A veteran of the ’90s Chicago & Seattle punk scenes, Charlie Smyth’s sound has evolved over time, meandering like a tattered feather on the Southern breeze and settling somewhere beneath the ever-widening shadow of modern Americana. Grand, loose and vibrant, the Nashville-based troubadour’s new solo debut, The Way I Feel, is dusted with strings, mariachi horns and wistful blankets of steel guitar, its loose-lugnut drums propelling the whole beautiful jalopy of a record forward as if the wheels could come off at any minute. The record is a breathtaking statement of creative purpose, imbuing its too-often safe and by-the-numbers genre with an undeniable sense of musical adventure.
Influenced by his work as a painter and visual artist, Smyth has a unique way of looking at and describing the world around him, his lyrics unfolding in vivid, earthy brush strokes. “The air tastes like chewed-up pencils / Old beat-up utensils, tossed on the desk like forks in the road / Busted forks in the road / Glittering in the sunshine,” he sings on “Buddy”. The Way I Feel is indeed dripping with sunshine—and plenty of wonder, too, the songs anchored by Smyth’s wizened baritone, which cling by a frayed thread to the quivering harmonies of his wife and frequent collaborator Kalee Smyth. Together, they sound like a gorgeously mismatched pair of classic-country crooners, Dolly singing with Willie or Kristofferson instead of Porter Wagoner, Emmylou with Leonard Cohen or Lee Hazlewood instead of Gram Parsons.
It was Kalee who encouraged Smyth and his freshly wrangled band—Eric Penticoff on piano, bassist Jeff Moon, drummer Adam Mormolstein, multi-instrumentalist Andy Gibson, horn player Jamison Sevits, and one-time George Jones fiddle player Billy Contreras—to record the songs that would become The Way I Feel. “A lot of my friends are great musicians, but they’re high-priced hired guns who stay busy doing sessions and touring for a living,” Smyth says. “I wanted a band I wouldn’t have to pay to play with me, so I began looking for people who wanted to make music just for fun. The structure at the time was, ‘I’m writing songs and playing rhythm guitar. I’m not going to tell you guys what to do. If that sounds fun to you, let’s do it.’ Giving everyone that kind of freedom lit a fire under the band—the energy with that approach was really contagious.”
The Way I Feel kicks off with a decidedly more downhome (if faithfully joyous) cover of Neil Diamond’s Robbie Robertson-produced song “Beautiful Noise,” the original’s synths and accordion swapped out for resplendent, organic brass. It’s one of a handful of satisfyingly constructed covers chosen by Smyth for the album. Featured alongside imaginative originals like “Daggers,” “Country Girl” and “Faithfully” are distinctive renditions of Ray Price’s Slim Willett-penned “Don’t Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes”, the album’s quasi-title cut, “That’s the Way I Feel,” co-written by country greats George Jones and Roger Miller, and another “Possum” cut, “The Cold Hard Truth”, written by Jamie O’Hara. Smyth discovered these songs on budget-vinyl he found at Seattle’s Lifelong Thrift. “Other than ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ the covers on The Way I Feel came from records I picked up at the same place for a quarter each,” he says. “I’ve noticed that on a lot of my favorite singer/songwriter albums, they throw in covers, which is really cool, especially when you don’t realize at first that it’s a cover. With Gram Parsons, I thought ‘Cash on the Barrelhead’ from Grievous Angel was his song, but then I found out it was The Louvin Brothers.’”
Charlie Smyth first picked up a guitar in his late teens while an art student at the University of Illinois, immersing himself in the robust punk and post-hardcore scenes of Chicago, where he played in several bands before leaving the city at age 22, bound for newly christened grunge mecca Seattle. There, Smyth formed experimental rock band Laundry, who recorded with renowned producer-engineers Barrett Jones (Nirvana, Melvins, Jesus Lizard, Pearl Jam, Whiskeytown) and Kearney Barton (Young Fresh Fellows, The Sonics). Laundry was poised to break, opening shows for Morphine, The Fugees and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and catching the eye of Lou Reed’s ex-wife Sylvia, who managed the band and produced the video for their single “Golden West,” directed by Andy Warhol associate Jon Behrens.
“Sylvia felt she could help us more if we were in New York,” Smyth says. “Our drummer Jake McCarter stayed behind—he was more interested in going to school for Occupational Therapy—but [singer/upright-bassist] Scot Cortese and I made the move. I was there first, and by the time Scot arrived, I just didn’t feel like doing the rock-band thing anymore. Looking back, Sylvia was great for us, but because of who she was, she was plugged into the major-label world. Let’s put it this way—the fancier the people I was meeting, the less I liked them. I got very disillusioned with the whole thing.”
After a brief stint flexing his No Wave chops with James Chance & The Contortions, Smyth left New York for a brief sojourn playing free jazz in Melbourne, Australia. Eventually, he returned to the Pacific Northwest, settling in Portland, Ore., where the longtime sideman/guitarist started working on his own songs. This newfound awakening as a writer set Smyth on a fresh journey that found him bouncing between Seattle, Chicago, and Berlin as part of several groups. He recorded a single with the late Nikki Sudden and rented a pad with Leroy Bach and Mikael Jorgensen of Wilco before finally meeting his wife Kalee and relocating to Nashville where the two formed country-folk duo The Western Shore, releasing the album Thunderstorm in 2014.
The Way I Feel (out July 13) marks yet another promising new chapter for Smyth. “I feel like the collage of sounds and genres you hear on this album are reflective of my own personal history,” he says. “I’ve lived in many different cities over the course of my life, I’ve never stayed in one place for too long, I’ve played all different kinds of music in all kinds of bands. The Way I Feel is my first full-fledged album as a writer—it really captures the specific kind of energy I wanted for a solo LP. Making this record was unlike anything I’ve experienced before.”