I first heard Kenny Smith when he was a member of the Lonesome River Band (LRB) back in the 90’s. They were my favorite bluegrass band at the time, and they still are great. His guitar playing was, and still is today, some of the best on the planet. His acoustic rhythm playing is on a short list of the greatest ever. It’s special. He’s special.
Today he travels with his wife as the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band, as well as some special dates as the Band of Ruhks featuring former LRB members, Don Rigsby and Ronnie Bowman.
Here’s more about my friend, Kenny Smith.
Butler: What is your earliest musical memory?
Kenny Smith: My dad and grandpa were both fiddlers. I had uncles and cousins that sang and played as well. I remember Dad always playing fiddle around the house.
Butler: Can you fill us in on your musical history? What bands have you been a part of?
Smith: Dad made a guitar and would keep it in the closet. He told my brother and I to never mess with it. I was four years old at the time, I would get in there after he went to work and try to play it. My mom never told my dad because he was busy all day. One day, Dad came home early and caught me. He saw something in me that day, though. He taught me three chords and the next day I could do it. That Christmas, Santa brought me a guitar and my older brother a banjo.
We would go to these banjo and fiddle contests and I would back up the other contestants. It was an on-the-spot music education. I would record the other fiddlers if they knew a new tune that I didn’t know.
I always played but it was never a career choice for me. I had moved to Tennessee after I graduated from high school. I was playing in a bluegrass band from Huntsville, Alabama and Claire and Larry Lynch happened to be out in the audience. They asked me to help play a showcase at IBMA in Owensboro, Kentucky. It was a real eye opener for me. I got to talk to a lot of the artists there that day. Everyone was encouraging and it changed my life’s path to a musical one. I played in the Lynch’s Front Porch String band for about two years.
Through my travels, I met a Virginia banjo player named Sammy Shelor. We jammed backstage at Graves Mountain, Virginia. One day I got a call from Sammy to try out for one of my favorite bands, the Lonesome River Band. I remember trying out in Nashville in a hotel room. I recorded my tryout because it might be the only time I would play with my favorite band.
After playing for about 30 minutes, Ronnie and Sammy told me I got the job. I couldn’t believe it. I packed up my car and moved to southwest Virginia. My bluegrass journey was in full swing. I was also praying that God would send me someone to share music with.
One night we were playing The Milton Opry House in Milton, West Virginia, when I met a young lady, Amanda Collins, who would be my answer to prayer. We got married about a year after that first meeting. We would sing at churches and different gigs locally.
We started the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band in 2001, and recorded a project for our family and friends and one of the songs charted. We won IBMA emerging artist in 2003 and that jump started our career as a band.
Butler: What is it like touring and recording with your wife?
Smith: It’s the best. I couldn’t imagine it any other way. It’s a tough business, but to have someone to pray with is worth it all. Recording is our favorite part of music. It’s exciting knowing a song could possibly affect someone’s life. We have always tried to pick songs that mean something and have substance. Our passion and strength comes from (God) and to relay that through our music is our goal.
Butler: What’s the first instrument you tried to play and do you play other instruments?
Smith: My first instrument was the guitar. I also play clawhammer banjo and acoustic bass.
Butler: Did you ever have a desire to do something else? If so, what?
Smith: While I was in high school, I wanted to be an artist. I could always draw at an early age. It’s like music; it’s something I’ve always done. I’m getting more serious about (painting) now. It kind of goes hand in hand with music. Painting has rhythm and music has colors.
Butler: Which do you enjoy the most; playing live or in the studio?
Smith: I like the spontaneity of live music and meeting people. I really enjoy the whole process of recording. We have had the great pleasure of recording at the same studio for the last 20 years. Our dearest friends Glenn and Susan Tabor at GAT3 studios in Charlotte, North Carolina, have helped us produce and preserve a special part of our lives. That studio always inspires us to do our best because it is the best.
Butler: What is your favorite song to play and why?
Smith: “You Know That I Would.” Ed Williams wrote this song for his wife for their anniversary. It tells about how you would give anything you could for your special someone. It meant something totally different to Amanda, and it was about the baby we were waiting for at the time. Amanda was pregnant, and (we would) do anything for this beautiful baby that was about to come into our lives.
Butler: When you’re not picking and singing, what are you doing?
Smith: I like to cook and B.B.Q. I also fix up and restore vintage guitars, pickup trucks, Schwinn Sting-rays and Accutron watches.
Butler: Can you please give us a brief testimony?
Smith: I had been going to church in high school and was under conviction. Around that time, I had a near-death drowning experience that changed my outlook on everything. I literally saw my own funeral while under water. I soon moved to Tennessee from Indiana to get to know my grandma better. I started going to my cousin Richard Gulley’s church. He always sang and played, so I was drawn to that. They had a trio and wanted to do quartets. So, they asked me if I could sing baritone. I tried and I could hear the part. Up until then, I had never sung much at all. There was a spring revival, and that morning the preacher stood in front of everyone individually in the pews and asked us point blank, “If you were to die would you go to heaven?” I stepped out of the pew and rushed to the altar. I asked Jesus to come into my heart that day and was forever changed. I was so lucky to be given another chance after my drowning incident and I didn’t take that for granted, never have. I was 19.
My cousin, Steve Mowery was a huge influence and witness on my life. Since I was little, I remember him singing and playing guitar. He would always sing gospel songs. Songs about a beautiful place where there are no tears and no pain. He would also sing about a man called Jesus that made a way for us to go to this wonderful place. Growing up I always knew Steve was different, but I didn’t realize why. I felt it every time I was around him. I want to be more like that.