A lot of songwriters talk about how important their songs are to them, but David G Smith leaves no room for doubt with his catchphrase, “Serving the song and a life sentence.” And he backs it up 24/7/365, constantly staying busy to avoid the “motel tan” Steve Earle sang of on “Guitar Town.” Bouncing between Nashville and his home near the banks of the Mississippi River, Smith is known nationwide for showing up to play every kind of gig imaginable, from opening spots for major Americana artists to playing in houses of fraternal orders to bringing joy to senior facilities.
Smith is preparing to drop his new album, Witness Trees, in a few weeks, the latest in an ongoing body of work of nearly a dozen albums that have featured friends like Keb’ Mo’ and Mary Gauthier. Witness Trees was produced by Neilson Hubbard (Jason Isbell, John Prine), with a title track co-written with longtime Nashville collaborator Tom Favreau. Smith phoned in for this interview from his home near the Iowa-Illinois Quad-Cities, which has been his home base for decades.
“But I can still probably tell you more about what’s going on in Nashville than I can about my own hometown,” he chuckled, referring to the fact that he is seldom in corn country. Smith has managed to make a successful career of being a one-man operation (with some help in the trenches from his wife, Sharon), playing dates all over the country and into Mexico, while charting at #1 on the RMR and Radio Indie Alliance charts and placing his work on major cable networks.
Witness Trees is Smith’s first project with a new producer after years of working with the late Nashville legend Blue Miller. “I had a three-record run with Blue Miller (Bob Seger, Blake Shelton),” Smith said wistfully, “and unfortunately he passed away during my tenth album, Who Cares. So I called Mary Gauthier, and she said, ’Here’s where you need to go,’ and she sent me over to Neilson Hubbard, who produced her last album, which was Grammy-nominated. We hit the ground running, and I am so happy with this record. June 2nd is the drop date, and we’re not doing any one special event for the release of that, we’re doing a Witness Trees release party tour, which we started at the Bluebird on March 1st. We’ve got over 100 events booked for 2023 and we’re still booking.”
Smith was playing keyboards in Colorado with a band managed by classic rock legend Ed Cassidy of Spirit when he decided to see where he might fit in as a writer with the commercial Nashville establishment. It turned out he didn’t. But he realized that he needed to focus on his artistic authenticity when he attended a songwriting camp featuring Gauthier, Darrell Scott and Beth Nielsen Chapman. Today Smith utilizes every resource available to him in the 21st century to keep gas in the tank, both literally and creatively, mixing old-school elbow grease and a road dog sensibility with all things internet.
“I’m primarily a songwriter,” he said, “and how do you promote a songwriter? The songwriting has been a straight shot forever, since high school. The rest of it, I do because I have to. The artist hat came on and off for a period of time, but I put it on for good about 15 years ago. But to me, there’s really no one way to do this, now more than ever. I sit on panels sometimes and I don’t know what to tell people. They say, ‘How do you do this?’ You’re sometimes talking to teenagers and 20-somethings, and what do you tell them? To make it as a singer-songwriter, whatever ‘make it’ means, you pursue it. You pursue it. Whether it makes any money or you can make a living at it, that’s another issue. It’s gotten harder. I remember Kris Kristofferson saying something like, ‘If I were starting out today, I wouldn’t.’”
“There are people in Nashville who think that, if you don’t do it the way they did it, you don’t count,” he continued. “I heard that for so long and I got so tired of it. I’m still connected to Nashville for all the good stuff, for all the magic that’s still there, and I’m able to tap into all that whenever I need. There are all the great players and producers I get to work with in Nashville, great songwriters I get to work with.”
Smith explained his philosophy of going wherever the work is, while giving back at the same time, as he described a recent road trip. “I played a 200-seater to start it out over in Kansas City, then did six shows on a college campus,” he said. “Then for the high school kids down in Coffeyville, Kansas, it was like a singer-songwriter thing while mentoring the kids and it was a give-back. The give-back, that’s probably the most important component of what I do. If you’re just sitting in a hotel room in Nevada, for instance, on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday just twiddlin’ your thumbs, why not go out and play a senior community and give back? And a lot of those places have budgets, and it doesn’t have to be your normal rate, because you’re feeding others peoples’ souls as well as your own. I play everywhere from memory units to skilled nursing to assisted living homes. It all works together.”
In the end, he says it’s still all about the song. “‘Serving the song and a life sentence,’ that’s what my whole operation is about. And my wife and I sit down two or three times a month and just appreciate what we have.” To keep up with Smith, visit davidgsmithmusic.com.