If It Moves You

Mindy Smith refuses to be tagged with country, Christian-music labels

Yeah, you'll hear a little steel guitar, fiddle, mandolin and banjo scattered through some of Mindy Smith's songs, and some music-industry folks may try to squeeze her into the alt-country or Americana categories. And she does live and work in Nashville, Tenn.

But country music is the last thing the singer-songwriter thinks of when she considers the music she makes.

"I'm not country," Smith says adamantly over the phone during a recent interview. "I don't have a problem with country. I listen to country. I have a lot of friends who play or listen to country music. It wouldn't be such a problem to use that word, but I don't really have a specific genre. With me, if it's music that moves you, it's the right music."

Actually, the lovely songs on Smith's recently released sophomore album, Long Island Shores (on Vanguard Records), have more in common with the work of such neo-folk female performers as Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin and Suzanne Vega, even to the work of the pioneering Joni Mitchell.

She performs her songs in an affecting woman-child soprano that feels vulnerable and pensive but also has a palpable backbone. She usually ends a lyrical line with a breathy sustain that seems to drift around in your head for a while, like smoke before it eventually dissipates.

Accompanied by a small band, Smith will perform in Tucson this Saturday night, when she opens a show for Amos Lee at Club Congress. Lee, in case you're wondering, plays a blend of folk, R&B and pop that likely will appeal to the Starbucks-meets-The Mountain crowd.

Smith grew up on Long Island, and although she moved to Tennessee 10 years ago, she still retains a touch of her seaside New Yorker's dialect.

With a minister father and choir-director mother, music surrounded Smith as she grew up. But her academic experiences with music left a sour taste in her mouth, so she tried studying art.

"I had a terrible experience in the school system. It's basically been a love-hate relationship for me with music because of certain teachers I had. I won't go into any details, but with friends like that, who needs enemies, you know?"

As a teenager, Smith listened to such bands as Depeche Mode, The Cure and The Police. That places her in her mid-30s now.

"Later, it was The Sundays. I just like all that Brit rock stuff, but I also really like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I was your typical Long Island girl. I also listened to John Denver and gospel music."

An early role model was Amy Grant, she says. "I had never seen or heard of a woman writing and singing her own songs. She was really inspirational to me. And, musically, I really dug it."

Under the influence of those artists--as well as John Prine, Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss--Smith decided to create her own material. But first, she had to learn a few things.

"I had to learn to write and sing and play guitar all in order for me to do what I wanted to do, which it at the end of the day was just to make music."

Several reviewers and journalists have focused on Smith's Christian faith, but just as she doesn't consider herself a country artist, she doesn't much care for the "Christian music" tag, either.

Smith doesn't hide her spirituality, and it is mentioned some of her songs. For instance, she's not embarrassed to sing a line such as, "And when we fall, God will keep us safe."

But neither is religion always the primary topic of Smith's conversations, or of her songs.

"I don't stand on a pulpit," she says. "I think many people find themselves asking the same questions in their hearts that I do in my songs. My whole thing is about searching and the struggle to find truth as much as anything dogmatic.

"It's not just the spiritual, either. I write about love or relationships, too. Certainly, whatever is dominating my life at the time is what I am going to write about--if I feel like I am in trouble, or in love, or my spiritual world is on my mind."

In fact, she wrestles with a nefarious entity on the new CD's "Little Devil," which is a pretty devastating allegory for being taken advantage of by a romantic partner who is "so damn pretty."

But some of Smith's most endearing songs are inspired by place. The title track on Long Island Shores is a tribute to the area of her birth and upbringing, while "Tennessee" relates the relationship she has more recently developed with her new home.