San Francisco’s Sonny Smith has never been an artist comfortable with categories. He’s made albums touching on blues, pop, folk rock, and country. On his latest effort, New Day with New Possibilities, released on his own Rocks In the Head label, he returns to the country and western genre he first explored years ago, on 2012’s Longtime Companion.
Smith says the uplifting title came to him slowly.
“I’ve had a print by an artist I know, Chris Johanson, on the wall of my kitchen for many years,” he says. “It became the album cover and the title. I’d been searching for cover art for a while. Then, one day, I looked up and thought, ‘This is really the presentiment for right now.’”
Smith wasn’t planning to make an album. He’d decided to take some time away from music and concentrate on his painting, but as the COVID crisis went on, songs began appearing. Country songs.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision at the beginning,” he says. “I’m always experimenting with new ways to interpret songs. Songs about the lonesome road, desolate feelings and heartbreak came out. They lent themselves to that kind of Luke The Drifter coloring, but with contemporary lyrics.
“I couldn’t collaborate with anybody in real time, so I worked alone,” Smith adds. “It was interesting. I’d been writing about devastation and began experiencing it. I took the songs to the house of pedal steel guitar player, Joe Goldmark. It was the height of the pandemic, so we wore masks and gloves and kept our distance as he added his parts. It was very dystopian.”
Smith took the tracks with his voice, acoustic guitar, and Goldmark’s pedal steel, to a space at the Headlands Art Center in Marin.
“I brought in Rusty Miller, a multi-instrumentalist, and Dylan Edrich, one of my favorite woman fiddlers,” he says. “We were masked and distanced.
“I was revisiting the Louis L’Amour books I read when I was 15, about the cowboy who comes into town to fight the crooked land baron and winds up getting wounded in a corral,” Smith continues. “I played with the genre. Willie Nelson’s Redheaded Stranger came to mind, where the songwriter sees himself as a guy who rolls into town on horseback. The lyrics and motifs were borrowed from that archetype.”
The songs on the album stay close to the lonesome country sound of George Jones and Marty Robbins. On “Drifting Away,” the singer tells a former lover to have a good life and ignore his slow descent into depression. “I’m a Dog” describes the torment of unrequited love, with twangy guitar fills and a Waylon Jennings-like back beat, while “Ride the Dark Tale” is pure country, with Smith’s aching vocal s backed by Goldmark’s weeping pedal steel.
Smith wrote and recorded most of the songs on acoustic guitar, alone. “The rest of the tracks were added later, which is the way I like to make music,” he says. “It’s easier when you’re only dealing with your own neurosis, rather than worrying about other people’s.”
Photo courtesy of Sonny & the Sunsets.