songs are done like an essay, a stream of consciousness; with just what I feel about a certain topic. More and more I put myself, like an actor, in someone's situation, whether it's mine or something I observed. I'm writing a song right now called, the 'Murder of Medgar Evers,' about the civil rights worker. In retrospect, I was looking at this history book and I found that everything around Medgar Evers revolved around the letter 'M.' Like he lived in Mound Bayou and his wife was named Myrlie and it happened in Mississippi and they had a March in the Morning…everything is m, m, m….. I haven't finished that song, but wow, there are so many M's. And that summer of '63.

Now days I've opened it up; still rhyming, but more into alliteration…like a whole new tool. I've written about forty or fifty songs just in the last few months. I feel like now, I'm writing songs in color, where I used to write them in black and white."

cover of Preston Smith's That Real Feel CD
Courtesy of Preston Smith

With seven albums under his belt, Smith is always working on the next CD. "Some of the songs will have a very delta-singer-songwriter kind of Dylan meets Muddy Waters or Al Green. And then some of them will have a little bit more of a Motown, funky, Sly Stone kick with horns and stuff." His aim, "a nice blend, I don't want it to be all sad and lonely, it's got to have some kickers on there." A philosophy Preston lives by… "Brownie McGhee made a great statement I thought, which was something to the effect that everybody thinks the blues, is associated with down-heartedness and things like that. They don't realize the music of blues is actually about being uplifted and going beyond your blues. Where it came from was a very down-trodden time for a down-trodden people and it was about forgetting your cares. To me, it's music of joy really, even though it sounds so sad sometimes. I think any great music is…it's that dichotomy of the joy with the sadness." But back to the new CD… "Most of the tunes are about the 'ins and outs' of love. But there'll be a couple of 'social observations.' In the past ten years the country has changed so much and everybody is questioning everything."

From the Top

"Top 40 AM radio," was Preston's original influence and musical inspiration. "Back then AM radio for me was like a free-for-all. You could hear everybody from Jimi Hendrix to Frank Sinatra in any given moment. And it was requested back then." Preston's stage show and CD's still reflect that musical diversity. "Rock and Roll really was about fusion of culture and then as Rock and Roll got corporate… it's harder for the guys in suits to sell something that's different."

Born in Houston, Preston spent most of his formative years in the Southwest. "In Arizona you just heard, like Buck Owens from every radio coming out of every store. You really didn't think about it. I heard Mariachi music and Buck Owens, that's what the old people listened to, right? Then I got really into the psychedelic rock and blues, Zeppelin and the Beatles. Hendrix had a profound effect, Johnny Winter, Bob Dylan, but once I got into Hendrix…"

Not only does Preston play different styles of music, his instrumentation can sometimes travel great distances through a myriad of devices, before reaching the audience. "Bonnie Raitt called me up on stage to play with her….she saw my show and liked the Hank Williams and Robert Johnson covers I did. While backstage she told me, 'I'm going to go sit in with NRBQ and I'm going to call you up and I want you to play some harmonica with me, okay?' I said cool. So I waited; she called me up and I went up there with my bullhorn. And NRBQ was like, 'who the hell is this alien?' and, 'what the hell is with the bullhorn?'

What's funny is, I went for about two years without it, it kept breaking, and I was just tired of it. My show has changed so; I'm playing so many instruments at one time, that it's not really that conducive for me to play the bullhorn…except for the 'Jiminy Cricket' song. But everybody asks for it, 'where's your bullhorn? We brought our friends out just to see this song.' So finally I went down and bought another bullhorn. I got it back in my arsenal."

Like most musicians, Preston was pulled in at a very early age. Starting with his mother's pots and pans and progressing to drums in the school band, eventually he discovered songwriting and poetry…and then of course, there was Hendrix.

"Jimi Hendrix had such a demon-like hold on me. I wanted to be Jimi Hendrix and decided to play guitar."

Courtesy of Preston Smith

A repertoire that now exceeds 600 songs, Smith is his own music library. "I can play almost all of them without missing a verse. I don't use lyric sheets. I'm not one of these singers that learns songs he doesn't like. I love all these songs and if I pick up a guitar and play some old Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Beatles, whoever; I know hundreds of these songs and I love them. Ultimately, every time I play one it teaches me something again, they always keep changing. Change a key, make them better, delta-tune them or something, a Bob Dylan song with a delta tuning."

Blues Just Don't Let Go

I've always been impressed with Preston's dexterity on the harmonica. He is a master of improvisation and sometimes reminds me of an earlier, exceptionally creative harp player by the name of Walter Jacobs.

"Yea, he's my favorite of all the blues harmonica players. Little Walter, I think was the Charlie Parker of the era. The way Jimi Hendrix was to rock guitar, Little Walter was to harmonica. When he first came out, he was the first person to really use over amplification and everybody thought it sounded like sax lines, jazzy almost like 'Blue Lights' and all those hits he had."

Having attended numerous Preston Smith shows, I've personally witnessed some of the wildness that often occurs during the course of a performance. So I had to ask, 'anything come to mind when you think 'unforgettable' or outright weirdness at a show or venue?' "They're ALL pretty weird. (laughing) I played a gig in South Phoenix; it was kind of a social club that was open until four in the morning. And these little kids, like 12 years old, had guns and stuff." I think that qualifies. "I played an old Veteran's hall where these old blues guys were all nodding off, strung out on heroin." I immediately flash on John Prine's, 'Sam Stone'… pretty strange. "Then I played in a biker bar with the 'Hare Krishna Blues Band.'" (No Crocodiles?) "For fun that's what we called it for about a week. This is a weird story; the bikers brought one of their dead friends, and they brought him down one last time to have one last party with the dude, before they turned him into the morgue. They were hoisting up drinks and smokes for him. Maybe to them, it was their way of sending him off."

And we have a winner!

Lastly, if you had to describe your music or the sound of Preston Smith, how would you do it? "It's Americana. It's a melting pot like Americana really is. Not just blues or jazz or anything. Those charms are really just put on by record company people. I think its true Americana because America is fusion; it's a fusion of cultures. And my music has Latin in it; I have American Indian in my blood, English, Irish, Mexican and Scottish. If you look at my record collection it's mostly African-American. Its fusion man, not jazz type fusion….Americana Fusion."

Don't pass up the opportunity to experience Americana Fusion, fresh from the Preston Smith ovens. He plays almost constantly throughout Southern California and the Southwest. But if you can't make it to a live event, jump on the internet and check out for just a taste.

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Let Tim know what you think about his traveling adventure.

I was there at the Shrine to see Bob come in riding on a baby elephant. He says in the interview it was either '68 or 69: it was both – it was New Year's Eve (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Debbie Hollier, Nevada City, CA

* * * *

Who else played with Canned Heat and Deep Purple at the Shrine in '68?

Bill, LA

I think the Shrine show on New Years in '68, where Bob Hite rode out on the elephant, also featured Poco, Lee Michaels, Black Pearl, Love Army and Sweetwater. Don't know that Deep Purple was booked on that evening.

Bill, maybe you're thinking about the International Pop Fest in San Francisco a few months earlier that featured these fine folks... Procol Harum, Iron Butterfly, Jose Feliciano, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon And The Animals, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Grass Roots, The Chambers Brothers, Deep Purple, Fraternity of Man & Canned Heat or possibly the following year in Jan of 1970 when Deep Purple appeared with Canned Heat and Renaissance on a triple-bill in London at the Royal Albert Hall.

One final note: The current Johnny Otis piece didn't mention it, but it was Mr. Otis that took Canned Heat into the studio the very first time to record in 1966. Small world, ain't it?


* * * *

Thank u for posting it! Bob is still boogin' around!! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite),

Stefano Di Leonardo, Fisciano (Salerno, Italy)

* * * *

Great Read! (See "The Bear," an article on Bob Hite) I will post it on Bob "THE BEAR" Hite Official Facebook Page,

Dave Tohill, Brandon, UK

* * * *

Hello Tim, thank you so much for letting a huge Canned Heat fan check out this
interview with the Bear. I really enjoyed it.

Best regards,

Rick Caldwell, Fairfield, Ohio

* * * *

I knew Bob Hite in the 60's. Canned Heat played at our high school prom 1966 Rexford High. The Family Dog, Chet Helms, Skip Taylor.

Max Kalik, Los Angeles, CA

Dear Tim,

I just discovered you from an email I received from Preston Smith disclosing his next event. I wanted to tap into his website Prestonsmithmusic but it would not link from your site for some reason. I have to say Preston really is a genius and I met him in Glendale at a jazz club about three years ago, after a fatal accident. By chance, I was invited to spend time hanging out with Preston and some friends after his gig. He is everything you say and I will never forget his amazing creativity and his positive influence in my life.

Janelle, Palm Springs, CA

Love the article! (on Lowell George) Lowell was my father.

Forrest George, Warren, Vermont

This Bob Hite interview is the most interesting thing I have read concerning Canned Heat. I have Fito's book, but I always was interested in learning more about Bob Hite. You did it here my friend...great interview!!!!!

Tony Musto - Pittston, PA

Hey Tim, Great article on Preston! I really enjoyed it and you did your homework. I'll probably catch PS this weekend.


Dave - Northridge, CA

* * * *

Hello, what a great article on Preston Smith! I actually met Preston one evening after an Acoustic set of my own at the Prestigeous Carlton Hotel here in Atascadero, Ca. We were loading up and he happened to be walking down the sidewalk and stop to say hello. I must say that he is a truly interesting and talented man that NEVER forgets to let me know when he is playing around the Central Coast where I live. It was so fun to read about who he truly is...(as if you don't know him the first time you meet him)! My adventures have only just begun as I recently returned from Nashville recording my self titled debut EP. I can only hope that my adventures down the road are as enlightening as Preston's and that I have the honor of a great writer such as yourself to share them with the world. Thank you for doing just that, sharing "Preston Smith" with the world.


Amy Estrada - Atascadero, CA

Hi Tim,

My name is Bert, I'm from Italy and I'm a blues harmonica player...I read your article and it reminded me of the two trips I made in the Delta, in 2008 and 2009. I love Frank's music and I think it's a shame people don't really know his work. It's important that people like you write about him. Thank you! In the Delta I was only a "stupid" tourist, but it was a great, unique experience I consider one of the most important in my life: driving on the highways, Listening to the blues everywhere, jamming in places like Red's and ground Zero in Clarksdale or the Blues Bar in Greenville... are priceless things, something I will keep in my heart for the rest of my life. I met a beautiful, lovely woman there too (named Hope), but I behaved like a stupid kid and I lost her... Alas! I will never forget that days and the chance I had to find happiness...Well, I also wrote something about Frank on a website, but it's in Italian... I give you the link of the first part (the second will be published in the next weeks) anyway if you know some Italian or somebody who can understand it... Even if I'm thinking of making a translation


Bert - Pavia, Italy

I wanna be Tim!

Brent, Seattle, WA

* * *

Those pictures give you an idea of what the Rockin' Pneumonia actually looks like and it looks BAD! But the man can still play! Enjoyed the article - give us more TRAVELING BLUES BOY!

Steve Thomas - NA, INDIANA

* * *

Good Stuff, Tim. Having been a Johnny Winter fan since the first time I heard Rock n Roll Hoochie Koo, it was great hearing his take on some his highlight moments that defined his blues career. His affiliation with Muddy Waters was particularly interesting. Kudos for bringing that out. Thanks to your dedication to covering the blues scene, this "one of a kind" music still lives for servicemen & women around the world. Keep it Up!

Brandon Williams, Moreno Valley, CA

* * *

Impressive! What a legend and how cool that you got so much time with him, Tim.

Don, Louisville, KY

Tim - Great article, enjoyed Little Feat/Lowell George story, really brought me back in time. Did not know he was a fishin' man! Wonder what surfaces out of the abyss of your memory next?

Steve Thomas, New Albany, IN

* * * *


I really liked your travel back in time with Lowell and Little Feat. As a long time Feat fan (mostly the stuff with Lowell) it was cool to read. I learned several of their songs back in the day and they still stand up today when played live. Another singer I really liked from back then is TimBuckley. Thanks for the article.

Chet Hogoboom, Arroyo Grande, CA

Loved your last issue of TB, especially the Mayall piece. I want that guy's job!

Brent, Seattle, WA


This is a great write up. Has it been printed in any magazines? It's better than a lot of things I read in my guitar magazines, so props for that.

Caejar, Moreno Valley, CA


I can tell that you have this passion for jazz. I wonder if you yourself play any instrument. Or are you just a groupie like most of us?

I talked with a mid-aged flute jazz artist a few weeks ago and he lamented that despite his talents (and he is extremely talented) he says that the industry hasn't been kind to him. He said jobs are few and far between. He said the music industry is combating piracy and competition due to technology being readily available to private homes and that they are not as profitable as before. So they are replacing live talent for synthesized or digital instruments.

Do you see the same trend in your relationships with your music network?

Bob, Pasadena, CA

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