Valerie Smith was just 9 years old when the seed for her song, “Sweeter Field of Clover,” was planted. While camping in South Dakota, she dreamed that her beloved grandfather had passed on. “He was under a tree, telling me that he loved me, and I woke up,” she remembers. “Later that day, the state patrol found my parents at our campsite and said he had died of a heart attack that morning.”
She tried for years to write about the vision, but her attempts were, by her own admission, “dark and depressing.” The song finally came to fruition one day as she and husband Kraig Smith were driving in their car in her home state of Missouri. “I saw this hill and this oak tree with this beautiful green clover grass. And I said, ’You know, that was just like my dream.’ All of the sudden, the melody and everything started coming in my head.”
The moving ballad is one of two songs Smith co-wrote for her second album, Turtle Wings, released in June. Producer Alan O’Bryant of the Nashville Bluegrass Band discovered a rough draft while rummaging through Smith’s stash of songs prior to recording. Although she was reluctant to include such a deeply personal composition on her album, Smith reworked it with O’Bryant until she felt she could let it go. Like “Sweeter Field of Clover,” most of Smith’s original work explores the most private parts of her experience. As a result, she limits the number of her own songs on an album, preferring to balance her work with other songwriters’ material.
“Sweeter Field of Clover” required some special effort. “It took the three of us [Smith, her husband and O’Bryant] to get that sucker out!” she laughs. “I needed Alan’s help to make it less personal. I think writing this song was a healing process, to acknowledge the dream and look at it as a gift.”
Smith is a music teacher by profession. She studied at the Conservatory of Music at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Inspired by her studies in jazz, opera, Broadway, classical music and theater, she returned to Holt, her hometown, to write musicals and plays for her students. She has sung since age 11, but a recurring allergic reaction caused her throat to swell, threatening her career. When she couldn’t sing, she played the fiddle because she found it to be the most expressive instrument and closest to her voice. A doctor correctly diagnosed the swelling as a beef allergy and put her back on track.
Smith relocated to Nashville in 1992, first taking a job in an ad agency, then teaching junior high music classes while she sang in Nashville-area venues. One of her regular haunts was the Bell Buckle Café in Bell Buckle, Tenn., 45 miles from Nashville, a place known for its low-key atmosphere and songwriters’ nights. She found a creative home there and struck up a friendship with the owner, J. Gregory Heinike. “When I discovered it, I thought, oh, this is where I want to be! Where I can just sit out on the sidewalk with friends and play fiddle tunes, sing songs and write songs with other musicians, and just do it for the love of the music,” Smith explains.
That enthusiasm spilled over into a business proposition. Heinike’s patrons wanted recordings of the eclectic artists passing through his café. He came up with the idea to record them live, and Bell Buckle Records was born. Smith shared ideas with Heinike, and eventually she and her husband became his partners in the new venture. Heinike eventually convinced Smith to make a record of her own, 1997’s Patchwork Heart. Today the label’s roster has expanded to include other acts including 7-year-old banjo prodigy Ryan Holladay.
Smith wanted O’Bryant to produce her album. She had seen the Nashville Bluegrass Band and knew he was a songwriter. Although he had never produced an album before, O’Bryant agreed to work on her debut and on Turtle Wings. Both albums have national distribution through respected bluegrass imprint Rebel Records.
Smith’s latest offering is more contemporary sounding, blending country, swing and bluegrass. “My first album was more classic — it acknowledged that part of my life. This is more of a stretch for me, an attempt to mold my sound.” Her band, Liberty Pike, includes Travis Alltop, Shelia Wingate, Andy Leftwich and Allen Watkins. Many first-rate musicians joined them for the project, including members of the Nashville Bluegrass Band (Roland White, Stuart Duncan, Gene Libbea and O’Bryant), Bryan Sutton, Missy Raines, Jim Hurst, Rob Ickes, Kathy Chiavola, Jonell Mosser and Ron Gannaway (percussionist for Steve Wariner).
The song list includes a cover of the Del McCoury favorite, “I Feel the Blues Moving In.” Smith sings a duet with Tim O’Brien on the melancholy “Oh Mandolin.” The swinging “Dancin’ By the River” showcases another facet of her musical personality, as does the countrified title track. Both songs include light percussion.
“I’ve been told I’m not bluegrass,” Smith states emphatically, but she makes no apologies for her music. “I just do what I do, and a lot of it ends up sounding bluegrass and ends up being played on bluegrass radio.” The highly personal song inspired by her grandfather’s death, “Sweeter Field of Clover,” features gentle mandolin and fiddle riffs and rich harmony. It could easily fit the bluegrass format.
“But I get stuff played on country radio, too. And I get stuff played on Americana, so … I’m an ’it,'” she says, bursting into her characteristic bubbly laugh. “It’s like hair color — you just try to be as natural as you can. Don’t try to walk uphill. You just gotta go with it.”