october 2008

Kenny and Amanda Smith Band
Rebel Records

Returning to largely secular terrain following their Grammy nominated 2007 long player, Tell Someone, Kenny and Amanda Smith, along with bandmates Zachary McLamb (bass) and Aaron Williams (mandolin), with Ron Stewart providing a memorable assist sitting in on fiddle and banjo, give as much of themselves to the corporeal world as they do to the spiritual one in polishing this particular gem. Given the long shadow it casts in the gospel world, be advised that the band hardly dispenses with its spiritual focus here. Though not overtly gospel, Wayne Winkle's soothing advisory, "Do The Best You Can," takes a bit of a spiritual approach in counseling a steady focus and unswerving faith in the Lord as a means to surmounting tough times; backed by Kenny's evocative fingerpicked acoustic guitar and Stewart's plaintive fiddling, Amanda lends the message a quiet urgency in the strength, and vulnerability, informing her Alison Krauss-like crooning. The album's meditative closer, "Man Looks On the Outside," a somber reflection with Amanda's emotive vocal supported by Kenny's spare, fingerpicked guitar figures and McLamb's quietly thumping bass, references Samuel in its first verse then broadens its theme to address the enduring reward of a just life that pleases God and disdains shallow judgments based on appearance. Even Larry Wayne Clark's jubilant "You're Gonna See Me Shine" has the feel of a spiritual quest in its narrator's unwavering determination to ascend from a personal hell into a place where the soul can take wing, the ultimate triumph expressed in Amanda's spirited singing. Rebirth of a different sort is also the theme of the album opening "Changing," written in part by Blue Highway's Tim Stafford, which may explain why it seems of a piece with that band's sound and style in its shifting instrumental textures supplied by forceful guitar and banjo solos; but Kenny's expressive vocal brings conviction to the lyrics' self-affirming vows ("I think I'm gonna live and learn," for one). On the lighter side, the band breaks into a brisk strut on Larry Beasley's "Rambler's Blues," and charges forward at an even more furious pace on the deceptively sunny rumblings of the "Heartbreak Express," with Amanda showcasing the captivating Rhonda Vincent twang she can affect at the drop of a hat, and Ron Stewart cutting loose with doozies of fleet-fingered banjo solo on both tracks, but pay particular attention to his jaw dropping, scorched earth display towards the end of the latter tune. Then strap in for super-charged boogie-woogie of "I'd Jump The Mississippi," the George Jones-Johnny Mathis co-write that here gives Kenny an opportunity to cut out on some wild-eyed guitar boogie. To balance out the proceedings, Amanda gently cuts out your heart with the anguish in her plaintive, crying vocal on her and Kenny's co-write with Wayne Winkle, "Words You Use," a lilting, devastating breakup number that has a lazy summertime lilt but a deep winter chill in its unforgiving sentiments addressed to a fickle lover. Whether appealing to the God they know or a heartbreaker who done 'em wrong, Kenny and Amanda Smith, and their always impressive teammates, get their message across with unalloyed commitment, sounding more assured each time out. This is some band.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024