Local singer/songwriter Debi Smith keeps flying high amidst a blend of truly eclectic experiences.
By Steve Houk
It’s not surprising that a talented, seasoned songbird like Debi Smith titled the majority of her records after birds.
“Bluebird,” “Mockingbird,” “Road Runner,” “A Canary’s Song,” “Red Bird,” and even a family memoir titled “Look Up At The Hawks” – it’s like she’s connected with birds because her voice is as true and pure as birdsong; or it could be that there’s a family connection to birds. Maybe it’s a bit of both.
“When we were growing up, my Dad always had bird feeders in the backyard,” Smith told me from the Falls Church home where she grew up and now lives with her husband and son. “So I love to watch birds, just like my grandma did, too. These days, my Dad has a blue jay that he’s named Freddy that lands on his arm and he feeds it by hand. I just find birds to be…inspiring somehow.”
Whatever is inspiring the versatile Smith seems to be working, and has for a long while. She has had a successful career as a folk-pop singer/songwriter for almost 30 years now, and doesn’t seem to be letting up. Smith began her musical life as a successful duo with her sister, and today remains an accomplished solo artist who has performed at venues like the Kennedy Center and Epcot Center, toured in Canada, Europe and Russia, and has appeared on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, All Things Considered, Mountain Stage, and World Café, to name just a few. She is also a current member of the critically acclaimed The Four Bitchin’ Babes,a well known folk ensemble that has gained a reputation for blending satirical, humorous and traditional music together in an engaging and memorable way for almost 25 years. As a holiday treat, Smith will be bringing her “If I Were An Angel” holiday show to the Birchmere on December 21st, accompanied by the esteemed National Men’s Chorus.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, Smith’s family wasn’t necessarily musically inclined. But as with many families, music was a part of her home, school and church life, which helped her discover a talent for singing. And soon after she found her own voice, she was surprised that her sister also had the knack, and lo, a recording duo was born.
“My parents put on some Broadway stuff, and some of the folk music,” Smith said, “so I was influenced by that, but it wasn’t that they were musical. And my sister Megan, I didn’t even discover she could sing until after I had gone off to college and had been singing for a while. All of a sudden I heard her singing my songs downstairs, and I’m like, ‘What’s up with that?!’ Everything kinda just unfolded, as opposed to me having a design.”
Once they realized they had sister act potential, Debi and Megan started playing bars in Washingon, D.C. and then hit the college circuit. Eventually, Columbia Artists booked them as “The Smith Sisters” and they began to tour nationally. They met some folk legends along the way, which seemed to give Smith the bump she needed to take it to the next level.
“We met Doc Watson and his son Merle Watson, who sang on our first CD,” Smith said. “Merle produced our first records. He was a good guy. He really tried to help other artists, and Doc was the same way. I’ve met some wonderful people along the way. Tom Paxton is another one who helped us early on. He’s always helping young musicians.”
Like many other successful singers, heartbreak was a catalyst for Smith’s earliest songwriting efforts. As is often the case, love and loss was a great springboard for a creative outlet she had yet to tap.
“Originally I didn’t play guitar,” Smith said. “What did it was I broke up with a boyfriend and I was eating my heart out, and I picked up the guitar and a book of Joni Mitchell songs, and also Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, and that’s how I kind of cut my teeth. And then eventually I just started writing. I’d always written poetry and stuff but I’d never written songs until I had a guitar in my hands.”
Adding to her resume of five records with her sister and her seven solo CDs, Smith also has the popular The Four Bitchin’ Babes as part of her repertoire. She joined the Babes in 1993 and regularly records and tours with them.
“I used to go see the Babes perform,” Smith said, “and I’d always say, ‘Man, I would kill to be in that group.’ Then, they asked me to join them, and it’s a riot. I mean, the offstage stuff is just as much fun as the onstage stuff. It’s a lot of comedy, but we’re always singing about whatever part of life we’re in, so it’s meaningful too. The group has grown right along with us. It’s geared towards women but we also have a lot of Man Babes come out to our shows, too. It’s a lot of fun.”
As if her multi-faceted musical career wasn’t enough, Smith also took time out to write “Look Up At The Hawks,” a memoir about her family that spans three generations. Smith speaks of that poignant experience fondly and with a healthy dose of family pride.
“Before grandma passed away,” Smith says thoughtfully, “she had a packet of papers that she handed to Mom and said, ‘Take this, please do something with it, I can’t do it anymore.’ She and my Dad grew up on a Nebraska farm during the Dust Bowl years, and so it’s all of her writings, her recollections, of that period of life during the Depression. The Dust Bowl, swarms of grasshoppers, floods, you name it. It’s a lot of really amazing memories. And it wasn’t originally a book. Mom and I performed it at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery and toured around the United States with it. And then finally, about two years ago, I thought, ‘This has to be a book.’ It’s just so beautiful, and I’m very proud of it.”
Smith’s latest project, the holiday CD “If I Were An Angel,” was a labor of love for her, blending a nostalgic love of the season with some of her favorite types of music.
“I was in the chorus back when, and also the madrigals,” Smith said. “That’s what we used to sing in church, the chorale kind of stuff, and I love Christmas, so I was excited to do this latest record. I kinda tried to write some stuff that sounds sorta like what’s out there, but aren’t the same songs. I really loved writing it.”
So between all of the many genres and combos Smith has been a part of — with her sister, the solo stuff, the Babes and the holiday fare — is there a type of music right now that fills up Smith’s songbird heart more than another?
“Now, at this stage in my life, the kind of singing I did on this new holiday CD, I love.” Smith said. “There’s something about when I can sing in my soprano voice, you know, when you’re trying to make it in pop music and you’re using a soprano voice, you have to rein in it a little bit here and there. But I didn’t on this CD, I just use it wherever I feel like it. I love singing in that voice. It just feels good.”
Debi Smith performs with the National Men’s Chorus on Sunday December 21, 2014 at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA 22305. For tickets, click here.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.