American band Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike visit these shores in July for an extensive tour of England with their unique brand of contemporary bluegrass. The band are regular visitors to the UK, and Valerie has blended together a group of talented young musicians from various backgrounds to create what she describes as “a fun mix of sounds and styles.”
A graduate from East Tennessee State University in 2001, as part of its bluegrass music programme, Becky soon found herself invited to join the band on a full-time basis. “Valerie has been a mentor to me these last six years. She’s constantly pushing me to try different things, venture into different aspects of music business. She believes in my abilities more than I do most of the time!”
“She’s had me working in the office, making up press kits, learning how to book, leading the band when she’s with customers.” On the musical side of things, Becky’s solo album, Little Bird was released on Valerie’s Bell Buckle Records label in 2004 to huge acclaim, and rode high in the bluegrass charts, with a wealth of talented artists such as Rob Ickes, Adam Steffey and Ron Block guesting.
“I floated through the recording of Little Bird. It was so very exciting!” says Becky in an awestruck tone which underscores her youth. “I’ve been a fan of those guys since I was a kid.”
Most of the tracks on the album are penned by Becky. Indeed, it’s her songwriting talents which have been making the biggest waves of late, with songs covered by the likes of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, IIIrd Tyme Out and many others, and a number of nominations for SPBGMA’s Songwriter of the Year award.
“Writing happens most often for me when the muse hits me right between the eyes. I do a lot of writing in the car, mowing the lawn or washing dishes. I guess I just get bored so I start singing to myself and suddenly there’s a song!”
It seems the band are really looking forward to the UK tour. Becky describes us Brits as “polite and stylish” adding “it’s like coming home for me. Bluegrass music is deeply rooted in the fiddle tune and folk ballad traditions of the British Isles and I’m deeply rooted in bluegrass. Plus, I’m a huge Monty Python fan, and I dig fish and chips!”
It’s a sad fact that of the thousands of school students studying the violin, very few seem to be making it through to the bluegrass scene. Becky has written magazine articles on beginning bluegrass style fiddling, and has some insight on this.
“Traditionally we fiddlers have been the red-headed stepchildren of the violin-playing world. I think many of our classical counterparts don’t trust us because we don’t need to read music; we make stuff up as we go along and that makes them nervous. Seriously, though, I think the most intimidating part of switching over from classical music to fiddling styles is improvisation.
“How do you get started? Practice arpeggios and scales; know the neck of your instrument. Learn a few basic fiddle tunes. Be really solid on the basic melodies. If you don’t know the melody, you can’t embellish it. Well, you can embellish it without really knowing the melody, but will anybody know what you’re playing? Then start adding licks into your break to make it more interesting, keeping just enough of the original melody so that folks recognize the tune. You can also pick up licks from your favourite fiddlers and incorporate them into other songs.
“The other thing the seems to throw veteran classical violinists for a loop when they are trying to learn how to fiddle is that off-beat emphasis. We use this shuffle quite a bit: one TA-ter, two TA-ter, etc. We also do an off-beat chop with the bow to keep time. The best way to learn this is by picking up an Alison Krauss DVD. She is the queen of chopping on the fiddle.”
It seems Becky has many fingers in many pies, and she’s also currently recording a duet album with Valerie Smith. “We’re taking a fairly simple approach, focusing on strong lyrics, melodies and harmonies with as little instrumentation as possible. We’re both big fans of the Louvin Brothers; Skaggs and Rice; and The Oak and Laurel record by Tom Rozum and Laurie Lewis. We wanted to put together a record along those same lines.”
A new solo record is planned for to follow that, but in the immediate future the European tour awaits. Becky describes the Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike sound as “modern bluegrass bordering on the convenient catch-all of Americana. We add so many jazz and folk elements to the music that it’s hard to really pin us down.”
Did we mention she can also play a mean clawhammer banjo too? We’ll leave the last word to Valerie Smith:
“I really can’t say enough about Becky’s talent, as she’s one of the greatest up-and-coming songwriters in bluegrass today, she’s a great singer, and a multi-instrumentalist too. She is also producing our next project on Bell Buckle Records. I can guarantee she’ll be someone to watch for many years to come!”