Set Me Free

Kevin and I began playing country songs together in the final days of recording “Almost Home.” He was teaching himself to play fiddle, and, well, I appreciated the diversion from the mind-numbing mixing process.

Late one night a few weeks later, I was behind the mixing board, Kevin was in the iso booth tracking his solo record, when he said to me, “I’m not really feelin’ this solo record. What I really want to do is start a country band.”

I met Kevin at work. His company, Sonicnet, had been swallowed by mine, MTV. For a second there, I was his boss. I responded to his mild-mannered, soft-spoken kindness. He was the first to tell me about Netflix. I was reading a lot about WWII, the Great War in which both of our grandfathers had fought, so he typed up a long list of WWII film classics. Then he got downsized.

To Kevin’s credit, he never held it against me (not that I had any say in it). Instead, we began working together out of the office. Our first collaboration was my 1999 Christmas LP. We recorded a few of my songs, plus a version of David Gray’s “Babylon.” His musical partner Gene (now fighting in Iraq) played drums. We stayed up late, made great music, and had a great time. A year or so later, he remixed “Summer’s Gone,” and produced my cover of Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home” for the “Summer’s Gone EP” (check it out on iTunes).

Recording studios are rarely fun, and they’re always expensive. But working with Kevin was always a breeze, and he always did me a solid come time for the invoice. He appreciated my music, gave subtle and supportive feedback, and could lend a hand on guitar and keyboards with no sweat and no ego. But it was more than a working relationship. He’d lend an ear and listen to the stories behind the songs, the drama unfolding behind the scrim. We’d talk about growing up in the heartland (he in Texas, me in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois). After recording, we’d grab a burger and a beer. Like friends do.

There wasn’t a lot to discuss when it came time to record the follow up to “Crash Site.” Kev recorded the band in one afternoon, and we spent a few weeks multi-tracking everything else (check out photos from the studio). In an effort to keep sane and fresh, we rarely recorded for more than four hours at a time. The result, I think, is one of my best albums. “Almost Home” sounds like dusk: loose, hazy, and sweet.

I started the country band with Kevin for a number of reasons. First, he asked. I’d play Inuit folk songs on Home Depot saws if he asked me to. He’s been that good of a friend. Second, I liked the idea of stepping out of the leading role. Initially, Kev and I split the songs down the middle. In truth, though, memorizing all those words was just too much pressure, and he know ’em all already. So I picked my faves: “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “It’s All Right” (technically not a country song, but damn fun to play), “Honky Tonk Blues.” Also, my dad’s a huge country fan. What son doesn’t want his father’s approval? And finally, I relished telling LES hipsters that my real band is a country band. What’s more punk rock than that?

So, one Saturday afternoon just a few weeks after the release of “Almost Home” release, Kev, my brother Christofer and I got together to play some songs. Kev brought lyric sheets and chord charts, and taught us “Shortenin’ Bread,” “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and dozens more. Chris and I strummed our guitars while Kevin squeaked away on his fiddle. A few weeks later, pedal steel player Nick Dedring showed up. Then Roy Shimyo. Then Ren Whittaker. Before we knew it, we were a band. And we needed a name.

I suggested The Smith Family Players. Somewhere between The Carter Family and The Trachtenburg Family Players, I thought it was generic and evocative. Plus it lent us a great back-story. I liked to say that we were long-lost cousins from a grandfather who had multiple families throughout the Midwest. (In fact, that was on our original bio for a minute there before Nick decided it was too flippant.) We dropped the “Players” and kept the rest.

In just two years, The Smith Family has performed dozens of shows, and consumed many a PBR. Perhaps our greatest adventure was last year’s Block Island Music Festival. But we’ve had equally great adventures in the far-flung corners of Brooklyn (and I got lost every time): Hank’s, Great Lakes, Pete’s Candy Store, Yabby — we rocked ’em all. Sometimes we play well, sometimes play sloppy, but always we play with heart.

Our last show is tonight. Next week, Kevin’s moving to Minnesota with his lovely girlfriend Monica. He’s “Intent on St. Paul.” I’ll be there soon, just beneath the skyway.

Thanks for everything, Kev.

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