Audiences delight when world-renowned finger-style guitarist Richard Smith cuts loose. Having witnessed one of his live performances, fellow musicians and music lovers alike sing hymns of praise about Smith’s fretboard fireworks that will melt your heartstrings, start your toes tapping, and have your jaws hanging open. His ever-growing repertoire comprises a wide variety of music from classical Bach to Beatles pop. It ranges from Scott Joplin rags and Sousa marches, to jazz standards and Django Reinhardt gypsy swing. Smith delivers both lightning-fast barnburners and beautiful ballads, occasionally spiced with vocals.
An Englishman with a wry sense of humor, Smith’s incredible stylistic wealth is founded in a lifelong love for music. Born in Beckenham, Kent, in 1971, he started playing guitar at age 5 under the instruction of his father. Concentrating initially on the country picking of Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, young Smith digested everything he heard, learning even the most complicated of these tunes with ease, and confounding everyone with his dexterity.
Smith was just 11 years old when he first met his hero, the “godfather” of fingerstyle guitar, Chet Atkins. He was invited by Atkins to share the stage with him at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London before an audience of more than a thousand. At first, the master accompanied him, but later on in the set, he just listened in stunned silence while the child played Chet’s own arrangements — perfectly. By the time Richard reached his early twenties, both Chet Atkins and Jerry Reed began to refer to him as their “hero.”
“To be honest, Chet and Jerry were two of my biggest heroes when I was just learning to play,” Smith said in a recent interview from the road. “But I also have a deep appreciation for all of the great music to come out of Bakersfield. It’s about real music in your town … like a national monument!”
Joining him on his current tour is perhaps the most recorded guitarist in history, Brent Mason. To devotees of fine guitar picking, Mason is the king of the game. He has played on records by just about everyone who is anyone in Nashville; has probably appeared on more top 10 hits than any other session guitarist; won a Grammy; is a 14-time winner of the Academy of Country Music Guitarist of the Year Award. In fact, Brent was so dominant in these awards in the '90s that he was “retired” from his category, due to a clause that said that no one could win over 10 years in a row.
Though he comes from a musical background, Mason started life working in the family-owned toolbox factory and famously quit when a punch went through his thumb. You can’t help feeling that it was a defining moment when he faced a straight choice between playing and working in the family firm.
Just like in the movies, breaking in to the Nashville scene wasn't easy; "Guitar Town" is competitive. But through his one session contact in town, Mason ended up with a regular gig, eventually being taken under the wing of Chet Atkins. Not only did Atkins come to hear Mason play, he brought George Benson with him the next time, and later asked Brent to guest on Atkins' album, “Stay Tuned.”
Session work can be a bit scary, even if you’re Brent Mason.
“The daunting moments happened when I first came to Nashville and was called out to do a big session,” Mason said in a phone interview from his Nashville home. “Looking around and seeing players that I idolized was very scary, especially when I had to prove myself. In my mind, they were just waiting for me to screw up. But, this wasn’t the case. They were all very nice.”
Current projects include putting the final touches on new albums from Reba McIntire and Blake Shelton.
It’s not always been just studio work for Mason. For more than 16 years, he and another very fine player, Vince Gill, shared the stage with a group of first-tier musicians in a band they called The Players.
“We had to get gigs around town so we could ‘stretch out.' We called it our boot camp!”
Like Smith, Mason has a deep appreciation for the Bakersfield Sound although, amazingly enough, this will mark his first trip to our town.
“So much of that edgy sound came from the great Bakersfield pickers that I revered. Don Rich (for Buck Owens) and Roy Nichols (for Merle Haggard) are at the top of that list,” Mason said. “And, to play The Crystal Palace … I just can’t wait!”
Wednesday’s show will also feature (at Mason’s request) The Buckaroos, joining him on stage for a closing set. Mason added, “You know, an Army buddy of my dad’s, a guy named Bob Morris, actually wrote the song ‘Buckaroo.’ Maybe we’ll have to work that one in, too!”