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 Club during the first South by Southwest music conference in 1987. A recording deal with Epic Records (which is now owned by Sony) soon followed, as did a second, self-titled album.
After brief songwriting stints in Nashville and Los Angeles, Darden once again settled full-time in Texas, but he didn’t stay put for long. In 1989 he was invited by Nigel Grainge, the president of Ensign Records, to change musical colors a bit by traveling to London to write with a British musician named Boo Hewerdine. “The first day Boo and I went to write songs, we sat down in the producer’s kitchen and did ‘Reminds Me a Little of You’ in about forty-five minutes, and we looked at each other and said, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ So we wrote a song in the morning and a song in the afternoon, two songs a day for a week, and then we did a demo tape.” Eventually Darden took Boo to Austin, where they produced an album called Evidence. Less than a year later, Darden cut a more rock-oriented solo record, Trouble No More (highlighted by two singles, “Frankie and Sue” and “Midnight Train,” that got considerable radio airplay), and set out on an extensive world tour (lowlighted by a well-publicized mishap onstage in Norway when he jumped onto a speaker during a guitar solo and was promptly knocked out by the rotating blades of a ceiling fan).
Between domestic tours in 1991 and 1992, Darden’s career path took another twist when he collaborated with an Austin dance troupe on Nine Chains to the Moon. Inspired by the book of the same name, the modern dance-theater piece illustrated author Buckminster Fuller’s fanciful theory that if every man, woman, and child stood shoulder to toe, they could make nine complete chains to the moon and back. “In 1938, obviously, the moon was considered unattainable,” Darden explained. “But Fuller said we could get there nine times if we all worked together. That ended up being a perfect analogy for our creating the performance. We scraped and scrounged to raise the money we needed to stage the show at the University of Texas’ McCullough Theatre and later in Fort Worth and Waco. I don’t read music, but I learned how to play the piano and wrote an hour’s worth of this really wild, dissonant music for the dancers. The experience completely changed my regard for the creative process.”
Following the birth of his son, Eli, in 1992, Darden spent several months in New York recording Little Victories, an album he admits was calculated to keep getting his songs played on the radio. A handful of Texas music critics accused him of having overweening ambition (the Austin American-Statesman declared, “Darden Smith makes no apologies for crafting himself a showman intent on taking his music beyond Texas”), and he didn’t completely disagree with the criticism. “I was trying to find my home musically,” he explained with a shrug. “A couple of my earlier albums had been more country-based than I probably wanted them to be. The songs I had done with Boo were more like the music I listened to: more pop, British, fresher. Yes, Little Victories was produced like a pop record, but it was still just a guy and a guitar telling stories.”
He has a point. Despite the various fashionings of his sound and appearance over the years, the honesty and intelligence of Darden’s lyrics have remained constant. Whether it’s the dark image of a Civil War widow killing a Yankee soldier with her pitchfork (“Veteran’s Day”) or a young father lying awake in bed listening to the howls of a distant locomotive (“Midnight Train”), the words he sings evoke eclectic worlds few contemporary songwriters are willing to imagine. Little Victories ’ “A Place in the Sun,” for example, was inspired by a scene in Woody Guthrie’s autobiography, Bound for Glory, and the album’s title song came about after Darden failed for hours to reach a friend in California by phone during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Trouble No More’s “Fall Apart at the Seams” was written after he read Raymond Carver’s short story “Neighbors,” in which the protagonist sneaks into his neighbor’s apartment and tries on his clothes.
“Broken Branches,” a potential single from Deep Fantastic Blue, took shape one day while Darden drove Eli to his Austin preschool. “We pulled up to a stop sign. My window was down, and a homeless guy came up to the truck and asked for money. He was pretty shabby looking and pretty much stuck his whole upper body in the window. It took me aback, but Eli just smiled and said hi—he didn’t see the guy the same way I saw him. I had this moment when I realized that this homeless guy used to be somebody’s sweet little baby. Being a father, it just really hit me.” After Darden offered his explanation, he played a rough-mix recording of the song on his boombox. The words of the refrain hit with surprising force: “Hey, that’s somebody’s daughter / Hey, that’s somebody’s son / Somebody’s pride and joy / Turned out to be / The broken branch off the family tree.”
After that, we sat back and listened to the rest of the tape. The songs of Deep Fantastic Blue (the album’s ethereal title refers to a sensation Darden once experienced while meditating) range stylistically from toe-tapping, drum-programmed, pop cuts to folkish ballads and the obligatory chug-chug-chugging train tune he always seems to include on his albums. A few definitely sound like something you’d hear on the radio. “It’s an eclectic mix by design,” Darden observed. “The producer, Stewart Lerman, is a native New Yorker. The musicians playing with me are from all over the world. Graham Maby, who is Joe Jackson’s longtime bassist, is from England. Guitarist Richard Kennedy and drummer Stanley Mitchell are from New Zealand. Their musical influences are radically different from mine. I enjoy working with musicians who don’t necessarily think the way I do.”
Typically, Darden seemed indifferent to the effects Deep Fantastic Blue might have on his ever-changing and determinedly offbeat career. “Professionally I have nothing to lose,” he said. “We made the music we wanted to make, and I’m proud of it. I suppose I hope to hear songs from the album while driving my truck through Austin.” He smiled good-naturedly as he leaned forward to rewind the tape. “But the music business is not a race. You just do what you do and enjoy whatever success you manage to find.”