Produced by Drive-By Truckers bassist Matthew Patton, the Brooklyn-born singer’s blend of soul, rock, R&B and Southern funk gives these ten new tunes plenty of punch
Bette Smith puts everything she has into every note she sings. You can hear her passion bursting through on all the tracks on The Good, The Bad and The Bette, the album she recorded with producer Matthew Patton, bass player of the Drive-By Truckers.
Her blend of soul, rock, R&B and Southern funk gives the ten tunes on the album plenty of punch. The record opens with “Fistful of Dollars,” a funky, horn driven rocker, first recorded by bluesman Lonnie Shields.
“Matt sent me a cover of the tune he made with a disco beat, and suggested putting it on the album,” she tells Rock & Roll Globe. “I’m a big fan of Clint Eastwood and it fit right in with the title I had for the album. I’m a good cook and a good person, the bad is my naughty side and Bette is my inner child. When I get stressed out, there’s nothing better having a glass of lemonade, putting my feet up and watching a spaghetti western. Fistful is one of my favorites.”
The album was officially released last year, on Ruf Records, but with the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown in effect, Smith wasn’t able to tour or promote it.
“I had some savings, I meditated, took yoga and pilates classes online and walked my labradoodle,” she explains. “It kept my mind refreshed to take my dog to the park and back every day. Now, the Delta variant has thrown me for a loop. In Brooklyn, everybody’s wearing masks again.”
Smith, Patton and drummer/co-producer Bronson Tew, cut the set in 2020, just before everything shutdown. “We did it in two sessions, at Dial Back Sound in Mississippi. We did five songs in one three day session and five in another session in February, just before Covid hit. It was a lot of work. Matt put a band together, no one from my touring group, and we cut them live. I like the organic process, having the music bounce off of me and having me bounce off of the players. He’d play me a song and, if I liked it, we’d do it.
“He also got me to talk about my rough and tumble childhood. My mother was bipolar, so we talked about my upbringing and gave the album an autobiographical slant. We did three original songs that spoke to my pain and my victories. Matt helped me work out the arrangements. When we played them with the band, everything clicked.”
One of those songs, “Whistle Stop,” is a gospel-influenced ballad with long, sustained organ chords and bluesy grand piano fills, supporting Smith’s melismatic vocal improvisations.
“The lyrics for ‘Whistle Stop’ came to me in a dream. I was in a black and white film and my mother was in an old fashioned railroad car that was pulling out of the station. She was waving goodbye. My sister called that morning and told me my mom had passed. One day, I was practicing guitar and the words coalesced. It almost wrote itself. When I sing it, sometimes I can get through it without crying, but a lot of people in the audience have tears in their eyes. Songwriting is very cathartic for me. It’s not intellectual. I write from my feelings. The deeper the pain, the better the song, unfortunately. Every song I write is taken from a life lesson I’ve learned.”
VIDEO: Bette Smith “I’m A Sinner”
Although Smith is a seasoned performer, with national and international tours to her name, she never intended to be a professional singer.
“I grew up in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant area,” she recalls. “My father was the choir director of our church, so I was steeped in gospel music, but didn’t have any ambitions to be a singer. A few years back, I was working as a secretary, but I always sang around the house. There was a knock on the door and my neighbor, Rosie, was standing there with a dress in a plastic dry cleaner bag. ‘My cousin died and I want you to come and sing at here funeral. I bought you a dress. You have an hour to get ready.’
“I went to New Jersey and sang ‘Amazing Grace,’ four verses, a cappella. When I opened my eyes, there were 350 people crying and that was it. They gave 50 dollars and I said to myself, ‘That’s it! This is what I’m gonna do from now on.’ I put an ad in the Village Voice and held some auditions to get people to play with me. I landed a residency at a club and built up a following.
“I held onto my day job. You always need two jobs to survive in New York City, but it always came back to my singing. Five years in, I was jamming with some guys at a festival in Park Slope, doing Aretha covers and the crowed mushroomed. Someone heard me singing and recommend me to Jimbo Mathus, from the Squirrel Nut Zippers. I went down to Mississippi to audition for him and we made my first album, Jetlagger together. And the rest is history.”