Valerie Smith: Making the most of her visit to the IBMM (Photo: Peter Nash)

When a Little Goes a Long Way

By David McGee

Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike
Bell Buckle Records

The way I see it, anything that gets Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike in front of a microphone, whether in a recording studio or on a concert stage, is a good thing. So to those who might grouse about this tidy Blame It On The Bluegrass album clocking in at slightly less than 20 minutes and containing but six songs, please--be thankful for what you got. It so happens that what Valerie Smith can do with six songs equals what many other artists take a dozen or more to accomplish.

A note of explanation is in order: A big supporter of the International Bluegrass Music Museum, Ms. Smith, along with Ernie Evans, Rebekah Long and the estimable Becky Buller were working with the IBMM to teach for two weeks in 24 schools throughout Davies County, KY. While spending time at the IBMM, she experienced a eureka moment and decided to cut an album in the museum’s Radio Bluegrass International (RBI) Cave. In between performing three school programs a day, she and her mates retired to the studio and voila! Blame It On the Bluegrass, the first CD ever recorded at the IBMM. With Becky Buller producing--and equally important, contributing two songs--Smith and band cut loose on the six tunes contained herein, which represents a good overview of what we’ve come to expect from a full-length album from these folks.

Valerie Smith & Libert Pike, ‘Tennessee Courtin’ Time,’ live at Pickin’ In the Pines, Flagstaff, AZ

The hard charging title track, a co-write between Ms. Buller and Elizabeth Shrum, concerns a soul who is delighted to attribute various shortcomings in her life to a love of bluegrass that keeps distracting her from other matters (including, possibly, the speed limit, as the last verse finds Smith pleading with an officer for leniency because she was too wrapped up in the music to be paying attention to anything else). Ernie Evans on banjo and mandolin, and Ms. Buller on fiddle, engage in lively solos that rather explain why one might disregard everything but their energizing discourses, and Smith gives the lyrics a spirited, carefree delivery. From Douglas O. Flowers and Jim Rushing, respectively, come two potent heartbreakers: the former’s “Where the Sun Never Shines” is as dark and foreboding as its title suggests, with Smith spitting out a harsh indictment of a faithless hubby and announcing her intent to move on “to where the sun never shines,” a declaration given added weight by Buller’s fiddling, aggrieved and cutting all at once; Rushing’s “Slow Healing Heart,” solemn and wrenching, finds a woman attempting to surmount the searing pain of a tumultuous breakup by moving on, only to be rocked on her heels again by the persistent memory of the cursed event. In this classically styled country weeper, Buller’s fiddle again voices an aching complement to Ms. Smith’s raspy, country blues vocal, with Evans lending evocative atmospherics via mandolin.

“Four Leaf Clover,” a full-on sprint of a song of unknown origin, breaks the morose spell of the two tunes preceding it, even if it worries over a spate of ceaseless bad luck, as Ms. Smith sends up a forthright plea for a better turn of events as Evans keeps the music barreling ahead on the strength of his rolling and tumbling banjo and mandolin lines both, Buller sidles up with some frantic fiddling of her own, all ahead of a nice stop-time passage at the end that sends the whole thing hurtling to a rousing close. “A Good Day Lord” is the other Becky Buller original here, and it’s a gem--a graceful, loping bluegrass gospel offering with bright harmonies and uplifting spiritual sentiments in the lyrics that Ms. Smith caresses with straight-ahead sincerity, locking into the message and bringing it from the heart--it may be an obvious observation, but the Smith-Buller harmony tandem heard in the choruses is one of the great pleasures of our time. There is actually a bonus track on the disc in the form of a country gospel toe-tapper penned by Merle Travis, “No Vacancy,” with a bit of social commentary in a verse about the end of WWII and a general theme concerning the world’s spiritual disconnect; fiddle- and harmony-rich, with Ms. Smith's husband Kraig Smith adding his low rumble to the ensemble, “No Vacancy” sounds a cautionary note at the end of this exercise, but in its uplifting tempo and Ms. Smith’s bright vocal resides a hope for a better day ahead--a nice way to end this visit. What better way to remind us to be thankful for what we got?

Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike’s Blame It On the Bluegrass is available at Valerie Smith’s website

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, 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