With 'Lunker Bass,' A Lawrence Singer-Songwriter Tells More Than Fish Stories

Mar 28, 2017

An 11 a.m. Sunday slot at any festival, especially the Kansas City Folk Festival, is a dicey gig, and Lawrence singer-songwriter Sky Smeed admits his morning show last month made him anxious. Turned out that anxiety was unnecessary: The room filled up with people who weren't just awake — they were enthusiastic.

“That was quite the surprise,” Smeed says with a chuckle. “I just didn’t think anyone would be in that room at 11 a.m. I was really nervous, and I was thinking ‘All right, you gotta be positive, be in a good mood, enjoy yourself.’”

The show became an informal preview of Smeed’s sixth CD, Lunker Bass, a mix of funny stories, serious meditations, and songs not obligated to make sense. Recorded in Lawrence at the 9th Ward Pickin’ Parlor studio of Truckstop Honeymoon’s Mike and Katie West, the CD’s release party is Saturday at the RecordBar.

The title song, “Lunker Bass” is a short, touching story of a dad who gives his young son credit for landing a legendary fish.

“That’s my favorite song I’ve ever written. It’s a true story … well, pretty true,” Smeed says. “I wrote it all out in one take. I didn’t edit anything. It just came out like that.”

Ironically, it was also almost “the song that got away,” after Smeed lost the lyrics for several months.

“I tried to rewrite it, and I couldn’t. But when I was moving into my house in Lawrence, I was unpacking and I found it. I put it on a table and put music to it right then so I wouldn’t forget it.”

“Lunker Bass” also resonates with his fans.

“It’s so cool," he says. "At a lot of shows, someone will come up and say, ‘Man, I had a similar thing happen when I was a kid’! For me, that’s great. There aren’t a whole lot of songs I have that people message me about.”

For Smeed, even a song like “Starting All Over Again,” which begins in the somber moment of selling the house he built on his grandfather’s land outside of Chanute, Kansas, ends up in happier times.

“I had this idea, and the chorus was 'starting all over again.' I kind of wanted it to sound like a Willie Nelson song, but what really gave me the idea to write the third verse and finish it, with the idea that you’re never too old to fall in love again, was this guy, Artie, who lived in Chanute and was in his upper nineties.”

Last Christmas, Smeed says, “Artie took a fall and he had to go into a rest home. I went to visit him, and he was just as positive and chipper as ever, and mentioned something about ‘starting over again.’ It just stuck with me.”

Like most country songwriters, Smeed writes relentlessly sad songs, too, and some of the best songs on Lunker Bass are painfully serious, including “Hard Man To Love,” which starts from the abrasive moment of that realization and, on the new CD, moves even further into desperation. Smeed, however, recognizes the risks of mournful — and honest — songs played live.

“That song,” he admits, “I don’t really play it all that much. It can suck the life out of a room.”

Clearly, Smeed’s sense of humor serves him well.

“I believe in not throwing humor out the door when you write a song,” he says.

A perfect example of that philosophy is his popular “Bumper Sticker,” composed, literally, of bumper sticker phrases he’s seen.

“When I wrote that song, I was kind of agonizing over it. I told Mike West I couldn’t figure out how to make it make sense. He said ‘Don’t make it make sense — just slap them all together and make it kind of rhyme.’ I thought, ‘Wow, perfect.’”

After he wrote “Bumper Sticker,” Smeed saw a video about John Prine on YouTube.

“They asked him ‘Do you have any advice for up-and-coming young songwriters?' Prine said, ‘Don’t write anything you’re not proud of, because you might end up singing it for the rest of your life.’ I just thought ‘Argghh — I’ve let my idol down,’” he says, laughing.

That self-effacing charm is another part of what makes his music work.

Says Smeed, “My main goal, when I play shows, is I want people to leave happy.”

Sky Smeed's Lunker Bass release party, 8 p.m. Saturday, April 1 at RecordBar, 1520 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108, 816-753-5207. Truckstop Honeymoon, with Mike and Katie West, opens the show.

KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.