“For me, Marathon is a place of mind,” Smith says. “Somewhere I wanted to go, and a place I could never reach. The desert reminds me of that: It’s barren, and it’s harsh. You’re alone out there. It’s daunting – but I’m drawn to it.” The elegant sweep of Marathon indeed evokes images of a foreboding vista, from the opening of “Sierra Diablo” to the aptly titled “75 Miles of Nothing.” And while it readily recalls the desolate landscape of West Texas, Marathon is, ultimately, about the landscape within.
If you've never been introduced to the music of Smith, here's a prime opportunity to discover this true Texas talent. With a soft voice reminding me of Lyle Lovett - both twangy and smooth, Smith delivers the goods: terrific lyrics with sometimes unexpected musical accompaniments like Spanish horns and orchestra strings. Though a native son, his sound defies fencing in; the usual Lone Star sound typified by the likes of Willie Nelson can't be found here.
But Texas-themed it is...in spades. Marathon even features a great short riff that includes the sombre, anguished call of a passing freight train, a signature sound in the far Big Lonesome country of southwest Texas. You don't get more Texian than that...unless you are grabbing the Bull By the Horns: (click through the offerings until you find it):
"When you're out in the desert, you better get ready to shed your skin, yeah, yeah....
From Smith's website:
Growing up in rural central Texas in the 1960s and 1970s instilled in Smith a driven, independent artistic vision. He spent his early childhood on a farm outside of Brenham, the small town where he was born in 1962. “I grew up in the country playing by myself and wandering in the woods and pastures,” he says. He credits those hours exploring alone for “giving me an imagination and a gift for making up stories.” Singing in his local church’s choir, and listening to its pipe organ, sparked a hunger to connect with music, and by the third grade Smith was learning to play the guitar. His guitar teacher taught him how to play every song on Neil Young’s Harvest and After the Gold Rush albums, and, more importantly, instilled in him the idea of writing his own songs. He wrote his first song when he was 10 years old.
Any musician whose original muse was a combination of southern gospel and Neil Young is someone I want to take note of. Heck, at 10 years old, I was only still learning the important art of chunking dirt clods over highlines and riding my bike down a long hill without hands on the handlebars, much less composing music. Gotta respect a songwriter who knows his stuff from an early age.
And if that ain't inspirational enough for you to like this Texan, then surely you'll be impressed by his other passion - teaching how to open up and be creative to school kids. Smith's "Be an Artist Program" is one-of-a-kind, and he transistions it to adult audiences as well for seminars and the like. Where was this program when I was a snot-nosed kid? I'd love to sit in on one of his classes.
This is an album to savor and listen to on a good sound system. My first exploration of it came while traveling Interstate 20 to the Big Bend over the Labor Day holiday; the roar of asphalt and passing big rigs plus the AC fan on high are not conducive to the best listening. The nuances of Smith's music are too good to sacrifice them to a noisy road-trip sampling. Take your time and absorb this stuff...it's gooo-od.
So many good choices on this album, but I especially like "That Water" and "Sierra Diablo". Both songs are listed in the widget below:
Opening with the sound of tires from an unseen car crunching and roaring away and an undulating beat mimicking a long slow ripple in a pool, "That Water" grabs the symbiosis of water to the desert, but also reverberates the undercurrent, the depth of a man's soul. Smith asks lyrically, "So what makes a man fall in love with a mountain, a mountain too big to climb?"
Ahh, Darden, we obviously share that secret. And I love the last line: "Did the Earth just sigh?"
Smith's inspiration for Marathon came from that far far hunk of Texas known as the Big Bend. The stark desolation of the Chihuahuan Desert, the driest of North America's four real deserts, is an unforgiving badland that takes no prisoners, much less suffers the foolishness of a tenderfoot who strikes out on her trails uneducated. The second impressive component of the Bend is the pinyon-and-juniper forests covering the Chisos Mountains and the third important piece of this geographical puzzle is the Rio Grande river, cutting chasms and canyons to rival the grandest. Smith's masterful lyrics and sometimes odd juxtaposition of music captures the essence of what makes the Big Lonesome unique. But much more than that, the album is all about the unknown terrain in our own hearts.
The album Release Party will be September 30th in the Beergarden at Threadgill's in Austin. If you have a chance, definitely highlight this date on your calendar as a "must attend". (I would be there, dang it, but I'll be in Orlando!)
Wishing you much success with Marathon, Darden!
Here's a link to a live performance of "Satisfied" via YouTube (embed link broken). You gotta love a song that starts with "If I could love you like Elvis..."
And here's a Radney Foster song that Darden co-wrote. Really touching (and it has Foat Wuth in the lyrics!). "Angel Flight", named after the designation for the Texas Air National Guard C-130 that transports the bodies of Guardsmen slain in combat. Smith learned about "Red River 44," a mission in Iraq in which seven Texas National Guardsmen died when their Chinook helicopter crashed outside Tallil, Iraq.