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Cracker Producer Don Smith. A Very Young Don Smith 1981.
Although most of Gentleman’s Blues was recorded at the legendary Bearsville studios near woodstock NY a few of the tracks were radically revamped in Agoura Hills at Don Smith’s studio “Costalot” (see #48 Friends).
We were supposed to be mixing by the time we got to Don Smith’s place but mixing is a very loose concept when you are working with Don. It might suddenly involved singing the lead vox again, putting a new drum track on the song, or in the case of these two songs, completely stripping them back to the acoustic guitar part, vocal and drums, then starting anew.
When I walked into the studio I had expected to see Benmont Tench (from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) there working on a hammond and piano part. This was planned. Benmont had been playing on our records since the very first album. (he is actually on Kerosene Hat uncredited).But I did not expect Mike Campbell to be there. Mike was playing a plinky muted guitar part to the track “My Life” that along with Benmont Tench’s bubbly organ part the song was completely transformed. And much to my relief no longer sounded like a b-side or an outtake. I had begun to worry that this song was living up to part of it’s title. Boring. I guess Don had been thinking the same thing cause he, Mike and Benmont pretty much rearranged the song.
Benmont Tench sets The Controls to the heart of the San Fernando Valley by way of Florida.
Okay, Okay, this is probably cool. At least that’s what I was thinking. Johnny’s part was still in there and he generally doesn’t get too territorial about sharing the guitar space when it’s one of his heroes like Mike Campbell.
But then what started to happen next really started to make me wonder what Johnny was gonna think.Don put up the track to The Good Life. And again he stripped it back to acoustic guitar drums and lead vocal.This song hadn’t really been bothering me or anything but I did feel unfinished in some way. It certainly didn’t feel like a lead off track or a single.
Johnny had a fairly rock lead at the top of the song, and also in the middle. It seemed like a nice album track.But Don was just listening to the song Acoustic guitar vocals and drums. He was doing his patented head bob, which everyone who worked with him knows.
Bounce your head up and down in time on the quarter notes, but alternate which speaker you are looking at on the 2 and the 4. It’s very dramatic if you have a big ‘fro like Don did. And it usually meant he was digging the track. The groove.
He hadn’t been doing this before. Not till he stripped it back.”Mike just play along”.Mike Cambell nearly immediately-say within 8 bars-is playing the signature riff that starts the song. This is not the what Johnny had played. In fact Mike probably hadn’t heard anything that Johnny had played.
“yeah man that’s great” Don encouraged him.
Only it didn’t sound like that. Don was from Texas,his accent and his unknown ethnicity made him nearly impossible to understand unless you’d worked with him for a few weeks. So that probably sounded like:
“yahhmamnumuh dat n grayheyy”
And yep it was great except I was thinking “Uh oh, what is Johnny gonna think”. Shit. It transformed the song. It made it way better.
Don Smith. No head bob.
Now before you think Don Smith was some arrogant producer guy who just never consulted the band and did whatever he wanted, let me tell you he was not. I’d never really seen him do anything like this before with Cracker. In fact Don usually never told anybody what to play other than the most general suggestions.
“lay it back a little”
“what if you straightened out the drums”
or his classic
“I don’t think it’s done yet. Not sure why. Let’s move on to something else”
If a song didn’t work he just moved on to something else. Always. Don was more about vibe than anything. Setting the mood. Great sounds of course. Amazing 3D stereo soundstage in his mixes. But yeah he worked on some entirely hidden or unseen level. As drummer Michael Urbano said in about Don
As I get older I’m finding most of my greatest lessons were taught to me years ago when I wasn’t looking. Don Smith was the best. He didn’t construct records on a grid. He created a space, to conjure a vibe, then captured the beast out of thin air and trapped it onto a tape or a hard drive. All with a Cheshire Cat smile on his face.
Cracker and crew during recording of Kerosene Hat. Pioneertown CA. Bugs, Michael Urbano, Davey Faragher, David Lowery, Don Smith, Johnny Hickman and Rich Hasel.
So I’d never seen Don so deliberately take a song apart and construct it anew. AND I was freaking out about what Johnny would say when he got to the studio.By the time Johnny did get to the studio, a totally different song had been constructed. Benmont had added some good atmospheric keys. It was sounding like.. well a little like a single.
When Johnny did walk in Don just acted like it was no big deal.
“Hey Johnny check this out,… check what Mike just played … it’s awesome, awesome”
(which actually sounded like this to the rest of you mortals:
Johnny cocked his head to one side. Like he knew the song. it was familiar but couldn’t quite name the song. I was on pins and needles wondering what was gonna happen.
“Oh my god” when the vocals came in and he finally figured out it was the good life. ”That’s way better than my old part”. He then slapped Don on the back, or high fived him or something suitably manly.
That’s the great thing about Johnny, he can keep his ego out of the way. If it makes the song better it makes the song better. And he quickly grabbed a guitar and added that slide answer to Mike Campbells guitar lick. Second fiddle to Mike Campbell? No big deal.
Don hard at work behind the console. Gentleman’s Blues era.
I think this was on the patio at his home studio he joking referred to as Cost-a-lot.
Don probably mid early 1980′s. His sauve period.
Don Smith 2009. Scarf? Why not. If anyone calls me a pussy remember I’ve got Keith Richard’s knife.
Don Smith died on Jan 26th 2010. A few hours after my father died. It was quite a sad day. In many ways Don was like a father figure to me also. At least when it came to making records. (Dennis Herring of course is more like a mischievous big brother).
Don had an incredible discography as an Audio Engineer and Producer. His most famous stuff and the stuff he was most proud of was his work with Keith Richards and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. His friendship with Keith, Benmont and Mike Campbell was quite deep.
When Johnny Hickman Davey Faragher and I drove out to meet him in 1991 he was working at a small studio in the far western valley. Chatsworth which primarily known as the hollywood of the porno industry.
We walked from the bright sunlight into the dim room. There were candles lit. It smelled of burnt sage, and the walls were covered with tapestries and all manners of vibe making gear*.
Don was wearing a flat brimmed cowboy hat of some kind. His ample curly hair was sticking out on either side of the hat, he was smoking aschimmelpenninck cigarillo. There was a large switchblade on the mixing desk. Open. It appeared to have a real pearl handle and was perhaps jeweled. He was like some kind of New Orleans voodoo priest.
“yeah keith gave it to me”
Of course i didn’t really understand what he said. It would be a couple weeks until I could understand his accent.
He popped in the Big Dirty Yellow demo tape and went straight to St. Cajetan. He started blasting it through the studio big speakers. The gist of what he was saying seemed to be he really liked this track. Every once in a while the assistant engineer would interject and interpret Don for us.
We left after an hour or so. As we drove off we started discussing him. Davey Faragher immediately started referring to him as “gris gris“. gris gris sometimes is used to refer to an amulet or bag that believers in Voodoo wear to keep them safe from bad spells.
“I like that gris gris guy. we should do a record with him”
“yeah he seemed pretty cool”
“what was his accent?”
“I dunno, new orleans? cajun? mexican?”
We drove along for a while then I finally asked the question that we were all wondering but were afraid to ask.
“um is he black? or hispanic?”
” I thought he was like indian or something.”
“he’s not asian?”
“asian? his hair!”
“no those yakuza guys always have perms”
“could be jewish, like really sephardic”
“but he wouldn’t be Don Smith”
“maybe that’s like some witness protection name”
“they don’t give witness protection people jobs in hollywood”
This would become a running gag. Why no one ever asked him is also kind of funny. It became a sort of “It’s pat” of ethnicity. And we sort of didn’t want the show to end.
The funny thing was when we had african-american artists in the studio with us, like Charlie Drayton or Steve Jordon we were sure that his language and accent became more african american, and we were also quite sure they were treating him as if he were black in some subtle way.
Then we brought Bugs (#50 the antechamber of hope) into the Kerosene Hat sessions, Don adopted him, as his mini-me. They looked alike, dressed alike and seemed to share some cultural heritage which then led us to assume Don being from Texas was hispanic. They could spend hours discussing the subtle differences in the variety of chiles grown in the Rio Grande Valley. hmm. After the Kerosene Hat sessions, Don always hired Bugs to cook or be in charge of the boxes of “vibe” that he used to decorate the studio.
One day I thought I’d help out. I bought a bunch of different candles at some sort of mexican santeria type shop. I was taking the candles out when Don leapt across the room and started pointing at a set of candles like it was a viper.
“get those out of here! get them the fuck out of here!’
He was gesturing at a pair of black candles.
“Are you insane!? No black candles in the studio!”
No black candles. Okay maybe we are back to New Orleans, accadian, creole?
Shortly before we started the Gentleman’s Blues record Don came to visit us in Richmond VA. Johnny wasn’t in town so it was just me and Bob Rupe kicking around town with him. We went to Sound of Music Studios, and a couple other places. It was 4th of July and we finally ended up at The Hole in the Wall, a bar which served as the Sound of Music Lounge. No one was in there. It was the holiday and the heat. The Hole in the Wall had really poor air conditioning.
Don started talking about how he used to come to Virginia in the summers. How hot it was. This was back in the early 60′s.
“Yeah my grandmother, she lived by Roanoke. One time we went into Sears and this was during segregation-”
Okay here it comes i thought. I looked at Bob.
“- and I went over to get a drink out of the water fountain, and and suddenly she slapped the back of my head, almost knocked me down, then she pointed to the sign it said ‘whites only’ “
Bob and I looked at each other. Finally. But wait Don wasn’t finished.
“oops-I mean ’Blacks only’, haha woops meant to say blacks only”
If I hadn’t have been there I would have never believed it. You couldn’t write anything any better.
Don Smith we all miss you. You were perhaps the best audio engineer this country ever produced. A true american treasure. There are legions of engineers, well regarded engineers who learned from you or learned from your works or those you taught. Every young engineer who decorates a recording studio with your voodoo vibe and tapestries, because that’s what Rick Rubin does, should know he got that from you. You were also just a great all around human being. Our lives are totally boring without you around.
My Life Is Totally Boring Without You.
My life is totally boring without you around
But my life is totally empty without you around
Well I fell, but you fell much farther, I was envious
My life is totally empty without you around
The Good Life
This holy circus camp
So I don’t mind saying
Down miles of empty road
So I don’t mind saying