Russell Smith’s Sunday Best: The Cream of the Solo Albums

horrible cover art, Sunday BestRussell Smith and I go way back. I first heard of Russell Smith on a 1974 Jesse Winchester album, when Winchester covered Smith’s hilarious and poignant “Third Rate Romance.” Later Smith’s own band, The Amazing Rhythm Aces, had a hit (and a Grammy nomination) with the same tune! The Aces are only now starting to get the appreciation they so richly deserve, but in the early ’80s the Amazing Rhythm Aces had pretty much run their course.

Russell Smith was becoming a fixture in Nashville providing songs for other artists when his first album came out. I managed to buy that album, called Russell Smith, for 39 cents! What a bargain. His second album The Boy Next Door was only released in Europe, probably because the first one was so quickly deleted. In 1989 he followed that up with This Little Town, the only one of his albums to be issued on CD. Raven has now taken care of business. Sunday Best is a collection that features songs from all three of these solo albums, and it turns out to be “the Cream …” because it provides an embarrassment of richness.

The Amazing Rhythm aces were known for their combination of a country sound with an easy rolling Memphis funk all presented by solid instrumentalists, and Smith continued that tradition on his solo work. Sunday Best begins with a country tune, a Dobro lick and Smith’s Tennessee twang on “If I Didn’t Have You.” It’s a light and winning combination. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have you… but I do have you!” This is followed by the funkier, more Memphis-influenced “Hold Me.” Smith’s voice is not especially strong, but it is true and engaging, especially when he pushes it a little bit. The presence of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section adds a rock-solid base to Smith’s songs.

Raven has chosen to alternate between the three albums rather than present them in chronological order. This is an interesting choice. The styles are slightly different on each album but by rotating through rather than grouping, the listener hears the full range of Russell Smith’s influences, and Raven creates a single entity out of three disparate albums. It is Smith himself who is featured rather than one band or another. The songs continue to be strong, whether country (“Anger and Tears”), ballads (“A Picture of You”), R&B (“Who’s Makin’ Love”), gospel (“Southern Music”) or singing the “Blue Collar Blues.”

Whatever genre he tackles, Smith’s southern tenor makes it his own, and the instrumentation is professional and solid.

Raven is an exciting label, based in Australia, which has built its reputation on exemplary anthologies like this one. Their Web site offers their full catalogue, which includes albums and artists who have been ignored, or forgotten, by their American labels. Thankfully an American company has seen fit to reissue the Amazing Rhythm Aces albums this year, but an artist like Russell Smith could get lost in the shuffle. We owe a debt of gratitude to Raven for keeping an old friend like Russell Smith in the market place. This is a great collection.

(Raven Records, 2001)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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