DARDEN SMITH is tough to categorize. He’s not a 350-pound yodeler, nor does he sport Eraserhead hair or Hollywood cheekbones, and he has never sashayed onstage wearing lizard-skin cowboy boots and embarrassingly tight Wranglers. His act is a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll—think of Hank Williams with gelled hair and an earring. Since the release of his self-produced debut album, Native Soil, in 1986, the 34-year-old’s career has incorporated a stylistic mishmash of cultural influences from Austin, Nashville, London, New York, and Los Angeles, though his die-hard fans know that his musical roots are decidedly Texan and that his songwriting skills compare favorably with those of the very best Texas has to offer, folks like Robert Earl Keen and James McMurtry.
This month, Darden releases his sixth album, Deep Fantastic Blue (Plump Records), and it should confirm his reputation as a chameleon. For most of the past decade, critics have been mildly frustrated by his Proteus-like changeability: On one album he wears a cowboy hat and a stars-and-stripes lapel pin; on another he has shoulder-length hair and looks distinctly hung over; on another he’s decked out in a hip black T-shirt and two earrings. They wonder where he might be now had he remained true to a single musical path—like, say, Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Darden, too, musically seems uneasy with his competing styles; onstage, for example, he introduces one of his songs by remarking that he once heard it on an airline’s easy listening channel. Yet on Deep Fantastic Blue, he goes his own way again. He tries to recapture the moodier, stripped-down sound that he brought to numerous Kerrville Folk Festivals back in the eighties while maintaining the more mainstream, pop-rock appeal that got him exposure on VH-1, arena tours opening for Stevie Nicks and Joan Baez, and a chance to perform his biggest single to date, “Loving Arms,” on the Tonight show.
During a break from the album’s final mixing at the Plump studios in lower Manhattan, Darden sat down to talk in the small Chelsea hotel he had called home for the better part of a month. His room was filled with books (Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion, biographies of Michelangelo and choreographer Bill T. Jones), snapshots of his four-year-old son, Eli, sketchpads, and a boombox stacked high with CDs by, among others, Louis Armstrong, John Prine, and the Everly Brothers. Wearing black jeans, a snug V-necked T-shirt, and a pair of vintage work boots, Darden looked as tall and muscular as a tight end. His hair was stylishly short, and his blue eyes seemed backlit by a kind of wistfulness, especially when we discussed his recent divorce and his infrequently visited home in Austin. But he perked up when we talked about his career. After a nine-year relationship with Sony Music, which ended by mutual agreement in 1995 (freeing him from a six-figure production debt), he seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the creative freedom that comes with recording for an independent label.
“I love hybrids,” Darden said, explaining Deep Fantastic Blue ’s sound. “I love artists who pull music from outside of where they come from. Bob Wills was this country-dance-band guy who used jazz musicians and played Benny Goodman—type swing in a country music format. Duke Ellington pulled in music from all over the place. ”
The folk roots of Darden’s music are planted fairly deep in small-town Texas topsoil. “I was raised in the country, in a farmhouse about three miles west of Brenham,” he said. As he glanced out the window at the accordion squeeze of neighboring brownstones, his drawl suddenly became more pronounced. “When I was in the third grade my grandmother gave me six chickens and a rooster, and I’d sell eggs to the neighbors for fifty cents a dozen. We belonged to a Lutheran church in Brenham—that’s where my first musical experience was. I remember sitting next to this huge pipe organ one Sunday, and how my seat rattled from the bass notes. I thought about that for weeks—how good, loud music could rattle your seat. I began taking guitar lessons from the preacher and then the choir director’s daughter. She taught me all of Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. Then, in the fifth grade, I started writing songs. My first song, strangely enough, was about Charlemagne.” He chuckled as he uncrossed his long legs. “I don’t think I even knew who Charlemagne was, but I liked his name.”
Darden’s first paying gig, he recalled, was at the old rodeo grounds in Wimberley, a Hill Country town 45 minutes from Austin. “I was in the eighth grade,” he said. “My brother and I sang in the announcer’s booth over the microphone in the parking lot—we did this song I wrote about a cousin of mine who had taken off to be a cowboy. We wore cowboy boots and cowboy hats.” He grinned and glanced down at his black jeans. “I grew up wearing cowboy gear, but I stopped wearing it when everybody else started.”
Darden attended Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos for a year and a half and soon started playing shows in small Austin venues like the Alamo Lounge, Taco Flats, and Waterloo Ice House. “Just me and a guitar. After a while I started playing with a bluegrass band called the Ramblers. This was probably ’82. I put a little press kit together and started gigging through the South: North Carolina, Mississippi. Just drive, drive, drive, doing these gigs, playing pizza parlors. But it was cool because it taught me how to play.”
In 1986 Darden started his own recording label, Redi-Mix Records, and produced Native Soil with longtime pals Roland Denney on bass and Paul Pearcy on drums; Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith, who were then up-and-coming stars, provided backing vocals. That album of country songs led to a partnership with Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, who produced a demo of Darden’s new material, and a showcase at Austin’s Continental