Band: Jesse Daniel Edwards, The Smart Brothers
Date: Thursday, June 29, 8 p.m.
Venue: Callaghan’s Irish Social Club, 916 Charleston St., www.callaghansirishsocialclub.com
Tickets: Call 251-433-9374 for more info
While Callaghan’s hosts a wide variety of musicians, Americana has remained a staple for the neighborhood pub. Several years ago Nashville duo The Smart Brothers debuted at Callaghan’s, introducing the Azalea City to their classically influenced folk sounds. Jay and Lou Smart won over the crowd with their acoustic-based harmonic sermons forged from life experience.
As they grew in popularity across the Southeast and beyond, The Smart Brothers regularly included Callaghan’s in their rigorous tour schedule. But after several years, their regular Mobile performances unexpectedly ceased — until now. Jay and Lou Smart will return to Callaghan’s June 29 for an evening of smooth Americana and new material reflecting where they’ve been for the past few years.
Lagniappe went to Jay Smart for an explanation of The Smart Brothers’ sudden departure, which has its roots in the band’s early days. When the duo started, Jay says, he and his brother built their project on a foundation that began with busking and later moved to the stage. As they grew in popularity, The Smart Brothers realized it would be more profitable to focus on live performances than recorded material.
Eventually, the duo established a rigorous tour schedule Jay says included “270-odd dates a year from Florida to Virginia and all around the Southeast and the West Coast.” Their efforts to finance their lives through music forced the brothers to remain on the road, with little time for the studio or their family and friends.
“Playing live, especially with low-key genres, is a good way to make money,” Jay Smart said. “The hard part is that you have to be at every show. You’ve got to be ready every show to leave all onstage and bring it. So we got pigeonholed into having to perform. We were a live band. We didn’t have many recordings. The opportunities that we got were all live. We weren’t getting any other opportunities in other aspects of music. It was grueling for a few years.”
Jay admits the duo’s time on the road was educational. Their DIY regimen taught both Jay and Lou the ins and outs of the music business. They learned to book their own shows as well as act as their own publicists. They also benefited from a connection made with John Prine’s longtime manager, Al Bunetta, who placed the two growing songwriters in the midst of a group of Music Row professionals. During the sessions, Jay and Lou learned songwriting techniques they still use.
“[Music Row songwriters] churn out material and know what sells,” Smart said. “They look at it like sanding down a chest of drawers [rather] than the ‘Mona Lisa.’ That was a formative experience for us. It helped us formulate a process that works for us and made us professional writers.”
Even though their music career was gradually thriving, The Smart Brothers became disillusioned with their endeavors. Their financial dependence on live performances left them bewildered as to how and when to take the next step in their musical career, either with a studio album and/or a label deal.
Jay Smart says their frustration began to seep into their music, replacing optimistic subject matter and arrangements with reflections on the stress of road life away from family and friends, matched with tense “chord structures.” Eventually their love affair with music began to fade.
“It was so hard trying to figure out what we wanted to do with it,” Smart explained. “We were pretty young. We learned that the greatest takeaway was the craft of songwriting and being professional, but coming full circle, it was about loving and enjoying music again. It got lost in the mix.”
The Smart Brothers quietly left the madness of the road and slowly shifted back to more stable surroundings. However, they have maintained busy daily schedules. Jay says when his brother Lou isn’t spending time with his wife and children he distributes a “vegan, gluten-free” form of hummus made from nuts. Since starting this venture, Lou has gone from selling his food products at farmer’s markets to distribution in major grocery stores. Jay continues to work in the music business behind the scenes. He says he spent years as Morrissey’s tour manager.
While their touring has stopped, neither brother has made a complete departure from performing. Currently, the brothers are cutting a record, with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers bassist Ron Blair as producer. Jay and Lou’s younger brother, Harrison, is providing the drums for this album. According to Jay, the time off from performing has resulted in new material he describes as “good or better than anything you’ll hear.” He also likens the sonic quality of this next step in the musical evolution as “reminiscent of the Eagles.” Ultimately, Jay credits their time off as one of the biggest benefits to both their songwriting and their work ethic.
“We’re using everything that we’ve learned with The Smart Brothers in the past,” said Smart. “Now that we have the know-how, we want to apply it. We have a little bit of hard-earned wisdom. There’s always more to learn, because everything is changing all the time.”
With the duo older and wiser, Jay says the upcoming months will serve as a “set-up year” for The Smart Brothers. Once the album is completed, the two will use their knowledge to take their new material into unfamiliar realms. Jay assures those familiar with their previous work they won’t be disappointed with the new material. Their new album will maintain the heart and soul Jay and Lou skillfully extract from daily life.
“You have to live a pretty full life to have anything to write about,” said Smart. “Writing comes from that. We’ve been doing the same things as always but more grown-up. We’ve got families and jobs and things like that.”