Kenny and Amanda Smith’s debut release Slowly But Surely in 2001 was meant mainly for family and friends, but bluegrass radio and fans would have none of it. Embracing the couple and their music, fans propelled that first album’s “Amy Brown” to the top of the bluegrass charts.
The Kenny and Amanda Smith Band has since recorded eight albums, enjoyed more chart success, and solidified its presence in the bluegrass community and beyond. KASB’s latest album, Catch Me If I Try (2012), has enjoyed several singles on the Bluegrass Today charts – the title track reached #1 last November.
As a young band, KASB won the 2003 IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year award and has gone on to earn several IBMA, Grammy, and Dove award nominations. More important, they’ve gained fans worldwide and have landed some pretty impressive gigs such as opening shows for the great Loretta Lynn and the late George Jones.
The band’s appeal centers largely on Amanda’s vocals, which, as well as stirring fans like Del McCoury to say she had “God’s gift” to sing, garnered her an IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year nomination in 2013. Kenny, the band’s lead guitarist, is also a prolific Nashville-area flatpick and session guitarist, a member of The Rambling Rooks, and a two-time IBMA Guitarist of the Year in his own right. Prior to KASB, he played lead guitar for Claire Lynch’s Front Porch String Band and the Lonesome River Band, consecutively.
Since their last release, Kenny and Amanda have maintained a fast pace, performing full-band shows as well as house concerts and camps as a Kenny and Amanda duet. Recently, amid their busy summer bluegrass festival circuit schedule, the couple made time to share with Engine 145 a little insight into their continuing story of love, faith and bluegrass.
Let’s start at the beginning of your story. You two recently celebrated 15 years of marriage. How did you meet?
Kenny Smith: We met at the Milton Opry House in Milton, West Virginia. Lonesome River Band was playing that night. I saw Amanda right away and thought, “She’s beautiful. I’d like to date her.” Then I got to thinking how she probably doesn’t even likebluegrass … or maybe her parents dragged her there or whatever we tell ourselves in that situation. After the show, she walked up and told me that she sang and played guitar and that she had made a cassette tape she wanted me to hear. She said “Tell me what you think” and “Hey, my phone number is inside.”
AS: I was giving him excuse to call (laughs). I always went to festivals with Mom and Dad, but we hadn’t gone, gosh, for six months or more. I hadn’t heard that Tim Austin had decided to leave Lonesome River Band, so when Kenny walked out, it was a surprise. I couldn’t figure out who he was, and I thought he was cute. I worked up courage the whole night to talk to him.
KS: I listened to Amanda’s cassette. I loved her singing, so I called her. On our first date, we were sitting on her mom and dad’s couch, when she said, “Do you want to pick?” That’s pretty much where it all started for me. I’d never had a girl ask me to do that. We played for two or three hours I guess, and she knew pretty much the same songs I knew. I remember leaving that night thinking, “I really hope this one turns out.”
How did your first album, Slowly But Surely, play into the formation of your band?
AS: We truly didn’t have plans to start a band with Slowly But Surely. Kenny was still with Lonesome River Band, and I had a job. We hadn’t even spoke of a band at that point I don’t guess. Then, one of our friends, a DJ in Knoxville, started playing “Winter’s Come and Gone,” and it hit the bluegrass charts. After that, several DJs followed suit and began playing the song. It was one example of how people in the industry kept kind of shoving us toward starting a band and in a polite way began saying, “You need to do this.” We were thrilled and surprised to land on the charts and just as surprised to win the Emerging Artist award soon after.
What a testament to the power of radio at a time when DJs often seem to have little power to choose their playlist. Is bluegrass an exception to this trend?
AS: Yeah, I don’t think the ropes are quite as tightened in our genre, judging from the friends we know that are DJs. We come across fans often who have heard us on the radio and then come out to listen to us.
KS: True. The downfall to that is that we have to compete with everything that’s been recorded since about 1946, for an hour of programming. That’s what separates our music from some of the other genres. And most DJs have to choose all of that stuff. So, anytime we hear our songs on the radio we’re amazed because that means the DJ thought enough of our music to put us on.
How has your sound as a group evolved over the years?
AS:KASB has evolved on its own through a live-and-learn kind of process. From the onset, we always wanted to be recognizable. At first, that was tough. People don’t know your songs, so it’s easy to fall back on covers. We didn’t want to do that – from the first album, we tried to stay strong with that and not bend with that. People we looked up to– Blue Highway, Claire Lynch, Alison Krauss & Union Station and others – had their own sound and their own songs. I think that’s the key to longevity.
KS: In the last several years, it’s become clear that that was a good decision. With each album, we’re not trying to copy what this one or that one has done. We’ve stuck to our guns and so far, it’s really worked out for us. We’ve been able to settle in and people are enjoying what we do.
Where does KASB fit within the bluegrass genre?
AS: Bluegrass is our foundation – that’s where our shows are. But we also make music –our vocals, especially, I think – that falls into a range that’s pleasing in an Americana or country or contemporary Christian setting, too. When you get down to it, we want to make music that a child would love and that a 90-year-old person would adore. That’s hard, and you can’t please everyone, but we do really try to be considerate.
Amanda, who were your musical influences growing up?
AS: I grew up singing in church – that was the main influence. My parents listened to classic country, and I remember being drawn to Tammy Wynette’s voice. We listened also to ‘80s pop and ‘50s and ‘60s rock. I had Ricky Skaggs’ Live in London, and I remember getting out in the yard dancing and singing to that (laughs). I had every word down, and I had the ’80s cassette Full Tilt. I guess I had a lot of musical influences that I didn’t even realize at the time. I loved singing and memorizing the words and melodies.
I didn’t hear bluegrass until I was in high school. I was driving home from work one day, and I heard Alison Krauss on the local country station. I ended up purchasing my first bluegrass album shortly after that. It was Alison’s Every Time You Say Goodbye.
Kenny, who inspired you to learn how to flatpick?
KS: My dad and grandpa were fiddlers. My brother and I grew up hearing those tunes, and Norman Blake was the first guy I saw that was taking the fiddle tunes and picking the lead out on the guitar. My dad ordered a couple of Norman Blake records for me, and I started learning to pick. This was in the 70s. Learning was different. The only time I really learned anything was when one of dad’s friends would take the time to show me some things, and they did from time to time. Dad was a good fiddler, so he had a lot of people who would come over to play music. My brother and I would sit and watch these guys. It really trained our ear. I remember, too, going to a lot of fiddle contests. My brother would enter the banjo contest, and I would carry around a tape recorder. If somebody had a new tune, I’d record it to try to learn it. There are a lot more tools available now, but that was how I learned to play. That’s why I take the time to teach, as I have at Adam Chowning’s Nashville Flatpick Camp, for instance. I like what Adam is doing with his camps. They’re more intimate. They remind me of when I was a kid and these guys would come over and show me stuff. It’s not so much academic learning as it is a one-on-one, “Hey, what are you doing there?” approach, and I try to show them.
I’ve taught at Wintergrass Academy for many years, too, and I’ve taught at Augusta, Nimble Fingers (Canada), Kaufman, and others. Amanda’s been involved, too, especially as part of bluegrass harmony workshops.
What are some of your favorite guitars?
KS: My 1935 D-18 Martin guitar and my 1948 Regal Milford. As far as newer guitars, I have a Suda 12-fret dread that I enjoy.
AS: I have a 1953 D-18 Martin and I also have a Collings D1A Sunburst.
How does your faith factor into your musical choices?
KS: It’s 180% of everything in our life as musicians–when it came to starting a band and a business, we prayed about it. We go by faith, and we feel like if this is what God wants us to do, it’ll happen. Before I met Amanda, I prayed the lord would send me someone to share my life with.
AS: One of the great things about bluegrass, gospel has always been a big part of the music. But generally speaking, I always look for a song that speaks to me in a positive manner. And we’re always looking for that song that’s uplifting. It’s the bulk of our material. Jesus is the center of what we’re trying to do.
What’s next for Kenny & Amanda Smith?
AS: We are planning to record a new Kenny & Amanda album under our own label, Farm Boy Records. We are in the process of gathering songs now and look forward to sharing new music with our fans.
Casey L. Penn is a nonfiction writer, songwriter and performer based in Arkansas. Her byline appears in regional and national publications related to music, health care and business.