Mindy Smith: On Self-Reliance And Thrifting
An interview with the singer, who is touring the West behind a new self-titled album, her first independent release.
Photography: Courtesy Fairlight Hubbard
Mindy Smith’s name became familiar for fans of bluegrass and country in 2003, when she turned out a cover version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” so raw and affecting that it sounded like something collected by a songcatcher. Parton herself went on to say that Smith’s version of “Jolene” was her personal favorite.
But the then up-and-coming singer — a native of Long Island, New York — didn’t rest on her nimble, high-pitch pipes. In the decade since “Jolene” put her on the map, Smith has released four studio albums full of heartrending original songs (“Come To Jesus,” “One Moment More”) whose styles range from bluegrass to straight-up blues.
Smith took a fresh, somewhat risky approach to her latest collection: It’s her first not backed by a big label. With the independently released Mindy Smith in stores and an intimate U.S. tour continuing this month, the singer said in a phone chat from her Nashville home that the buck now stops with her. Here’s an excerpt of the chat:
Cowboys & Indians: For your fifth album, you forgot about record labels and put it out on your own. That has to be scary, even if it’s freeing in other ways. …
Mindy Smith: Oh, it’s terrifying in the economy we’re in, but if it succeeds, it could be very inspirational as a template for artists like myself who do have some sort of fan base. Because, if you don’t own a master [recording], you don’t own crap. You own your personality and that’s about it. Most of the time, that doesn’t pay the bills. If this project fails, I’ll still own it. There is a great opportunity as Americans to take back the economy from corporations. More people would rather go to the mom-and-pop coffee shop than a big rule-the-world conglomerate. I think that’s the way things are going.
C&I: And that, in a way, speaks to your lifestyle. I’ve read that you love thrift shopping.
Smith: I have an obsession with thrifting. I literally do not want to spend money on junk that’s coming in and killing what America was built on. We used to take pride in everything we did, and now we go to a big Walmart and we buy, quite frankly, garbage. Anyway [laughs], I swear I’m not that political; I’m just saying this is my view.
C&I: What do you look for when you go thriftin’?
Smith: I want something that jumps out at me. Says to me, “Pick me! Look how special I am!” And I look at it and answer, “You are special.” [Laughs.] And if it says “2002, Made in China,” I’m not going to buy it. If it says, “1962, Made in Philadelphia,” chances are I’m going to pick it up. I find paintings at thrift stores that have been discarded. People don’t even know what treasures they are throwing away. Sometimes I give these things as gifts. I find the best stuff. It’s a good hobby to keep me away from my own head, and thinking about things like, “Oh my gosh, what if my record fails?”
C&I: So, you’re saying you still deal with a great deal of self doubt?
Smith: Oh yeah, I don’t think there’s a true artist out there … I mean, you do have to be arrogant to pull any of this stuff off. But there’s so much doubt that comes with arrogance. I’m not thinking I’m the mack daddy of Singer-songwriter Land. I’m thinking, “How am I going to meet high expectations?” And my thing is, I’m not specific to a genre. I’m kind of all over the place.
C&I: Do you have a regular band with which you record?
Smith: I have a lot of go-to musicians in Nashville. I have the luxury of choosing the best people here, because the monotony of going in and playing the same things to try to recreate hit songs … it drives these guys crazy. They’re artists too. So they’re all about playing on my stuff. It may not be a hit song, but they’ll enjoy doing it, because it’s a little different. I don’t take that for granted at all.
C&I: And how does that translate to touring? Do you travel around on a bus?
Smith: Hell no, I can’t afford a bus. [Laughs.] Are you kidding me? I’ll probably drive around in a minivan or something.
C&I: I thought you might have found one at a thrift store.
Smith: I might find one at a thrift store! That’s a good idea. No, we’re trying to make it so that the tour will pay for itself, and down the line, if I get the support of the fans out there, there’ll be more places that I can go. They’re patrons in my store. They’re coming to look at what I’ve got, and maybe they’ll latch on to it.
C&I: There are songs for all different moods and tastes on the album, but “Pretending the Stars” stands out in my mind for its carefree, poppy quality. Can you tell me more about how it came about?
Smith: I am a sucker for harmony. The lead is actually the harmony in the chorus. My co-writer on the song, Daniel Tashian, and I both love to sing harmony so much. It’s something I don’t get to do often, as a solo artist. I brought this really sad song to him that was just going in the wrong direction. He had some really joyful things going on in his life that day. He said, “It just feels dark. Let’s try to make it feel good.” There’s a reference in the lyrics to “Islands in the Stream.” It’s a little homage to Dolly. I don’t know if she’s heard it yet. She’s pretty busy. …
C&I: Yeah, I was going to ask if you talk to her a lot.
Smith: I just have to let her do her thing. I’m of the mind that I could easily become a germ to someone like her. [Laughs.] I’m my own worst enemy when I find people I admire. But she’s never put out there that she didn’t want to hear from me. If I see her, I will go out of my way. She’s been so kind, so encouraging.
C&I: It was because you covered “Jolene” so beautifully, no doubt. Do you work in other cover songs to your current shows?
Smith: I don’t fit in a lot of covers, because I have my own material to reference and fit in. But I always try to do “Jolene.” It’s one song I never tire of singing. And that’s a testament to Dolly.
Sample and order Mindy’s latest album here. Suggested tracks: The bluesy “Don’t Mind Me” and “Tin Can,” the tear-jerking “Take Me Back” and “If I.”