The following is a Flatpicking Guitar Magazine feature written by Dan Miller
Over the past twenty years, nearly every one of the young professional flatpicking guitar players that I have interviewed for this magazine have listed Kenny Smith as one of their major influences. Kenny’s fluid, clean, powerful, inventive, and exciting guitar solos are enough to turn any guitar player’s head. The fact that he also makes everything he plays look so effortless is equally impressive. Kenny looks so calm, cool and collected as his fingers smoothly dance across the fingerboard that one wonders how he is able to coax all of the rich tone, volume, and note clarity out of his instrument while playing at lightening fast tempos with such economy of motion and complete relaxation. His dexterity and precision while playing fast bluegrass breakdowns are complimented by his equally impressive ability to play soulful, heart-grabbing leads on slow ballads and gospel tunes. Kenny’s technical ability on the guitar is impressive, but whether he is playing fast or slow, rhythm or lead, he knows how to speak through his guitar in a way that connects with his audience on an emotional level. Many bluegrass guitar players are impressive to watch because of their technical prowess, but Kenny’s playing also grabs your heart, gets your blood pumping, and lifts your spirit. It is music that feels good, is fun to watch performed, and pleasing to the ear…the whole package.
Over the years Kenny has worked with Claire Lynch (in the mid-1990’s), the Lonesome River Band (1996 through 2001), the Kenny and Amanda Smith band (2000 through present), and now, most recently, with The Band of Ruhks. He has maintained a continued high-profile presence on the bluegrass circuit and flatpicking guitar scene since the mid-1990s. He has not only impressed young bluegrass fans, but the older fans also enjoy and praise Kenny’s guitar playing and his music. When Kenny appeared on the cover of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine back in the March/April 2000 issue he said, “I want to interest George Shuffler as much as the younger guys, too. As long as George says I’m okay and nods his head, I fell like I’ve maybe done something that’s good.” Kenny is always pushing the boundaries of the music forward, but he also embraces the music’s tradition.
We first featured Kenny in Flatpicking Guitar Magazine in our “Masters of Rhythm Guitar” column in the March/April 1997 issue. At that time Kenny was a member of the Lonesome River Band. Although that band has been performing and recording consistently since 1982, one of the band’s most popular and powerful configurations was touring and recording from 1996 through 2001. That band consisted of Don Rigsby on mandolin, Sammy Shelor on banjo, Ronnie Bowman on bass, and Kenny Smith on guitar. Three of those musicians have recently come full circle with the formation of The Band of Ruhks, featuring Don Rigsby, Ronnie Bowman, and Kenny Smith.
When asked about how The Band of Ruhks came together, Kenny said, “A few years ago we were hired to play a Lonesome River Band reunion and we had so much fun performing together that Don and Ronnie and I started talking about doing more shows. That led to a recording in 2015.” Kenny feels that the band has a “newer sound” that is different than the Lonesome River Band. He said, “We pushed our boundaries a little by adding drums to some songs and by selecting a wider variety of material. Some songs are country sounding, others are rowdy blues songs that are more rockin’.” The original name of the band was the Rooks, but when they discovered that there was already a heavy metal band called the Rooks, they changed the name to The Band of Ruhks.
When Kenny Smith left the Lonesome River Band in 2001 he quickly went to work touring with his wife Amanda Smith and the Kenny and Amanda Smith band. They immediately captured the attention of the bluegrass world and won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Emerging Artist of the Year award in 2003. Kenny has won the IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year award twice (1998 and 1999) and Amanda won the IBMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year in 2014. The band has recorded six albums to date and is getting ready to go into the studio in April of 2016 to record a new album.
In addition to performing with the full bluegrass band (which currently includes John Meyer or Justin Jenkins on banjo, Jacob Burleson on mandolin, and Kyle Perkins on bass), Kenny and Amanda also perform duo shows. When asked how the Kenny and Amanda Smith band’s music has evolved over the years, Kenny said, “Our song choices are different. We are not trying to stay as traditional as we were in the past. I think our music has more of a contemporary feel to it now. We are always looking for songs that are different and songs that speak to us.” A fairly new development in Kenny and Amanda’s life, one that may certainly inspire some new tunes, was the birth of their daughter, Annabelle, in 2015.
One of the things that Kenny really enjoys about the newest configuration of the Kenny and Amanda Smith band is the rhythm section. Kenny said, “We’ve got the right rhythm section and it just happened. It wasn’t something that we practiced or that was learned. It was just the right combination of players. We all feel the groove the same way and everything jelled from the very beginning. We knew that it was right from the first time we played together. We just set it on cruise and headed down the highway. Of course, Kyle played with J.D. Crowe, so he learned from the master.”
When it comes to rhythm playing, Kenny is also one of the masters. Having played with the Lonesome River Band for six years early in his career—one of the most hard-driving, rhythmically solid bluegrass bands—was certainly a great learning environment for Kenny, but he was already a pretty accomplished rhythm player when he joined that band. In our first interview with Kenny, back in 1997, he gave a lot of credit for his strong rhythm guitar foundation to his dad. He said, “Dad played the fiddle and he didn’t like things to drag. He was always on me about keeping the beat. My dad also took me to a lot of fiddle contests and that gave me a lot of rhythm practice. In Indiana the only contests they had were fiddle and banjo. There wasn’t any guitar contests. My dad played fiddle and my brother played banjo and so I would play rhythm for them, and others, at the contests. My only trophy was when the contest winner would say, ‘Well, I couldn’t have done it without that rhythm player’.”
Since it has been nearly twenty years since we’ve talked about rhythm guitar playing with Kenny, I asked how his rhythm has changed over the years. Kenny said, “My chord voicings are a little more complex. I use more inversions, depending on what the bass player is doing. I think that keeping out of the bass player’s way by using chord inversions brings more weight to the music. If you are not playing the exact bass note that the bass is playing I think it fills out the music and sounds different than if the guitar player and bass player are playing the same notes. I’m not that heavy on chord extensions, but I like to play inversions up in the area of the fifth or seventh frets. I’ll play just three notes and let the notes ring. I also pay more attention to passing tones when I’m moving between chords. I’m not trying to stand out. I’m just trying to support.”
Another aspect of Kenny’s rhythm guitar playing that may differ from other bluegrass players is his focus on the off beat strum. He said, “I lean more on the chop part of the beat…on the mandolin chop side of it. I listen to that part of the beat. I want that to be full and bring that part of the rhythm out. There is a bass note happening, but I’m not thinking about it. I think that players who focus on the bass notes end up sounding like they are playing bass and their chop will be weak. I can tell by listening when someone thinks that way. To me it feels lopsided and not as full. I think that guitar rhythm sounds fuller if you think about the chop side of the beat.”
Regarding the execution of the rhythm strum, Kenny said, “I also listen for the right tone when I strum the guitar. If you hit the strings just right it will growl. That is what I want to hear. If you pinch your pick too hard you get away from the tone of the growl. I just barely hold the pick. If you grip the pick tight you get a harsh and bright tone that is more pointed and narrow. With a loose grip and loose wrist you get a fatter sound that is more raw. That is the growl. It takes a while to get it right. It doesn’t happen over night.”
In addition to focusing on the off beat chop while playing rhythm, Kenny also envisions the right hand mechanics of bluegrass rhythm as a perpetual circle. He said, “I don’t think of it as a bass, then strum. I think of it as a circle with no ending or beginning. I don’t think about separate movements. I’m not thinking boom-chick. My mind is thinking about circular and connected movements. You can hear the separation, but it sounds more connected. The attack is different. I think that my down stroke on the first and third beats are more chunky and then after the strum there is a little upstroke, but it is very subtle.”
Overall, Kenny views the role of the rhythm guitar player in the band as the “connector” between all of the other instruments. He said, “If you have the right growl on your strum, it compliments the chop of the mandolin. The guitar player’s job is to connect the bass with what is happening with the mandolin. The banjo’s roll is like what the drummer would have going on. You don’t want to repeat anything that anyone else is doing. You want to connect. You have to be humble enough to listen to what is going on all around you and help bring it together. When it is all happening the right way and everyone is playing their own role it is a beautiful thing.”
The most important job of the rhythm section is to keep solid time. Kenny said that in a bluegrass band he has noticed that if the guitar player doesn’t jump in and fill the back beat void when the mandolin player is taking his solo, the band tends to speed up. He said, “When the mandolin player is taking his solo I will keep the beat and make my strum more percussive to fill the void. The band’s timing can get screwed up if you don’t jump on it. If you don’t take over and fill in for that missing mandolin chop, it seems to me that what happens is the bass player feels the void and starts to speed up to fill in the gap. In other words, if nothing is there, where the mandolin chop used to be, it feels as if the timing is slowing down and so the bass player will compensate by speeding up and so everyone speeds up.”
As a lead guitar player Kenny first came to be recognized as a top rate player in the early 1990s when he was competing in national flatpicking guitar contests. He entered the Merlefest contest in 1991 and placed second and he came back to win that contest in 1992. Although he never won the National Flatpicking Guitar Championship held in Winfield, Kansas, at the Walnut Valley Festival each September, he placed third in 1992, second in 1993 and third in 1994.
Looking back at the development of his lead guitar playing, Kenny said that lately he has been listening to be-bop players and it has rubbed off. He said, “Lately I have been listening to Eddie Costa on the piano. I also like listening to the country guitar players who were influenced by jazz like Clint Strong and Hank Garland as well as steel players like Buddy Emmons, and The Texas Troubadours, Leon Rhodes and Buddy Charleton. I like to figure out steel guitar licks on the guitar.”
When asked how these players have influenced his lead guitar work, Kenny said, “The movement of my lead lines are a little more outside than they used to be and my phrasing is different. I don’t always resolve on the beat and my phrasing is a little more syncopated. I pay more attention to where I start out and where I land. I probably land on a third or a fifth more than the root. I think that there is more impact when you land on a third, fifth, or seventh.”
Although Kenny has been playing the guitar professionally for over twenty-five years he said that he has picked up the guitar to practice more in the past ten years than he has in his whole life. He said, “I’m constantly learning new stuff. Learning the fingerboard is a non-stop thing.” When asked if his practice time is focused, Kenny said, “Yes, I always practice with a certain thing in mind. If I’m playing in G, I might focus on landing on the third on each chord change. I might practice that for a couple of days and then change to landing on the fifth and work through that. I also might work on a certain phrase and play that phrase in every position. Lately I’ve also been working on the area between the 4th and 7th frets. There was a time when I skipped over that part of the neck. I’m spending more time there lately and experimenting. There is a lot of good stuff there!”
Although Kenny is a talented improvisational player, he said that there are certain songs that he performs on stage that he will play like he played on the recording. He said, “Certain signature things I will try to play like I recorded them. They may have actually been improvised in the studio, but once the recording is out and people are familiar with the way it was recorded, I’ll try to stay true to that. When I was young I had the experience of going to see a Van Halen concert. I was excited to see Van Halen play a solo that I liked on the record, but during the show he played it different and I was disappointed.”
If Kenny is in a jam session and has to take a solo on a song that he has not heard before he said that the first thing that he does is listen for the map of the melody. He said, “I listen for where it moves from low to high, or high to low, I listen for a hook, I listen for anything that gives it a strong character and then I’ll try to reproduce that in my solo. I will try to have the melody swirling in my head and I try to follow that. I may not play the exact notes, but I try to follow a general map of the melody. I think if you have a rough map of the melody in your mind you can avoid just playing a bunch of licks. You are following the tune and not just playing the same old stuff. It is harder to do it that way, but I think that it pays off.”
Over the years Kenny has been known as a vintage guitar and guitar building and repair aficionado. He actually spent some time working for the Gallagher Guitar Company in the mid-1990s and he has done repair work on many guitars over the years. He is known for playing his 1935 Martin D-18, which he has owned since 1995. But most recently he has become a big fan of the old Regal guitars. He owns a 1948 Regal “Milord” ladder-braced jumbo model. He said that when he has to fly to a show he will take the Regal, but when he is not flying he plays his trusty old D-18. Kenny uses his signature model Blue Chip pick.
For this issue’s audio CD, Kenny has provided a tune from his second solo CD Return. The song is “Cumberland Gap.” Return, released in 2011, was reviewed in our September/October 2011 issue. Return was Kenny’s second solo CD. His first was the very popular and well received Studebaker, released in 1997 and reviewed in our November/December 1997 issue. The transcription of “Cumberland Gap” can be found on the pages that immediately follow this article.