A lot of water has passed beneath the bridge of his life, and a lot of his old friends are gone, but Russell Smith is returning to familiar territory on Friday night.
It’s appropriate, almost, that Miser Station — where Smith and his peers will perform on Friday — is between Maryville and Knoxville, because both towns played a big role in the development of Smith’s band, the Amazing Rhythm Aces. Smith got his start in the long-gone Knoxville band Fatback; the late drummer Butch McDade (a former Daily Times sports editor) was a Maryville boy who joined him, and together, they founded the band in the early 1970s.
“We used to come over there and hang out a of times; we didn’t play many gigs in actual Maryville proper, but we hung there a little bit and had a big time there,” Smith told The Daily Times this week. “Butch (who died in 1998) was a wonderful drummer, and he was a natural drummer. At the time, I was searching for players that had soul, regardless of what they played — I loved country music and rock ‘n’ roll and blues, all of it, but only if it was good. Only if it had soul. I was more about the feel and where the rubber meets the road kind of thing, and he was all about that, so that worked out real well
“We were actually the two founding members of the band, and basically what we would do after we got together would be to go to other bands and find somebody who wasn’t satisfied with what they were playing. We’d go rustle up somebody else’s players! That’s how we got Billy Earheart (who still plays with Smith), that’s how we got (former member) James Hooker, that’s how we got (the late) Barry ‘Byrd’ Burton.” It was just a matter of accretion, like barnacles.”
In other words, he and McDade, in those early days, were musical headhunters — “but we didn’t pay them any more!” he added with a laugh.
Together with bassist Jeff “Stick” Davis, Smith, Burton, McDade, Earheart and Hooker formed the first incarnation of the Amazing Rhythm Aces in 1972; three years later, the band released “Stacked Deck,” which included two hits that found footing in both rock and country circles — “Third Rate Romance” and “Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song).” A year later, “The End Is Not in Sight (The Cowboy Tune),” from the album “Too Stuffed to Jump,” won a Grammy for Country Vocal Performance by a Group, and the Amazing Rhythm Aces found a niche alongside other outliers of the mainstream who enjoyed diverse audiences and played music with heart and grit, regardless of its label.
“As I look back, I think we fit right into that whole era so well, with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Emmylou Harris and Rodney (Crowell) and the Cherry Bombs, and Willie (Nelson) and Waylon (Jennings) and Jerry Jeff (Walker),” Smith said. “We also toured with The Eagles, which I thought was a good matchup, too, because they were country, but they were also rock. There was just a lot of room there that isn’t there today, I don’t think. I think we were extremely fortunate to have been able to work with all the different acts that we worked with, because we just kind of fit like a glove.”
As the ’70s wound down, the Aces continued to record and release albums, including a self-titled effort in 1979 that included collaborations with Joan Baez and the Muscle Shoals Horns; one other album followed before the group disbanded, and Smith went on to a modest solo country artist. In 1994, Smith, McDade, Earheart, Davis and new multi-instrumentalist Danny Parks reformed the band and released a new album. They released an album of new material the same year McDade died, and they’ve continued to tour ever since, with Smith as the band’s figurehead. It’s been seven years, however, since the guys released a new album, but health concerns have prevented him from assembling the Aces in the studio, he said.
“I’m having structural problems with my back, and I’ve been working on it for five years now, doing all kinds of stretching and exercises, but the only thing that still bothers me so bad is having to wear the guitar for any length of time,” he said. “I have three compressed vertebrae fractures in my lower back, and sometimes I can’t even walk. Most of the time, with exercising and stretching and Bayer aspirin, I’m fine, but when I put the guitar on and stand up for a couple of hours at a time, it gets to be pretty rough.”
The payoff, however, is the continued ability to share songs that stand the test of time. They may not sound exactly like they once did, and that’s by design, Smith added — many of the players are different, and he enjoys the unique stamp each of his guys brings to those classic hits. And with Earheart by his side, and fans in the crowd who remember the old days, it’s as good as any pharmaceutical medicine he could possibly take, he added.
“It’s so spiritual to me,” he said. “People come to see us now that came to see us when we first started, and just to know that they’re still alive and we’re still alive is a pretty blessed feeling. And when they tell us that our songs have meant something to them, that they got them through this or that … well, that was my original ambition, because that’s what got me when I was first listening to music, that feeling of common feelings felt by everybody at one time or another.
”And so it feels strange to say it, but I feel like I owe it to them. I know when I’ve needed things and somebody has reached out to me, even if wasn’t tangible, it meant a lot just to know they understood, and that they felt the same thing. It’s about shared experiences, whether good or bad.”