Americana Highways recently spoke with Austin-based Americana musician Darden Smith, who serves as creative director for Songwriting With: Soldiers. Founded in 2012, the organization holds retreats where songwriters work with veterans to help them express their stories and feelings, to promote healing. Mary Gauthier was recently nominated for a Grammy for her work with Smith’s organization and her resulting album Rifles and Rosary Beads.
As our conversation began, I hesitated to refer to Darden Smith a “musician,” as he embraces such an expansive concept of a musician’s career. We discussed his various projects, his influences, and his plans for the future. Darden is a man with his fingers in a lot of pies: “The less I’m bored,” he said, “the more I’m excited.”
The weekend before we spoke, he’d completed a retreat for Songwriting With: Soldiers in Bluemont, Virginia. Next year, retreats are planned in Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, and upstate New York.
In addition to Songwriting With: Soldiers, Darden works with students at schools and universities in his Be An Artist Program. He’s even taken his songwriting skills to corporate engagements. Darden disclosed he’s found it incredibly rewarding to “write songs with people who don’t write songs.”
Darden also recently released a book, which was a personal manifesto on creativity and work-life balance, The Habit of Noticing, to positive reviews. He took photos and made the drawings in the book and created text specifically for the project. Working at a library with no Wi-Fi, starting five years ago, he began crafting the pieces, and kept coming back to them. The final step, he said, was to shape them into poem-like forms on the page, although, he says, they’re fundamentally prose.
Darden has an art exhibit coming up in February. On that, he remarked that, “even when I’m making art, it’s still based around music.” He remains engaged in both writing and playing. He’ll be leading songwriting workshops in England in June, and he plays 20-25 live dates a year. I asked him about house concerts — we met at one a week earlier — and he said he really enjoys getting “up close and personal” with audiences.
“In order to make a living at [playing] music for 20 years,” he observed, “it takes a lot of different skills.” A career as a working musician, he explained, requires a whole set of practical skills to be successful.
Darden came from a country music background. At 10 or 11, Leon Russell’s album Carny made a big impression on him, as did Neil Young’s Harvest. In his high school years, Darden became interested in Texas musicians like Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and the transplanted Jerry Jeff Walker, as well as Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers, and Jackson Browne. In college, he discovered English music: Nick Lowe, the Pretenders.
It’s always interesting, and often surprising, to find out what working musicians are listening to currently. Darden told me he’s really into Latin American music and has become a big fan of Gang of Youths, the War on Drugs, and Jorge Drexler. He listens to a lot of jazz; “I get tired of words,” he said. As far as the Americana genre, he had high praise for Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves.
As for models in the music business, he named Rodney Crowell and Tom Waits. Darden admires Rodney for the way he “keeps working and challenging himself.” Rodney makes an appearance in Darden’s book, in a motivating quote telling Darden that people who don’t have to work lose their edge, and their songs start to suck.
Tom Waits, Darden said, “has a skill set, but keeps expanding it.” Tom has the music, which is exceptional, but he also has another career in theater, which Darden pointed out that most people in the States are completely unaware of.
When we spoke, Darden was back in Austin. He’ll spend the holidays there with his family. He plays his last show of the year on December 28 in Austin at the Rock Room.