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
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
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.
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
"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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
"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'
"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
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
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 www.myspace.com/prestonsmithmusic
for just a taste.