Way back at the dawn of the 1960s, songwriter-producer Rick Hall started a small recording operation in a small upstairs room above a drugstore in his native Alabama. Florence, Alabama Music Enterprises - later, and more famously, known as FAME records - was the source of Arthur Alexander's influential and unbeatable original recording of You Better Move On. FAME was immediately on its way to becoming one of American music's most distinctive and revered imprints with hits and classics by artists as diverse as Clarence Carter, the Osmonds and Bobbie Gentry, to name just three.
After a long run of mostly great records, the Fame label disappeared from view in the mid 70s. (Hall put the label on ice while he concentrated on licensing pop, country and the occasional R&B master to major labels). But its welcome return in 2002 brings with it an equally welcome return, that of erstwhile Amazing Rhythm Aces/Run C&W frontsperson Russell Smith.
It's been a while since we've had any new solo outings - around 15 years, since his This Little Town album, in fact - so a return to records for one of country's most soulful voices is something to celebrate. Particularly as he's re-launching Fame in the USA with Smith Sings Smith an album that features many of his best known songs of the past 25 years-.-songs that have already provided major hits for assorted country superstars, but that sound even better rendered by the bloke who wrote 'em. As a country music fan I'd be the last person to have anything derogatory to say about greats like John Conlee, Randy Travis, Don Williams or Ricky Van Shelton. Neverthe-less Smith's own essays on Old School, Look Heart, No Hands, Heartbeat In The Darkness and Keep It Between The Lines run that quartet's respective versions all the way to the Nashville City Limits and put 'em on a bus out of town.
There are no honky tonk shuffles here, no cry-in-your-beer tearjerkers and definitely no emotionally contrived songs about Alzheimer's sufferers. You'll barely hear a fiddle, and there's no steel guitar player mentioned in the list of personnel. Nevertheless there's absolutely no question that this is anything other than country music, peppered with a healthy flavouring of soul. Smith's best essays on romance, such as What I Learned From Loving You, aim directly for the emotional jugular and are as country as country gets. The revival of another erstwhile Don Williams hit Don't Go To Strangers is even better, simply oozing southern-fried sensuality and providing a direct link with all the great soul records that built Fame's reputation in the late 60s and early 70s.
Smith also recuts two of his former ARA classics, Third Rate Romance and The End Is Not In Sight, to pleasing effect. But not being a man to rest on his past glories, he continues to write great material in the 21st century, as amply demonstrated by The King Is In His Castle - a celebration of low rent living (the "king" being "a good ole boy from Birmingham" and his "castle" "a doublewide (trailer) in Gulf Shores, Alabama"). Smith can also rock with the best of 'em, too, as he does on the upbeat Jesse, a lively blaster that puts a first-person narrative spin on the time old story of Frank's brother and everyone's favourite outlaw Mr James.
The Muscle Shoals recording location gives Smith the chance to work with some of the greatest musicians to have ever been associated with that area. Just to name a few of the better-known sidemen featured here, you get Mac MacAnally and long-time Don Williams associate Danny Flowers on guitars, Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section lynchpin David Hood on bass, Clayton Ivey on piano, Spooner Oldham on Hammond B3 and ex-Delaney & Bonnie/Eric Clapton sideman Bobby Whitlock on backing vocals - and that's just for starters. And even though the record is not produced by Rick Hall himself, his sons Rodney and Mark are following the family tradition that created such imperishable classics as Clarence Carter's Slip Away, Bobbie Gentry's Fancy and Shenandoah's Sunday In The South.
This album was originally only available via Fame's own internet site, but Ace is delighted to be able to bring it to the wider audience it unquestionably deserves. Allow me to sum this fine record up in ten words or less - Mr Smith goes to Muscle Shoals, everybody goes home happy. If there's any justice in this world, fans of serious soul and hard core country will be queuing side by side and round the block for copies when the record shops open tomorrow.
By Tony Rounce