When it comes to making music, there’s nothing wrong with playing by the rules, but that’s never been the right way for Valerie Smith. While the energetic singer/songwriter knows and respects the tried and true ways of bluegrass—and knows the penalties that can follow a departure from them—she’s held fast to one simple rule of her own: “I sing from my heart,” she says. “I do my own thing.” And today, a dozen years after her first album and on the eve of the release of her latest, she can look back with pride at a musical path that’s all her own, even as she looks ahead to the next dozen with the confidence of a seasoned artist who’s built a devoted following in the best way it can be done—just by being herself.
A Missouri native who grew up playing old-time fiddle and earned a degree in music education, Valerie arrived in Nashville in the early 90s. “When you grow up in a town of 300 people in the midwest and you love country music,” she recalls, “Nashville’s where you want to be. I had no idea of what I wanted to do, but I knew that was where I wanted to do it.” Working for a marketing and advertising agency by day, she began attending—and singing at—songwriters’ nights, making friends over the years with everyone from country icon Waylon Jennings to then up-and-coming songwriter Jim Lauderdale. “If I went back home tomorrow and that was all I did here, I’d be proud of that,” she says with a laugh, but those years turned out to be a prelude to something much bigger, as a complicated but fortuitous series of events and connections brought her into the recording studio. With the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s Alan O’Bryant acting as producer, Valerie completed work on her debut album, Patchwork Heart; issued the project on a label she’d helped to create, Bell Buckle Records; and formed a band, Liberty Pike, to take her music on the road.
“I was an odd duck in an odd place,” Valerie recalls with a smile. “I would sing country things, but every time I did, people would say, ‘you’re kind of bluegrass’—but then a lot of people felt that I wasn’t really bluegrass, either. I wasn’t really aware that you were supposed to play an instrument on stage; I thought, ‘I have a great band, and they don’t need me to be something else, they need me to be who I am, to be a singer and an entertainer.’ I felt really strongly about that, and I didn’t back down for a long time.” Being true to her own vision earned her criticism in some quarters, but it also earned her respect and admiration—and an ever-growing legion of fans—elsewhere (and, Smith adds with a grin, now she plays an instrument on stage whenever she likes).
Over the next decade, Valerie released a series of acclaimed albums that featured strong musicianship from band members and guests alike, paired with songs from notable contributors like Lisa Aschmann, Mark Simos, and featured bandmember Becky Buller—and, not coincidentally, she took an active role in every aspect of the projects. “I don’t think I’m a control freak,” she notes with a chuckle, “but I’m very responsible. I’ve always felt that if you love what you do, you should have a hand in running it. I’ve had longstanding relationships with people I can count on, but I also know that only you really know what you love to do, only you really know your audience.” Yet paired with that take-charge attitude, she has a generosity and warmth for fellow contributors that resulted in her most recent album (Here’s A Little Song) being a full-fledged collaboration with long-time bandmember Becky Buller. “She’s such a strong artist that it would be silly not to recognize that,” Valerie points out. “This music isn’t just about me as an artist, it’s about the people who have worked with me, and what they’ve contributed, too—and I didn’t want another day to go by without having that documented.”
In much the same vein, Smith built a consistent touring schedule that took her not only to major bluegrass festivals, but on increasingly popular cruises, to concert halls and performing arts centers and, since the turn of the century, to Europe, where she’s found a growing number of fans who appreciate an artistry that transcends genre labels. “When I’m over there, they could care less whether I’m country or bluegrass,” she says. “The just care that the music makes them feel a certain way.”
Still, an ongoing relationship with the bluegrass community, embodied in a collaboration with the International Bluegrass Music Museum that’s taken her and her group into dozens of elementary and secondary classrooms, shaped Valerie’s decision to make bluegrass the centerpiece of her latest release—an innovative “Six Pack” short album of original songs that keeps up with the latest in music marketing. Recorded live at the Museum, it not only presents her dynamic show and compelling vocals, but fulfills an obligation she’s felt for some time. “It’s a way to thank the people who were patient with me,” she says with a laugh. “The people like Claire Lynch and Lynn Morris who offered to teach me to play when I wasn’t playing an instrument, and the people who really educated me about bluegrass. It’s an art form that I’ll always love, and I want young artists to be educated about the blueprint that Bill Monroe and those who came after him created. The hard work that’s been put into preserving that needs to be recognized—but beyond that, there’s room for everybody!”
At the same time, she’s looking beyond bluegrass to another audience. “I can’t speak for anyone else,” she says, “but for myself, I would be bored if I never wanted to grow or change or learn or challenge myself as a musician. And so I’ve really found a pocket for myself in the Americana field, and the next album—it’s going to be another ‘Six Pack,’ I think—is going to be an Americana one, and I’m excited about that. Because in Americana, you can do anything—you can fuse it all together, bluegrass, country, blues and rock, all in one package, and have fun with that, just doing what you want to do. I love bluegrass, and I understand and respect the blueprint, but at the same time, it’s not all I want to do. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to put all of it together in a way that’s been accepted, even by bluegrass radio.”
“I like to do different projects,” Valerie concludes with a confidence inspired by a decade of pursuing her own musical path. “I’d like for people to know that I’m all artist. I do what I do because it’s me—it’s what I have to do to be true to myself. Everything I do makes sense to me, and I hope that people like it, but if they don’t, I get it; I understand. But I’m happy that there are so many people who do like it, who do get it. I like to dance, and I like to see people dance; I like bluegrass, I like country, and sometimes I like what’s just a really heartfelt song that says something about people, not just me. I try to find things that everyone can relate to when they hear them—the kind of songs that you hear and say to yourself, ‘that said what I was thinking.’ To me, an artist has to be giving, an artist has to love an audience. That’s the magic—being up there and saying, let me give the best part of myself to you. When you’re doing that, you’re doing everything you need to do.”