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WHAT IS TEXAS SONGWRITER U?

With the goal of keeping the art and craft of songwriting alive and well in the great state of Texas, the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association has collaborated with Jack Ingram and the ASCAP Foundation to form the TEXAS SONGWRITER U. We are in constant search of the next great songwriter.

TxSU is an educational program and songwriting competition which serves to identify the best adult songwriters in Texas, while improving upon the quality and quantity of professional songwriting across our state.

"It's one thing to have talent.
It's another to figure out how to use it."
- Roger Miller

Judges

DARDEN SMITH

Darden Smith has long transcended traditional singer-songwriter boundaries, and his varied, fascinating musical legacy continues to evolve. Following unexpected paths has been a constant force in his 28-year career as a musician, and his work of the last 15 years has led him both further afield than ever, and also brought him full circle to where he began.

 

Musically, Smith weaves together folk and Americana influences with rock, pop, and the musical roots of his home state of Texas, to create a sound that is uniquely his own. He has recorded fourteen critically acclaimed albums in locations ranging from Austin, New York, and Nashville to London and Los Angeles. All Music Guidehas praised Smith as “a singer-songwriter blessed with an uncommon degree of intelligence, depth, and compassion.” Likened to songwriters such as Nick Drake, John Hiatt, Leonard Cohen and Elvis Costello, Smith is one of contemporary music’s most winning and gifted artistic treasures whose consistent creative excellence keeps blossoming.

 

LOVE CALLING, Smith’s latest album and his first with Compass Records, was recorded in Nashville with co-producers Jon Randall Stewart and Gary Paczosa. Capturing the sweep of its artist’s prolific career, the album’s lyrics reflect the depth and resonance of a veteran songwriter, while its melodies and production style recall the purity of Smith’s early work. “No machines, and acoustic instruments whenever possible. Fewer instruments, organic arrangements–I wanted to move in a direction I hadn’t gone in a long, long time.”

 

YOUNG ROOTS IN TEXAS AS A MUSICIAN

Smith spent his early childhood on a farm outside of Brenham, Texas, where he was born in 1962. “I grew up in the country playing alone and wandering in the woods and pastures,” he says. He credits those hours of exploring for “giving me an imagination and a gift for making up stories.” Smith’s early interest in music was sparked by singing in the local church choir, relishing the “seat-rattling sound” of the church’s pipe organ, and accompanying his parents to country dances. By the third grade, Smith had a guitar and a teacher who taught him how to play every song on Neil Young’s Harvest and After the Gold Rush. He wrote his first song when he was 10 years old.

 

After his family moved to the unfamiliar suburbs of Houston in 1976, Smith took refuge in the songs of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, and John Prine, while continuing to write songs of his own. He was soon slipping into Houston clubs to watch established singer-songwriters perform. His musical influences expanded when he moved to Austin to attend The University of Texas and was exposed to blues and reggae, as well as musicians coming out of the U.K. such as Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, and The Pretenders. By the time Smith graduated with a BA in American Studies in 1985, he was a regular headliner on the local and Texas music scenes.

 

A “GEM” OF A DEBUT

Smith released his debut album, Native Soil, in 1986, featuring fellow Texans Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith on harmony vocals and earning accolades from All Music Guide as “a gem.” It landed him a publishing deal writing songs for Dick James Music. “I was stunned that someone was going to pay me to do what I would do for free,” Smith says. “So was my father.”

 

Epic Records signed Smith at the inaugural South by Southwest Festival in 1987, and Darden Smith (1988) produced two country chart hit singles, “Little Maggie” and “Day After Tomorrow.” Its release on Epic’s Nashville division came at the same time that country music was headed back toward its traditional roots, and Smith was, admittedly, “miserable.”

 

Then Nigel Grainge, the head of Ensign Records, flew Smith to London and introduced him to the British songwriter Boo Hewerdine. Four days later, the two had eight songs and a record deal from Ensign Chrysalis. “All of a sudden I found that I could write the kind of music I liked to listen to,” Smith says. “The collaboration with Boo was the first glimpse at the idea that I could be more than just a kid from Texas who sings folk songs.” Evidence (1989), his subsequent duet album with Hewerdine, earned a glowing 3½-star review from Rolling Stone, and Smith’s trajectory expanded beyond the country music scene.

 

After Smith’s label deal with Epic was transferred to the pop division of Columbia Record, he released Trouble No More (1990), best known for “Midnight Train” and “Frankie & Sue,” and Little Victories (1993) which included the Top 10 pop hit single, Loving Arms.

 

AN ARTISTIC EVOLUTION

In 1989, Smith embarked on projects that foreshadowed the many artistic shifts that have come to define his career. He collaborated with a local dance/theatre group, scoring three full-length works. That accomplishment prompted the Austin Symphony Orchestra to commission Smith to write a symphony – even though he’d never learned to read music. “Grand Motion” premiered in 1999 and, as Smith says, “It changed my life. It showed me that I was a musician, not just a songwriter, and that I could do anything I wanted if I would only say ‘Yes.’ ”

 

On the recording front, Smith released Deep Fantastic Blue (1996) on an independent label, Plump Records, but he struggled to adapt to the shift from a major label. In 2000, when several of Smith’s early albums began to go out of print, he responded by re-recording his favorite songs and releasing Extra, Extra. But without a record label – or manager, or agent – Smith was having doubts about the music business. Finally, at the urging of two fellow musicians, Smith returned to recording and produced a trio of richly reflective albums with Dualtone Records—Sunflower, (2002), Circo (2004), and Field of Crows (2005)—that earned some of the best reviews of his career. In 2007, Smith issued Ojo, a limited-edition recording from a series of live concerts in New Mexico. Smith also started his own label, Darden Music, and released After All This Time: The Best of Darden Smith (2009), which featured sixteen selections spanning the range of his career thus far.

 

During this period, Smith began to branch out even further. In 2003 he created The Be An Artist Program, which offers workshops that inspire creativity through collaborative songwriting. The program has reached over 15,000 students across the US and Europe. Inspired by his “Grand Motion” experience, Smith started to develop a narrative song cycle inspired by the remote West Texas town of Marathon. At the same time, he explored the powerful relationship between Texas songwriters and the Lone Star landscape in a radio documentary for BBC Radio 2, Songs from the Big Sky (2006). After Smith completed the songs for Marathon, he experimented with monologues, scripts, a band, and a stage production. The album’s release in 2010 was heralded by reviewer Jim Caligiuri as representing “a peak in [Smith’s] 25-year songwriting career.”

 

Over the past decade Smith has used the craft of songwriting and the art of collaboration to break new ground in creativity, trauma recovery, education, and entrepreneurship. Alongside his continuing work with The Be An Artist Program, Smith is enjoying his third year as Artist-In-Residence at Oklahoma State University’s Institute For Creativity and Innovation. SongwritingWith:Soldiers, a program launched by Smith in 2012, organizes weekend retreats that pair professional songwriters with soldiers who share painful stories about combat and their return home. Working collaboratively, the musicians and soldiers turn those stories into songs. At Covenant House in Newark, New Jersey, Smith brings these same techniques to work with homeless youth.

 

TRANSCENDING BOUNDARIES

Darden Smith continues to redefine what it means to be a musician. And it is the combination of all these paths that make up the whole of his work. As Smith moves through his third decade of making music, he has found that each strand informs the others. “I love songs more than ever. The writing, the story behind the song, and the possible effect it can have on the listener. Where it can take me is endless.” And this ever evolving, inclusive attitude could not be reflected better than in the title of Smith’s new album, LOVE CALLING.

HAYES CARLL

I’m a singer-songwriter.

I think “Lovers and Leavers” comes closer to reflecting that than any other record I’ve made.

I didn’t worry about checking boxes, making sure there was something here for everybody, or getting on the radio.

I just took some much needed deep breaths and let them out on tape.

 

It’s been a while since my last album by some measurements of time. Not “history of the universe time”, or “getting a bill through congress time”, but in the lives of dogs and recording artists, five years and fifty-three days is only a little less than an eternity.

I went through a divorce. I fell in love.

Changes were made, realizations were realized, and life was lived.

 

But, I kept on writing songs, on my own and with a cast of accomplished characters who combined their own stories and perspectives with mine.

Songs about my friends.

Songs about my son.

Songs about beginnings and endings.

Songs about songs.

Songs about acceptance and regret.

Songs about lovers and leavers.

 

With these songs in hand, I needed a co-conspirator to help me get them to you.

I called on Joe Henry, a gentleman poet and an elegant artist who seemed a trustworthy steward for my collection.

We recorded this record live in five days, using just an acoustic guitar, a mix of bass, percussion, pianos and organs, and a touch of pedal steel.

 

I didn’t have one song that I knew would be a sing along or would make people dance. I felt vulnerable in a way that I hadn’t in a long time. But I got what I wanted – a record with space, nuance, and room to breathe. It felt right for my art. It felt right for my life.

 

“Lovers and Leavers” isn’t funny or raucous. There are very few hoots and almost no hollers.

But it is joyous, and it makes me smile.

No, it’s not my “Blood on the Tracks,” nor is it any kind of opus.

It’s my fifth record — a reflection of a specific time and place.

It is quiet, like I wanted it to be. 

 

Like I wanted to be.

 

Hayes Carll 

January 1, 2016

Austin, TX.

 

JACK INGRAM

When Jack Ingram won the 2008 Academy of Country Music award for “Best New Male Vocalist,” thousands of people in the audience had to be smiling to themselves about that whole “new” thing. They knew the thirty-something, steel-eyed veteran accepting that trophy on that stage in Vegas had been rocking roadhouses, theaters and stadiums relentlessly since 1997, that he’d been celebrated by critics and fans of hard-core country music for more than a decade, and that as a Texas-born songwriter and performer, he’d been on the short list of next generation artists who could fill the boots of Lone Star legends like Willie and Waylon and the boys.

 

His journey began in Houston, Texas, where Ingram grew up. His first stage experience came not through music but a drama class he took to fulfill a requirement his senior year of high school. It wasn’t his calling, but it was a rush.

 

“All of a sudden there was this pressure and this element of having to deliver right now in front of a crowd, and if you don’t you fall on your ass,” he says. “And that got me.” During college at Southern Methodist University, he applied that challenge to music for the first time, starting at an open mic night with two Willie Nelson songs learned out of a song book and one original tune. It didn’t take long for the charismatic Ingram and his Beat Up Ford Band to pack the bars of Dallas and Houston, but he was acutely aware that having come of age idolizing icons like Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen, that he had a lot of learning and growing to do.

 

In a time when the music industry tries so hard to jam new artists up to the top of the charts before they’re ready, only to so often see them plummet back to earth, Ingram’s rise has been slow and steady, fueled by dreams and hopes for sure, but more substantially by high standards and the ambition for a career measured in decades and influence rather than chart position. He’s in the best place he’s ever been and it’s clear from a few listens to Big Dreams & High Hopes that confidence is bolstering his artistry.

History

Texas has always produced more than its fair share of excellent songwriters over the years and many of these songwriters have moved to Nashville and made significant contributions to the music industry. However, we have learned from artist relations companies such as ASCAP and BMI that this trend has slowed down during the last decade. The Texas Heritage Songwriters Association has collaborated with Jack Ingram and the ASCAP Foundation to form the TEXAS SONGWRITER U (TxSU). The goal of the TxSU is to keep the art and craft of songwriting alive and well in the great state of Texas. TxSU will be working with universities around the state of Texas including The University of Texas at Austin, The University of Texas at Denton, Texas A&M, Baylor, Texas State, Texas Tech, Sam Houston State, St. Edwards, TCU, SMU, Stephen F Austin and others in an effort to discover excellent songwriters at each of these universities and assist them in becoming better songwriters. However, this important program is not limited to universities. We are inviting all Texas native and Texas resident songwriters around the state who are over the age of 18 to participate as well. This program will be primarily be promoted via social media, including website and Facebook participation by Jack Ingram and other popular Texas songwriters.