The last time Big Smith brought their rambunctious, Ozarks-inspired music to Little Rock there was a promise of a new album. The outfit — brothers Mark Bilyeu on guitar and Jody Bilyeu on mandolin; brothers Rik Thomas on ukulele, mandolin and banjo, and Bill Thomas on upright bass; cousin Jay Williamson on washboard and trap set; and friend (and only non-relative) Molly Healey on fiddle and cello — is no stranger to central Arkansas. The band plays here often.
A couple of turns of the seasons later, that album is here, and the Springfield, Mo., band is on the road promoting it. The 15-track recording is titled Kin, which is an apt name because of the relationships of the members of the band and that the album kicks off with “Uncle Bud.” The tune is a surging, bluegrass number that rides a rhythm created by Healey’s fiddle, with Big Smith singing about the man who “taught us how to pick and bow/He taught us what to sing/Come to think he taught us all a bit of everything.”
Kin is the follow-up to Roots, Shoots, and Wings, a February 2010 release, and the first studio album to feature Big Smith’s current lineup. (Bill Thomas joined in 2007 and Healey in 2008.) Kin is also a return to the band’s earlier sound after Mark Bilyeu formed the band in the fall of 1996 around his weekly gig as a solo performer. And the new album more closely resembles Big Smith’s 1998 self-titled debut and the 2000 release Big Rock. (Beyond two live albums and a children’s album, Kin is the band’s fourth, studio album. Ten years passed between the release of Big Rock and Roots, Shoots, and Wings.)
Often known as a “bluegrass” band with rock beats (let’s call it “hillbilly” roots rock), Kin finds Big Smith returning to its acoustic roots. The album was also recorded at The Studio, a downtown Springfield studio where Lou Whitney has worked with clients such as Wilco, The Bottle Rockets and Sweetwater Abilene. It’s also the place where Big Smith recorded its first two studio albums.
The album — 12 originals, two covers and one traditional — was mostly recorded live, with the band members recording each tune as the tapes rolled. There’s a slight amount of overdubbing, but what one hears from Big Smith on Kin is the sound of a veteran, self-assured band tearing through a collection of stripped-down, acoustic tunes that still stomp and holler.
As band member Jody Bilyeu promised earlier this year — “We’re ready to hit the ground running and keep the creative output up.” — Kin is a collection of intellectually stamped, neo-hillbilly music, tunes filled with the band’s high-spirited roots music that incorporates old-time mountain, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, country and blues. The music might be raucous at times, on tunes such as “Whippoorwill” and “Grandmother Mabel,” but Kin is also delicate, especially on the tracks “Like You Do,” “I Thought It Was Over” and “Ghost,” with special guest Honeybear on lead vocals. And one of the covers is Prince’s “Raspberry Beret,” which, in a testimony to the tune’s strong DNA, works as a recast hillbilly rocker.
So Kin is a bit of a nostalgic nod over the shoulder, but the album is also the sound of a band moving confidently into the future. And it’s a joyous future.
SEE THE MUSIC:
Big Smith returns to the Dreamland Ballroom for a Saturday show which will serve as the local CD release party for the new album Kin. The doors open at 7 p.m. with the music starting at 8 p.m. with Cindy Woolf, an Arkansas native known for her Ozarks-flavored folk rock who now lives in the southwest corner of Missouri. Big Smith will take the stage at 9 p.m., delivering stomping, good-timing, Ozarks-inspired roots music. Tickets are $10 in advance and $14 at the door. The Dreamland Ballroom is located at 800 W. Ninth St. in downtown Little Rock.