Bette Smith: Rock & soul powerhouse hits Rams Head Live
Album cover (Courtesy photo)
Pre-show interview (August 27th, Rams Head Live w/ Drive-By Truckers, Baltimore, MD)
Note: The interview was recorded for transcription purposes with permission from Bette Smith. The transcript below was edited minimally for clarity and brevity.
Rock & soul powerhouse Bette Smith is currently on tour promoting her latest album, “The Good, The Bad and the Bette” with dates across the country. She will thunder through Baltimore’s Rams Head Live on Friday, August 27 with Drive-By Truckers. In anticipation of the show, the Baltimore Post-Examiner’s Alex May connected with Bette to talk everything from touring in 2021 to transcendental meditation to chicken & waffles. Read on for a glimpse into the mind of the Brooklyn native, and check back next week for an in-depth review of the show.
BPE: I’m Alex May from the Baltimore Post-Examiner and I’m very excited to talk to you today, Bette. So starting off, the “Bustin’ out of Brooklyn Tour” kicked off in June, is that right?
Bette Smith: Yes, we started with June 24th with Waterfest in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. And June 25th, we went to the Q Casino in Iowa and June 26, we went to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Iowa. And then July 9th, we had Sunset Sessions [in Saugerties, NY]. Well, that got canceled because we got rained out. We did Woodstock. So we had a nice beginning on the “Bustin’ out of Brooklyn Tour” opening for the great Kenny Wayne Shepherd. So it was really exciting, my first time in the Midwest, and I really enjoyed driving through the cornfields of Iowa in that setting where Superman was born. It was very exciting for a native New Yorker from Brooklyn like me to see such a wide expanse of land. I’ve never seen that before. I’m accustomed to a couple of blocks of concrete and that’s it in a park [laughs].
BPE: A little bit more green than you’re used to, right?
Bette Smith: Much, much more. But it was so uplifting to be out there in the Midwest looking at the cornfields and nature. And I mean, I can’t really express how happy I was because I had been in lockdown for about a year or so in New York City. So, yeah, really, words cannot express how happy and freeing that was for my spirit.
BPE: No, that completely makes sense. I mean, a new experience mixed with that release of being able to be out and about in the world after being locked up for so long. Do you feel that has an impact on your performances?
Bette Smith: Absolutely! I’ve had a lot more appreciation for my audience and whatnot [laughs].
BPE: That’s awesome. And so a question about that, so you know, there’s kind of a lot of literature, a lot of people writing about what it’s like to be a fan of live music during these, I’m getting tired of the phrase, but shall we say these unprecedented times.
Bette Smith: Mm-hmm.
BPE: But the question I have for you that we don’t hear as much about is what is it like being a touring artist during these unprecedented times? I mean, we know we know it’s frustrating for us [as fans of live music]. We want to go see as many shows as possible. And, you know, there’s always that uncertainty. But what’s it like being a performer in 2021?
Bette Smith: So funny you should ask, because I’m looking at the audience in a different way, because I feel like we have to make them happy because it was so much sadness. They said 93,000 people committed suicide over the pandemic since February because a lot of people were going to AA meetings and getting group therapy. And they, you know, they can’t afford private therapy and stuff like that, fancy stuff like that. And, you know, their support system completely shut down and left them completely bereft of any type of help. And I mean, I tell you, I can’t tell you how much that affected me when I heard that statistic. So I’m really giving my all when I am on stage to make sure everybody leaves my concert feeling happy and recharged. And I’m getting the feedback that I was wanting to manifest. I played a date a couple of days ago at S.P.A.C.E. [in Evanston, IL], and they came up to me after while I was signing autographs and they said, “wow, I haven’t been so happy and entertained in about a year and a half!” [laughs]
BPE: Oh, I believe it!
Bette Smith: It is really heartwarming! Yeah, it is really heartwarming. I’m on a mission to dominate the world and make them happy.
BPE: That’s amazing.
Bette Smith: I haven’t told anybody, you’re the first!
BPE: Oh, I appreciate it. We heard it here first at the Baltimore Post-Examiner! But that’s amazing. And I know that is the main source of medicine for so many people. And it’s really cool to see that you’re taking a look at what’s going on from a public health and a mental health standpoint and doing your part.
Bette Smith: Yes, indeed.
BPE: So on this tour, it’s kind of an interesting tour, you’re playing some double bills throughout. You’ve got some dates with Kenny Wayne Shepherd, you’ve got some dates with Drive-By Truckers, and others starring Bette Smith. And so I have to ask, how did this tour come together? I mean, I cannot even imagine the logistical nightmare of putting together a tour, especially in collaboration with other people, in 2021.
Bette Smith: That’s a good question. It was a combination of different things. I think I used the law of attraction because I made up my mind to go on tour. A lot of people said, “you know what, this has just been too hell a fight of a year. And a lot of artists probably sat it out. But I said I’m going to go out. And now we have the tour set up.
BPE: I had a rare opportunity to sing with the Drive-by Truckers with Patterson Hood at the Brooklyn Bowl about two years ago. Right before the event, he taught me a song called “Everybody Needs Love”, which was written by Eddie Hinton. And he’s from Alabama. He passed away many years ago, but the song really, really resonated with me. So I started adding it to my set list. And we recorded it even on my album, “The Good, The Bad and the Bette” down in Mississippi. This was about two February’s ago. So what happened is so I got linked up with the Drive-By Truckers and that led to them inviting me to open up for them. So that’s one. And number two, my agent called me and told me that Kenny Wayne Shepherd was interested in me working with him on his tour coming out of the pandemic. So the stars aligned and everything worked out. And then my manager got an email from Ron Kaplan of ICM, and he said, “does Bette have representation in the United States and North America?” So he signed me. So I got the book. You know, I’ve been touring a lot in Europe. Four times I went on tour in Europe, but I didn’t have representation. It was just me and my manager booking myself. So as fate would have it, I had a really lucky, lucky opportunity to get representation. So now I’m booked at ICM and the festivals are coming in so rapidly, it’s kind of spinning my head. Even on tour, we’ve got two more opportunities to open with Kenny Wayne Shepherd. So it’s a lot of synchronicity.
BPE: That’s awesome, that sounds like a lot of moving pieces, and I’m sure you’re relieved that it all came together.
Bette Smith: [laughs] Yes, I am very relieved.
BPE: Oh, man. So now that it’s all happening, it looks like it’s been a very busy month for you. I saw your performance on WGN in Chicago. I saw you played “I’m a Sinner” from “The Good, the Bad, and the Bette”, and I think you’re even playing three or four shows alone this week. So, one, I’m not even sure how you’re still awake Two, the question that I have is how are you bringing the energy day after day? And I know that especially because you’re really taking ownership over the fact that you really want to leave people feeling happy and give people a good night. How are you bringing it every single day on this tour?
Bette Smith: Well, that’s a good question. I meditate. A couple of years ago, I was interested in meditation. I had heard a song by Stevie Wonder many years ago called [Jesus Children of America] and one of the lyrics was “transcendental meditation speaks of inner preservation”. It’s from his album, “Songs in The Key of Life”, which I’m sure you’re familiar with, Alex.
BPE: Oh, yes.
Bette Smith: And so a little curiosity got planted in me. And I said you know what, let me check out transcendental meditation because I’d been doing yoga for almost 500 classes, but when the pandemic hit, they said, “this is your 500 class anniversary. Congratulations. The studio is now closed down.”
Bette Smith: I was kind of traumatized, slightly traumatized by that. And I was like, “oh, my God, that’s what I was using to find my center and ground myself. Now, what am I going to do?” So I said, let me start doing this TM. And I went to see, she’s like a guru. Her name is Donna Brooks, and she’s in New York, and we had a couple of Zoom calls and she instructed me how to do the transcendental meditation. So now right before a show. I do at least twenty minutes of transcendental meditation, and I do it every day for two times a day. So it’s been keeping me grounded and it gives me a surge of energy. You can’t do this right before you go to bed. Not that type of meditation. It really takes you to a deeper level of relaxation. So I highly recommend it. I don’t work for the company by the way. [laughs]
BPE: [laughs] Maybe you should!
Bette Smith: I just really love it! Maybe I should. Yeah, that’s true. They have asked me to sing at one of their seminars, so I love them and they love me. We have a really nice thing going on.
BPE: That’s amazing.
Bette Smith: Yeah, it is amazing. And it really saves my energy levels because I totally need a lot. You know, I have to be like Wonder Woman to keep up with the schedule.
BPE: Seriously? Maybe I have to give this a try. Like a man can only drink so many cups of coffee. That’s really cool. Transcendental meditation. I love it. So just a silly question. In between meditation sessions, do you sort of have a comfort meal or comfort food that you reach for when you need to fuel up on tour?
Bette Smith: Absolutely. Chicken and waffles. I love fried chicken. It’s my guilty pleasure. I usually have put on some extra sit-ups the day after, but….
Bette Smith: I’m not going to lie. I love me some fried chicken. I have my own recipe for buttermilk fried chicken. I marinate it the day before in salt, pepper, and buttermilk. And I tell you, it really tenderizes those thighs.
BPE: Oh, my gosh, I’ll have to send it to me. That sounds amazing.
Bette Smith: [laughs] I will, I will, no kidding! I really love my comfort food. It really works. You can’t drive right after you eat.
BPE: Oh, no, that’s a nap situation. That’s like a nap and then a meditation session. Then maybe you can drive.
Bette Smith: Yes, that’s so true!
BPE: So hopefully you can find good chicken and waffles in the Midwest.
Bette Smith: Yeah! I went to a place…I have a friend, a girlfriend here from New York. She’s a transplant from Chicago, came to New York, found the Big Apple a little too harsh. So she came back to Chicago and she’s studying to be a doctor. But the thing is, she took me to a restaurant named “Kitsch’n”. And we had some chicken and waffles and grapefruit mimosas. It was one of the best times I had, other than being on stage, in Chicago.
BPE: That sounds perfect.
Bette Smith: It was perfect. I took the whole band as my treat because they work so hard.
BPE: So let’s talk about your band. Your last studio album came out last year, “The Good, the Bad and the Bette”. When I listen to this album, it basically sounds like everybody got together, started jamming, and someone kind of just started recording it. To me, that’s what the album sounds like. Is that how it works?
Bette Smith: That’s by design. We try to get everybody playing the guitar and the drums and the bass live while I’m tracking my vocals. Jimbo Mathus started me out with my first album in 2017, “Jetlagger”, and this album, “The Good, The Bad, The Bette”, was produced by Matt Patton and Bronson Tew. They all know each other. In other words, they play together, they play out. So they really gel. They really gel. So we record the album kind of semi-live. That’s why it sounds like that. I really prefer not to the prerecorded instruments.
BPE: I mean, it really comes through. When I’m listening to it, I hear elements of almost an “Exile on Main St.” with some of that raw sound. If there were crowd noise, you know, it would have reminded me of “Live Wire/Blues power”, just these classic albums that you just associate with that raw sound.
Bette Smith: You’re so intuitive. That is so true.
BPE: Do you have to do a bunch of takes, or is it kind of like you just start playing and you know that it’s the right take so you can roll with that?
Bette Smith: Nah, they take me to death! We do a lot of takes. We do a lot of takes. And I got to sing until you get it right. It’s fun, though, because every time I sing, I get a little deeper into what the lyrics mean for me. So it’s very cathartic. I’m actually digging deeper as I’m singing it, and I sing right into the microphone. So it has the effect that I’m talking right to the listener’s ear.
BPE: And that that actually really makes sense. A lot of your songs have a very, very personal feel to them. They almost feel kind of like a diary entry or as you said, catharsis, so it’s good to know that it takes time, time with the song, time with the band to find that place where you’re really connecting with the lyrics in that way.
Bette Smith: You’re so right. Each song tells a story. Each song tells a story. It’s very much like taking a peek, a secret peep, walking into my bedroom, and taking a peek into my diary, which I’ve hidden under my pillow.
Bette Smith: But you wouldn’t do that, Alex, would you? [laughs]
BPE: I would never do such a thing. I would never dream of it. I thought we were friends! [laughs] So can I ask you, is there sort of a through-line through the songs in this album? Is there a kind of an overall narrative that is being told?
Bette Smith: That is a very good question. I’m singing primarily to my mom, who passed on in 2006. And I wrote this song to her. And the song title is “Whistle Stop”. I had a dream the morning she died. And she was living in the South Caribbean on the island of Trinidad and Tobago with my oldest sister, who she chose to live with. I asked her to live with me, but I was living in California at the time for the past seven years, and she said that she didn’t know anybody in California. So she was sorry, but she had to say no to me. So she chose to live with my sister. She had a stroke and she passed suddenly. So what happened is that morning my sister called me at 7 a.m., but at 5 a.m. I was awakened by this dream of her waving goodbye to me, and she just kept waving. She wasn’t saying a thing. No words and her mouth was closed. She was waving goodbye. Taking off on a train. And I found it so weird. And when I woke up, my sister called me and said, “Mommy just died”. So I cried. And then I wrote the song in about 10 minutes.
Bette Smith: It was hard. It was hard for me to write, but I wrote it, it came out, it just came out of me. She had abandoned me when I was a little girl, and here’s the thing. She never said goodbye. She left me with family members. I think she was going through a hard time with my dad, who she never divorced, but she had a hellafied time in their relationship and they were soulmates. So it wasn’t all bad times, but they just disagreed a lot. They were opposites who loved each other. And she said, “I’m going to take you down to the Caribbean and we’re gonna have a vacation. But then when I woke up, and I was only four years old, she had completely disappeared. And nobody told me where she had gone. And I was devastated as any four-year-old would be because I needed my mother. So she didn’t come back for three months and they never told me that she was going to come back. So I had nightmares that she had died. I was trying to figure out in my mind, I guess, subconsciously, what became of her. It was very, very traumatic for me. And so when she died and I had the dream, I figured out the dream, later on, I said, “oh, she never said goodbye to me when she abandoned me when I was four, but she wanted to tell me goodbye by this time properly”. She wanted to give me the respect that I never got in my childhood from her. She wanted to say goodbye properly. So she came to me in a dream right before she died to say the final goodbye. And that’s where “Whistle Stop” comes from.
BPE: A song about loss, a song about redemption, maybe a song about a lot of bittersweet, mixed feelings. That’s pretty intense.
Bette Smith: Yeah, yeah. Very intense. I see people crying, men especially, tearing up in the eyes, lots of tears when I’m singing that song. I’ve seen it many times. Especially when I tell them the story behind which I do on stage. It’s a pretty deep experience for me singing that song. But I have to because I know I’m not the only one. There are a lot of abandoned children in the world and people get abandoned by their mothers, So I figured it would resonate with somebody out there. I took a chance there myself on stage and on the album.
BPE: That’s really cool. As you said, there’s always, I’m sure, somebody who needs to hear that song every single night you sing it, and it’s a gift that you’re giving away a little piece of yourself on stage every time you sing that song.
Bette Smith: Thank you, Alex, I knew you’d understand.
BPE: Well, when I see you at Rams Head Live in a couple of weeks, I would be honored if that makes its way into the setlist, I will be looking out for it.
Bette Smith: Okay. I will definitely sing it just for you!
BPE: But clearly, you put so much of yourself into your music. And it’s like I said, it’s really a gift that you’re giving people, especially during these times. And so I just want to thank you for that.
Bette Smith: You’re welcome, Alex. It’s just been so nice. Going on tour and meeting people in the Midwest. I love the Midwest, and it’s different than New York. But I’m learning the subtleties and I’m enjoying the discoveries I’m making with people. Thank you.
BPE: Absolutely. Hey, it’s a great big country, there’s a lot of stuff to see.
Bette Smith: It’s true. Most New Yorkers don’t know that, though. [laughs] They’re stuck in their own gravitational pull of New York. It’s good now that I’m getting exposed to it so I can go back and educate the rest of us.
BPE: This is true. So I know we’re just about at time. One more question about New York.
Bette Smith: Absolutely. Certainly.
BPE: So Joe’s Pizza, Prince’s Pizza, or something else entirely?
Bette Smith: I think Joe’s Pizza, I think. Oh, actually, hold on a second. Highly recommend “Two Boots”. They have them in Park Slope and all over. They’re a chain, t-w-o-b-o-o-t-s. That’s the new normal. [laughs]
BPE All right, next time I’m up there, I will tell them that you sent me.
Bette Smith: Okay, please do. The one in Park Slope, they know me, I sing there sometimes, that’s where I got discovered, actually.
BPE: Oh, get out of here! That’s awesome. So we’ve come full circle. Bette, it’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.
Bette Smith: Thank you. I’ll see you on the road!
Alex May has been attending concerts in the DMV for his entire life. He was born and raised in Maryland, attended college and graduate school in Virginia, and lives in DC with his girlfriend and dog. He believes all music sounds best live, and he never misses a Sunday show.