By: Kevin Rolfe
M Horton Smith is a singer-songwriter/ mandolin player located here in Utah. He is a member of the Americana supergroup, The Lower Lights. Recently Smith released his second solo album, Blessed of the Flesh which I highly recommend checking out. On top of all that, he’s also a member of The Hollering Pines. He’s one of the most talented musicians in the state. I’ve been wanting to visit with him for a while and I’m glad I finally had the opportunity.
The Lower Lights are currently celebrating their Tenth Anniversary of their highly acclaimed Christmas concerts this week at Kingsbury Hall in Salt Lake City. I had the opportunity to catch up with Smith before the run began. Here is our conversation. Enjoy!
Utah Concert Review: You’re everywhere, Dude! I’ve seen you perform as a solo act, I’ve seen you appear at various festivals, I’ve seen you in The Hollering Pines, and of course, I’ve seen you with The Lower Lights. It’s pretty cool.
M Horton Smith: I love music and I love to perform. I try to gravitate towards the good stuff out there. I also feel lucky to be able to be part of the different groups that I’m in. I love it.
UCR: So take me back to the beginning. I’m not familiar with your music origins so I’m wondering how you got into music in the first place. And once you got into music, how did you decide that this was going to be the style you wanted to play? Because you seem to lean pretty heavily into the Americana, American Roots and Country style of playing.
MHS: I grew up in Texas initially. I got into music there where there’s a lot of country music in the air. But I started on cello actually. Up through the Suzuki method then High School playing in orchestras as well. So I come from a classical background. My parents listened to a lot of Folk music and Country music. So that’s always been part of the landscape for me. Coming from a classical of discipline it’s a lot different so I kind of stepped out of that later when I was in my 20s or late teens. But from early on music always spoke to me. I always knew I was going to be doing it in some form or another for my whole life. So I moved on from cello to guitar and piano and then later on the mandolin which is what I mostly play with the Lower Lights. Folk music and fiddle music really brought me to the mandolin. Fiddle music and string music kind of have ties to classical music as well. Those timeless fiddle tunes drew me to the mandolin and filled in a gap for me as far as Americana and Folk music goes.
UCR: You make such a good point about Fiddle music having ties to Classical music. And I had always wondered if you did have a background in classical music. There is something about your approach to your instrument that made me curious. So it makes sense that you’d evolve into a style that has some connection to your starting point in music.
MHS: I think attention to dynamics and technique you know all those nuances of the music are a big part of classical music so I always appreciated that a lot. Going from really quiet to loud and energetic and vice versa, having some movement that way with the music. Having Its moments and trying to emphasize those with the playing. I think that really influenced me a lot. Especially playing in orchestra where one part you’re filling a supportive role and the next you’re playing the melody. It’s finding those spots and supporting the music where it needs it. All of those elements were going on in my subconscious when playing with these different groups.
UCR: And I can see that with you in The Lower Lights. There are songs where you’re mandolin is more of a supportive instrument and others where you’re very much being featured with the melody or a solo. So it really is similar whether it’s a Classical orchestra or what I like to call The Lower Lights, an Americana orchestra.
MHS: That’s one thing, especially with that group, because there are a lot of people I think it’s important to know your spots and know mostly when not to play. There’s so much talent on the stage and so many instruments on the stage and there are so many instruments going on, knowing those spots are important. I think I was conditioned that way by classical music.
UCR: So, speaking of The Lower Lights, Ten years! Ten years of these Christmas shows. It’s an amazing thing when you think about it. What are your thoughts on what this has all turned into?
MHS: Well, first of all, I’m really thankful. I’m thankful that I’ve had the chance to do this for this long. Especially with people that I love. And I’m thankful for the people that have made a tradition out of it. We see a lot of the same people year after year and I’m just thankful for those people. I’m really thankful to be a part of it and to be part of people’s traditions. We’ve all grown, we’ve all changed over the years and I just feel blessed to be able to play with friends and to be able to do it year after year.
UCR: People evolve and change over a then year stretch. With at times well over twenty people in this group, there have to have been a lot to changes within the band. But the show, because it’s a tradition for people has to be similar or at least feel similar to what people are wanting to see. How do you come back every year evolving as a person and musician with twenty other people evolving and changing, and not always in the same way, and give people the show they’re hoping to see while keeping it interesting for the band?
MHS: That’s a great question. That’s something that we always struggle with and try to address each year. A lot of people come for the tradition. They want to see the show that we always do. At the same time, we want to bring new elements all the while we’re changing as artists and people. Each year we try to do something a little different. This year we’ve tried to mix things up a little more. Even though the core elements are still the same we’ve tried to present a handful of songs in a different way, add some new material, maybe approach things from a different perspective. With this band, there’s so much talent! That’s both a blessing and a curse I think. Any number of us could not show up and the show would go on very well. And I’d be the first to admit that if I didn’t show up the show would probably go on phenomenally.
UCR: Yeah Right!
MHS: One element of this band that we’ve tried to keep in this band is to always present these songs in a human way.
UCR: I totally get what you’re saying with the talent in this group being a positive and a challenge. I’ll hear someone in the group and think “They’re amazing! They should sing more!” But then someone else will come on and I’ll think the same thing. I don’t know how you guys do it or decide who’s doing what, but there is a really good balance with the performers in these shows. I don’t envy whoever is making these decisions.
MHS: We have to think about all that stuff. We want everyone in the band to have an enjoyable time as well. But that doesn’t overshadow our job to the audience in trying to make sure they’re happy with the show. So there is a delicate balance between artistic integrity if you want to call it that in putting on a show for the audience. Ultimately this art form is an experience, an interactive event with the people on the stage and the people in the seats. We want to create an event that is a dialogue going both ways. The fans are great and they come back time and time again. So we want to give them a good show.
UCR: Let’s talk about your solo album, Blessed of the Flesh. How did this album evolve? Was there a theme you wanted to focus on?
MHS: This album sort of documents a journey of me finding myself. My life has changed a lot over the last ten years. So this album is sort of me expressing that through the music and in a way people can latch on to I would hope. Like I said before, I feel blessed to be where I am right now. I feel blessed to be on the planet knowing what I know. The journey is rough sometimes, but the outlook is good. So I guess this album is a reflection on my journey through what you could call a “Faith Crisis” and finding strength in myself and finding elements in nature that speak to my soul. So that’s where this material came from.
UCR: So with this journey, you’ve been on, and the faith crisis you refer to, are you saying essentially saying you’ve changed your direction of faith or perhaps even religious belief?
MHS: Certainly a different perspective in my world view. It’s not the most opportune time in life to reinvent yourself. I think most people do it when they’re younger. But yeah, faith certainly has a big part of it for sure. My world view on spirituality and faith and religion is different. I don’t subscribe to religion, but I do have faith and I do think spirituality is very important. I think this album reflects some of that and I think material down the way will have these themes as well. Just kind of getting back to the roots of the self and finding out the things that are important. I think a big part of that is looking outward and enjoying nature and enjoying spirituality on a level outside of the religious context.
UCR: Well going through all that is a big deal. There’s a lot to mine from reassessing your faith. So I’m not surprised it’s going to take a couple of albums of music is being cultivated from that.
MHS: It does take a while to process when your world view changes in a drastic way. I don’t want to come across as someone who is complaining or feels victimized or “Whoa are my problems”. I want to focus on the path ahead and the redeeming qualities of learning and finding something new or adventuring in a way you never did before. That to me is what is interesting and worth focusing on.
UCR: So with these other groups you’re more of an instrumentalist rather than the lead vocalist. How is the experience of being the singer for you? Do you enjoy it? Or does it make you more anxious?
MHS: It’s more pressure for sure. I don’t think I really found my voice until later. I honestly don’t think I’m a singer at all. I feel like I have things to say and I feel like a writer that uses my voice to portray a message. I’m not a great singer so to gain the confidence to use my voice was nervewracking. I still have dreams where I’m supposed to sing in front of a large crowd and I’m terrified. But you do it. I don’t think being a singer-songwriter means you have to be an amazing singer. Sure it helps. I don’t have the voice I want, but I have the voice I have. And I’ll use it to portray the message I hope to portray.
UCR: I think there’s something to be said about knowing your voice. There are people with incredible range who don’t understand their voice and it makes them unlistenable for me. I think you know your voice. I feel like you understand what your voice can do and what it can’t. Because of that, I think it makes the album what it is and brings power to your voice and balance to the songs.
MHS: Thank you. I really appreciate that. It has been a struggle. There’s a tune called “Don’t Be Denied”. I’m a shy person. So to express myself singing was terrifying. It’s taken a while to get over that. But putting yourself in those places where you feel uncomfortable, that’s when you really know you’re really alive. So I’m not going to shy away from singing and expressing myself with my voice.
UCR: Last question. Who is a singer, band or group that I should be listening to?
MHS: Someone who has spoken to me on many levels is Marty Stewart. You probably know him and listened to him. At an early stage, he was steeped in Bluegrass music. He was lucky to play with Lester Flatt in the Bluegrass world way back when, and then with Johnny Cash as well. But his style of playing, especially on the mandolin, all the notes are just right. He’s also a great picker on the guitar. He owns the Clarence White, the first b- bender Teli guitar which was used all over The Byrds album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. His playing is something that speaks to me.
UCR: And you’ve had the chance to open for him right? What was that experience like?!
MHS: When I first saw him backstage it was kind of like seeing God. There was a certain energy in the room. It just follows somebody like that. It looked like he was hovering a couple feet off the ground and there was a bright light in the room. No, he just comes over and says, “Hi I’m Marty”. Of course, I know who you are. But it was sublime. To hear that music, to be there and to be able to rub shoulders with him and his band. Just to chat with them and see how they do things. It was very inspirational, to say the least.
I had him carve on my mandolin, his name. If you look at his mandoline, Johnny Cash carved his initials with a cross on the front. It was a brand new instrument. He’d just gotten it and Johnny took a knife and carved his initials and a big cross on there and told him “This is so you never forget me and so you never forget God”. But if you look at it now, Bob Dylan is on there, Keith Richards and others. So I felt moved to have him put his name on mine as well. Some people said, “Why in the world would you do that?”. But for me it was motivational. It’s a reminder to exceed your talent and spend time to know your instrument.
You can catch M Horton Smith at The Lower Lights Christmas shows this week at Kingsbury Hall. This is a popular event so get your tickets right away! If you love Christmas music, American music or simply love amazingly talented musicians, this show is a must!