Guitarist for renowned string act Balsam Range, Smith is also finding success as a guitarmaker. Since his group started in 2007, he’s been spending every free moment designing and handcrafting acoustic guitars, all in an effort to find an old-time sound and tone seemingly long lost in modern day mass produced instruments.
“I’ve always been fascinated with old instruments,” he said. “Those Martin or Gibson guitar factories of the 1930s or 40s, all of those guys there could put together a guitar from start to finish individually, and people can’t do that now.”
Raised in Waynesville, Smith was always surrounded by music. His immediate family and relatives all played, with pickin’ sessions occurring at all family gatherings. Picking up the banjo at age seven, he already had interest in the music of his homeland. But, it was when he watched a “how to” video by legendary guitarist Tony Rice that everything changed. Observing the intricate and powerful finger styles of Rice, Smith was mesmerized by the precision and wide range of musical genres filtering through, from rock-n-roll to blues, jazz to bluegrass. It was all there.
“Watching that, nothing had ever affected me to the point where I knew I had to learn how to do that, to play like Tony,” Smith said.
Smith’s progression was seamless with his father, an accomplished guitar player in his own right, showing him chord progressions and finger positions. Jamming with other locals pushed the teenager to want a group of his own. After high school, he found work in a nearby plant making laminate countertop items, but the swing shifts and tiring labor took its toll. Soon, a friend offered him an opportunity to help build homes in the Great Smokies. Smith jumped on the chance.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to, but the more I worked at the plant, the more I knew I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “And my father built log homes and furniture, so that interest in carpentry was always there.”
That venture into woodworking not only provided Smith with a stable, enjoyable income, it also awakened a deep urge to do more with wood than build houses – he wanted to handcraft a guitar. Grabbing a copy of the famed book “Guitarmaking – Tradition and Technology,” he read it cover-to-cover numerous times. Eventually, it was time to take the plunge and see what his hands could do.
“The first guitar took awhile. It sounded good, but the cosmetics of it were rough,” he chuckled. “But, friends then asked me to build them one, then their friends asked, and it has kept going from there.”
And while his talents for guitarmaking quickly evolved and flourished, so did his musical aspirations. Bouncing around through a handful of moderately successful southern gospel and mountain music groups, he eventually crossed paths with a childhood friend Buddy Melton. An acclaimed fiddler, Melton called Smith to see if he wanted to come down to his place to play with some other locals. Those “locals” turned out to also be a trio of accomplished musicians that included banjoist Marc Pruett, mandolinist Darren Nicholson and bassist Tim Surrett. Each had been touring the country for years; each was back in their hometown, off the road and eager to just jam.
“They had lined up a jam at Darren’s house and needed a guitar player,” Smith said. “Buddy called and asked if I was free. It was just five guys eating pizza and playing bluegrass.”
It was during that impromptu get together when the quintet realized they had something. It fit together, sounded right and birthed a tone that was completely their own. They knew the ensemble had to play onstage. Starting with local performances, the concerts grew bigger and bigger. After recording an album of originals and Bill Monroe covers, satellite radio quickly picked up the melodies and things began to take off.
“It’s gone by really fast, and we’ve all worked very hard,” Smith said. “It was magic when we started first playing together. We decided people are going to want to hear this, so we decided to go for it.”
And six years after its inception, Balsam Range is a train that keeps rolling down the tracks onto the national scene. After being nominated for numerous International Bluegrass Music Awards (IBMA), they finally struck gold with the 2011 award for “Song of the Year” with their hit “Trains I Missed,” which charted No. 1 on Sirius/XM Radio. That album (of the same title) was ranked “Bluegrass Album of the Year” on the 88.7 FM (WNCW) countdown.
In 2012, the group was brought into the studio by bassist John Driskell Hopkins (Zac Brown Band) to back him on his critically acclaimed solo album, “Daylight.” It was then Smith was asked to construct a guitar for Hopkins and one as a surprise for Brown. The guitars were dreadnought sized, made of highly figured Brazilian rosewood for the back and sides, with Adirondack spruce tops built to specs from mid-1930’s Martin guitars. Smith was invited to present the gift at a recent Dave Matthews Band concert in Atlanta, where Zac Brown Band was opening.
“He played the guitar for about 20 minutes with a big smile on his face, so I took that as a good sign,” Smith said.
With Balsam Range and his guitarmaking pushing further into the mainstream, Smith is grateful and feels blessed for the happiness he has found in all aspects of music. A lot of that joy comes from always keeping one foot in his dreams and one foot firmly planted in the land of his ancestors. Western North Carolina will always be his home, and that’s something he’s immensely proud of.
“With the band we travel a lot and see a lot of great places,” he said. “But, there is nothing like here. You talk to people not from here and they say the same thing. Southern Appalachia is a pretty special place.”