by: Thomas D. Mooney
In fairgrounds, amusement parks, and carnivals across the country, there’s often these photo booths. They’re saloon sets. It’s Deadwood or an old Billy the Kid haunt. It’s where you and your buddies or and families dress up in ten-gallon hats, a handful of chaps, cowboy boots, and the usual. Typically, someone’s wearing a vest that has a sheriff’s badge pinned in. You’re all armed to the teeth with six-shooters and a couple of rifles. There’s fake whiskey being poured.
There’s cracked asphalt just beneath those worn wood planks, but there for an instant–for the snap of a photograph–you’re in this Wild West meets the frontier caricature of what we’ve created. They throw a sepia filter on top to give it that authentic feel you’re looking for.
It’s this idea we etched in our mind for a while of what Western Expansion was. It’s the glamorous aspects–the guns, the gold, the booze, cowboys and Indians, trains, and good-timing women in the bar. By all means, it’s Toby Keith’s “Should Have Been a Cowboy.”
That’s just the cheapened version. In reality, the frontier was about pursuit, struggle, and risk. Dream big. The American Dream. It’s Geronimo.
Shane Smith is this walking contradiction of a songwriter. With one step, he’s dreaming big and one his way towards soaring high–the good times. With the next, it’s back in the gutter. He’s part of the struggle of a touring musician who isn’t getting nearly enough due, recognition, and good luck.
That’s Geronimo in a nutshell. It’s that fighting off demons–both inner conflict and the external turmoil pressing down on The Saints’ bubble.
It’s not that Smith has discovered this untapped subject of roaddogging, traveling, and spending months at a time in the back of a passenger van. The life of a struggling musician isn’t new by any means. But what Smith does is unique and personal all to himself.
Sure, it’s relatable. Everyone’s trying to outrun the devil in one way or another. But with Geronimo, 15 some songs are specific to Smith and company. They aren’t littered with buzz words and cliché (Yes, even this subject has a writer or two trying to make a buck on a cliché touring band song). Smith and company channel those frontier dreams with their modern trials. They’re fused together in a way that becomes so blended, it’s difficult to decipher what exactly is 1915 and what’s 2015.
When they’re frontiersmen, it’s really them bringing out hints of old Appalachian sounds. It’s train song rhythms that chug. It’s old Irish drinking songs. Often their harmonies are Tolkienesque (Which it shouldn’t come to any surprise that Tolkien himself was inspired by old English, Celtic, and Irish folk music). Smith takes on those same chilling, haunting harmonies (think “The Mountain“).
There’s been a subtle shift in Texas Music the last few years. It’s less weekend party tailgates and keg stand singer-songwriters and more barn party roots-based bands. It’s fiddle and mandolin. It’s delta songs. It’s harmonies and storytelling. Southern gothic and heartland country. Smith is right up there in breaking in the new with the old.
Back in September, we caught up with the pioneering Texas songwriter to discuss his sophomore release, Geronimo. Smith & The Saints will be playing The Blue Light tonight (Friday, Dec 11). The Reed Brothers will be opening.
Listen to “Geronimo” below.
New Slang: There’s a sense of you searching for the frontier on this album. In these songs, there’s that element–in both sound and lyrical content. Is that something you feel like you’ve always kind of gravitated towards?
Shane Smith: It’s funny you mention that. I’ve never had anyone ever bring that up, but you’re absolutely right. My writing is based on this metaphorical frontier. It’s getting out there. Seeing new things. Experiencing new things–even trying to create new things. I think there’s definitely that element. I’ve never really had anyone call that out before so it’s got me thinking more about it. I really enjoy writing about getting out there.
Our sound on this record, its’ purpose wasn’t to get out and get tons of radio play or songs that fit a certain mold. Typically, that’s how it works with radio. It’s unfortunate. I think there’s a tendency in our scene to all start sounding the same. We were really trying to make a record that, yes, may not do great on radio, but that was completely unique to us. Within this scene, this record doesn’t sound like anyone else. That was a goal.
NS: Yeah. The sound of the album, it just has this smoky richness to it. For one, the harmonies, there’s this warmth to them. The harmonies penetrate the overall sound. They don’t feel like they’re just floating above or anything. They’re a part of focal point. The fiddle just pops out. There’s just this richness to the sound. Was there a lot of trial and error when it came to figuring out the best possible way of highlighting these specific sounds?
SS: Absolutely. Especially with the harmonies. We recorded all over the place. We primarily did it in Austin at Orb Studios, but we also recorded in Dallas. It’d be these random smaller studios that we’d rent out for an afternoon while out on the road. We even did some in Nashville that way. We only took one week off out of the year to record. Guys in the band were still working during the week. That’ll tell you just how much time we’ve had off this year [laughs]. It took us from December to the end of July to finish it.
As far as trial and error goes, when you’re recording, you’re moving mics around. You’re playing with sounds. You’re opening up hallway doors. Putting a mic in a hallway to see if you can’t get some natural reverb out of it. There’s definitely some trial and error with it, but I think it was pretty standard when it came to the instruments. With the harmonies though, it was us trying to figure out how we were going to make it sound big. It really came down to us doing it live, where we’re all standing around a microphone in a big room. There’d be one between us and another positioned off away from us for more of a reverb sound.
It’s funny. The control room would be in a place where you can’t even see us. We’re listening in headphones and the engineer would say something like, “OK Chase, you need to move an inch closer to the mic. Tim, move about three inches further away from the mic. Now, do the first half again.” It really was that [laughs].
SS: At that point, you have to get it right. What you get is what you end up having. You can’t mix in more vocals of someone else specifically. It’s all coming from one mic. It made it very difficult, but also made it very cool. Not everything was tracked that way, but like “The Mountain,” the opening track, it was along with some others.
NS: Sometimes when you go to record, you have this idea of what a song is going to be, but for whatever reason, it just isn’t going to work best that way. You end up hitting a roadblock. Was there anything that nearly didn’t make the album–or was actually cut–because you just couldn’t figure it out then?
SS: Honestly, there’s a song on there that I’m not too thrilled about. I love the song itself, but we could not figure out what it needed. We honestly just settled on it. You never want to do that, but you know. That was “Suzannah.” There’s something about the way we play it live. You probably have no idea what I’m saying when I’m singing on it when in the audience, but there’s just so much energy in that song when we’re playing it. But we just couldn’t get it down.
That’s usually what musicians have a hard time capturing–the energy. At the end of the day, you can get sounds and tones. But getting the way it sounds at The Blue Light at one in the morning, when you can’t hear anything in the bar except for this loud music, it’s hard to get that. You’re used to the song being that and when you can’t find a way to get back there, it’s frustrating.
Even a week out, there were a lot of songs that didn’t sound as good as I’d hoped. I ended up spending hours and hours going through with an engineer. It’d be all day at a computer trying to get the right takes and right reverb.
NS: Going back to the frontier aspect–the songwriting and lyrical part. These songs, they do feel like they could be written in 1860, but there’s still part that makes them feel modern. Typically, there’s something that pulls them back to the present. When you’re writing, are you thinking about when and where a song will fit?
SS: I don’t really think of it that way–or at least I’ve not been aware of it. I’ve tried writing lyrics that are extremely honest to myself and within scenarios that have actually happened. They’re based on experiences that have actually happened. You have to be honest with yourself first. If you’re trying to make a living out of this, then you’re going to be singing the same songs for a long time and if I’m an old guy singing them, I want to know exactly what I’m talking about.
NS: This ties into the writing extremely honest songs. There’s a lot of dark songs on the record. There’s a struggle of some sort. Some of it is internal. Sometimes it’s fighting your demons. Why do you think this record has so much of that in it?
SS: I think the different themes I write about often are those struggles. A lot of the struggle, whether it’s fighting your demons or it’s the struggle of trying to make a living–just living life sometimes–it’s something I’ve faced. It’s something we’ve had to fight against as a band. Everybody has struggles. This past year, we had a difficult time. We toured our asses off. Played a lot of shows. We’ve made some really good headway, but it also made some hard times.
Which, in turn, made more stories, which made more songs. Like the song “Whiskey and Water.” That’s in direct relationship to being on the road. It’s the same in “What a Shame.” It talks about “another roadhouse fight cast down by sin. Another blowout ten miles from town again.” It’s all these things that are real. They’re actual things I think about when I’m singing–like all these bar fights happening when we started out playing at Adair’s in Dallas [laughs]. Having a blowout outside of Houston. One outside of Lubbock. I think I like singing about these things because it’s real to me. I see those images when I’m singing those songs every single night.
NS: You’re seeing all these things out on the road. They become part of song. Are you one of these guys who needs to write down these ideas as you’re going along or do you think the prominent events just come to you when you’re in the process of writing?
SS: Both. It’s more ideas that I’ll have that I write down. Like the song “Right Side of the Ground,” that was something my brother said when we were having a conversation. I remember thinking then about that phrase and wrote it down in my phone. When I came back to it, it was actually intended to be a totally different song. I ended up combining it with another. Things like that, I’ll make note of. But when something happens–like when the party gets shut down because of a tornado warning and we’re out in the middle of a field in Oklahoma. All these crazy things like that, I don’t have to write down. Those memories I think are there for good [laughs].
NS: When you’re writing, do you need to be in that controlled environment? Do you need to be at home or can you pretty much write something anywhere?
SS: If I’m writing choruses, I can be anywhere [laughs]. If it’s verses, I have to be in a place where I can focus and have time. I usually take a long time when it comes to writing–unless it’s just really catchy and I’m in a groove and it’s working. There’s been those moments when you have something after five minutes. “Dance the Night Away” was one of those songs. Typically though, I need to be by myself in a quiet place with a guitar or banjo or something. I really need to focus in on stuff.
Like “Geronimo,” I don’t know how many times I rewrote that song. The chorus was always the same–I can knock those out pretty quick–but the verses, I’ll take forever on them. I’m trying to make sure there’s nothing in there that’ll be cheesy 10 years from now. Or anything lazy.
NS: Yeah. It’s the whole Ray Wylie Hubbard thing. Write songs that you know you won’t be embarrassed to play when you’re in your sixties.
SS: Exactly. It’s because of Ray that I really started thinking that way. I worked with Ray and Judy for a while early on. They took me under their wings. She was managing me with the first band I was playing with. We ended up parting ways on good terms. But that was something that really stuck–there were two things that really stuck with me with Ray. One of them was that he taught me how to fingerpick. That was everything for me. And two, it was that mindset. “What would Ray think of this song?” That’s really in the back of your mind. It’s not like we keep in touch really. I haven’t seen him in a while, but it’s something that I constantly think about now. Write something that you’ll always be proud to sing even as an old man.
NS: One of the more interesting things I noticed on the record is on the song “Bury Me in Texas.” You go with the “Californ-I-A.” Obviously, you’ve seen that in hip-hop songs, but here, you also have the “Appalach-I-A.” Where’d that come from?
SS: It was originally intended it be this Appalachian tune–almost like a nursery rhyme. Just something really easy to relate to and hear. I think it came a little too close to being too mainstream, but at the same time, what I was singing, it was just so real for me to not include. It’s a real thing I’ve been thinking about. We’re out here on the road. I think we’ll have played 17 states from July to November. It’s new and cool for us. I kind of had that thought. “Man, if we just die out here [laughs], I get murdered in some bar, I really hope they can get my body back to Texas.” You know, Texans have that huge sense of pride. Everybody knows that. I think we have plenty of reason to be proud of the state we’re from.
I took a turn from the Appalachian thing to being more of an introduction to a story. “Can you tell me a story on the fiddle you play?” It was going to be a fiddle song about a fiddle player with some Appalachian kind of stories. I ended up taking a turn from there. I was in Colorado when I wrote the majority of it. We were at this little festival we played back in June.
NS: The liner notes for the album, they’re all handwritten. You wrote all the lyrics out. How long did it take you to write that all out?
SS: A very long time. I did them all on these separate pieces of paper. I couldn’t even find blank sheets of paper so I did them on the back of some of our band posters. I would fold our band posters into three pieces and then write a full song on a full split. I’d never have room so I’d have to move part onto another. It ended up being a mess [laughs]. I’d take a photo of it and send it to the girls who were doing the art. I know they have to think it was a love-hate relationship with me. It had to be the most inconvenient way possible for them.
NS: When I first opened up the album and saw it, my first thought was how much time and effort was invested in that aspect. People probably aren’t appreciating that aspect as much as they should.
SS: Oh yeah. I think we’re going to do a version of that for vinyl where it’s a lot bigger. I saw that on a Neil Young record. It wasn’t as rough. There were lines on the pages and a little more Plain Jane. I wanted ours to look a little worn. It came out smaller than I wanted, but I think when we get it on vinyl, it’ll be really big and more legible.