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Austin singer/songwriter builds on reputation as acclaimed Americana act



With 10 highly regarded albums and counting to his credit, Austin-based singer/songwriter Darden Smith has in recent years mixed his performances with presenting programs for school children, using his musical sensibility and experiences to encourage creativity.


"Be An Artist," founded in 2003, is Smith's personal way of helping educators in a time of tightening school budgets and limited time.

"I was looking at my kids, and thinking it's really hard for schools to teach creativity these days because everyone's busy teaching other stuff," Smith said in a recent interview. "One thing led to another and I came up with this way of talking about creativity and talking with kids about seeing themselves as artists, no matter what they're into and what they like. It's the idea that art comes from attention, intention and doing what you love.

"It's not really about art " it's about people being happy. It's about people seeing themselves as artists, and you don't have to paint to be an artist. You can be a plumber and be an artist " be an artist at plumbing."

So in addition to the 9 p.m. Saturday show at Oklahoma City's Blue Door, Smith will be presenting "Be An Artist" programs twice in the Oklahoma City area " for Millwood Public Schools on Monday, and at the Edmond Public Library on Tuesday.

"'Be An Artist' started out as sort of a hobby for me and my work has become this combination of touring and playing music, and doing 'Be An Artist' sessions. When I go to Europe, it's almost 50-50," he said.

"My theory is that you don't have to do anything. So what do you do, when you don't have to do anything? Do that more. When you find out what you love to do, then do it every day and get into it. Don't just sorta casually do it " go for it, and you can make yourself happy every day."

With some amusement, Smith concedes his family background might not have signaled where his interest in music would take him. At the same time, Smith said his interest in songwriting sprang from the open-ended encouragement he received from his first guitar teacher.

"I grew up on a farm in west Texas and I came from a completely nonmusical family. My dad says he has a hard time just getting a clear station on the radio," Smith said. "It was just something I stumbled into really early. I was 9 when I started playing guitar and I started writing songs when I was 10. I had a guitar teacher who told me I could, basically, and that led to me starting."

Through his first guitar teacher, Smith said he was exposed to Neil Young and Bob Dylan, then moved on to explore music further through listening to Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.

Modest about his guitar-playing ability, Smith, like many other Texas musicians, quickly and emphatically credits Van Zandt with providing a seminal influence on his work.

"I wasn't a great guitar player, so I had to play really simple songs, and those songs are all sort of based around the Texas singer-songwriter tradition, especially Guy (Clark) and Townes," he said. "Everything started with Townes " everything current, people of my generation " everybody stemmed off what he did " he's the trunk of the tree."

"You can try to deny it, if you want to, but even if you're not directly influenced by Townes, you're influenced by people who were influenced by him. I don't listen to Townes Van Zandt songs now, but I absorbed them in my body so early on " it's the DNA of the folk/storyteller tradition."

>div id=tale />TALE OF WOE
And like some other Texas singer/songwriters and country musicians, Smith has his own tale of woe about his initial dealings with the country music. But with the passage of time, he has come to find considerable value in the workings of Nashville, Tenn.

"I was signed at the end of the era when Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle and K.D. Lang and the O'Kanes and Mary Chapin Carpenter were signed, and all that was happening," he said. "Then the record companies realized that no one was selling any records, they began to push it back toward more traditional country, and (my reaction was), 'OK, I'm outta here.'

"I love Nashville (now) because it's a great place to write songs. I'm going there after I leave Oklahoma City. I go to Nashville and co-write " there are all kinds of writers up there and, basically, people want to write a great song, and they want to write a song that can be successful. I love that. I don't know what other people might not like about it, but I think that's really inspiring."

Along with some of his earlier work, Smith said the Blue Door audience will hear selections from his next album, titled "Marathon," the soundtrack for a theatrical production on which he collaborated with writer Richard Isaacs.

"It's a song cycle, and there are monologues between the songs," he said. "Richard wrote the monologues. It's all about west Texas, about a guy who goes out to west Texas to look for his lost father." "C.G. Niebank

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