Kenny and Amanda Smith didn’t start making music together to acquire fans. The fans came to them, in a manner of speaking. Recorded early in their marriage, the couple’s first album Slowly But Surely (2001) was more a labor of love than a band debut, according to Amanda. “Kenny was still with Lonesome River Band,” she says. “And I had a job.” Regardless of intentions, when DJ friend Mike Kelly began playing the album’s “Winter’s Come And Gone” from the album, the song quickly hit bluegrass radio and began climbing the charts. Soon after, fans propelled the album’s “Amy Brown” to number one, and the Kenny and Amanda Smith Band was officially born.
Eight albums later, Kenny and Amanda have more than solidified their role in the bluegrass community. They are regulars on bluegrass radio, sought-after festival artists, and multi-award winners. Since being named International Bluegrass Music Association Emerging Artist of the Year (2003), they’ve gone on to receive numerous IBMA, Grammy, and Dove award nominations. Just this fall, Amanda was among the nominees for IBMA Female Vocalist Of The Year (a title she won in 2014), and Kenny was nominated for IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year (which he won in 1998 and 1999).
The couple’s 2012 album Catch Me If I Try enjoyed several singles on Bluegrass Today’s charts. Its title track reached the top spot in November 2013. And their new album Unbound is already gaining airplay and stellar reviews.
Since their start as a band, the couple has worked toward having their own sound. With Amanda’s vocals and Kenny’s flatpicking skills front and center, they have managed to do just that. “Groups that we admired over the years—Alison Krauss & Union Station, Blue Highway, Doyle Lawson, and J.D. Crowe & The New South—had their own music, their own songs. We wanted that for ourselves, too,” says Kenny. “And it’s worked out for us.”
Kari Rowe, a fan and family friend, calls their music a “unique blend of contemporary and traditional bluegrass,” a description that Amanda accepts and expands upon. “Bluegrass is the foundation, and we try to make music that is pleasing in Americana, country, and contemporary Christian settings, too,” she reflects. “When you get down to it, we want to make music that is considerate—that a child or a 90-year-old person would love.”
You had me at: “You wanna pick?”
Kenny first met Amanda at the Mountaineer Opry House in Milton, West Virginia. The Lonesome River Band was playing, and Kenny was its newest member. (Prior to KASB and Lonesome River Band, Kenny was lead guitarist for Claire Lynch’s Front Porch String Band.) “I saw Amanda right away,” recalls Kenny. “I thought, ‘This beautiful lady probably doesn’t even like bluegrass—or me.’” She liked both, as it turned out, and was familiar enough with the band to notice a new face. “I hadn’t heard that Tim Austin had left the band, so when Kenny walked out, it was a surprise. I thought he was cute, and I worked up courage to talk to him.”
Amanda, who had grown up singing in church and taking in the music influences around her—everything from 1980s pop to Tammy Wynette—got her first taste of bluegrass in high school. “I was driving home from work one day, and I heard Alison Krauss on the local country station.” Amanda soon became a full-fledged bluegrass fan and went on to attend many festivals with her parents.
That night in Milton, Amanda not only talked to Kenny, but also handed him a cassette recording of some of her songs (with her phone number also written inside). The tactic worked on Kenny, who called her up for a date. “I liked her voice and her songs,” he recalls. “On our first date, we were sitting on her mom and dad’s couch, when she said, ‘Do you want to pick?’ That’s pretty much where it started for me. I’d never had a girl ask me that. We played for two or three hours, and I remember leaving that night really hoping this one turned out.”
Kenny grew up in a musical family, yet learning his chosen instrument was another story. “Instruction wasn’t easy to come by in the 1970s,” explains Kenny, who has nonetheless become one of the most influential flatpick guitarists of his generation. “Dad and Grandpa were fiddlers, so I grew up hearing those tunes. Norman Blake was the first guy I saw that was taking the fiddle tunes and picking the lead out on the guitar. My dad ordered a couple of Norman Blake records for me, and I started learning to pick. My brother and I would sit and watch these guys. It really trained our ears. I remember, too, going to fiddle contests. My brother would enter the banjo contest, and I would carry around a tape recorder. If somebody had a new tune, I’d record it to try to learn it. That was how I learned to play, and that’s why I take the time to teach others.”
Kenny teaches regularly at camps and workshops like Wintergrass Academy, Nimble Fingers (Canada), Kaufman Kamps, and Adam and Megan Chowning’s Nashville Flatpick Camp. “Kenny and Amanda Smith are two of the most genuine people you’ll find in bluegrass and Americana music,” says Chowning. “We can’t imagine hosting our flatpick camps without them. Campers have come to expect nothing less than the teaching and inspiration they bring to every event. What people see when they perform is the love between two smart, talented, and hilarious people who have a shared gift of singing and picking.”
Well-timed Ruhks & a new (baby) face
Along with his role in KASB, Kenny is a prolific session guitarist and a founding member of another charting bluegrass band, Band Of Ruhks. The idea for The Ruhks developed from a Lonesome River Band reunion performance. In talking to Don Rigsby and Ronnie Bowman, Kenny found they shared his longing to continue making music together. “I felt like all of us hadn’t made our best record together yet,” says Kenny. “We decided to start recording, and we didn’t have a timeline. It started as a side project and turned into something more.
“Amanda and I were still going strong as a band when The Ruhks came along, but it came at the right time. I’m really thankful for that band because it allowed us the time off to have Annabelle. We started Kenny and Amanda Smith in 2001, and we had always been on the road. The Ruhks allowed us to slow down. We took that opportunity to stop and have a family. Having Annabelle at this stage in our lives has been awesome. There was a period where we didn’t think it was going to happen. When Amanda got pregnant, it was special how it timed out—she found out on her birthday, which made it even more profound.”
Already a VIP among bluegrass fans, one-year-old Annabelle has taken the festival circuit—and her parents—by storm. “She’s become much of the reason we do what we do, and she has added dimension to our music,” says Amanda.
That dimension comes through in the material of Kenny and Amanda’s latest album, their first in four years. Released September 23, 2016, on their own Farm Boy label, Unbound includes expected songs of love and heartbreak, but digs in emotionally, too, through songs relatable to the artists as new parents. “Tea Parties,” by Roger Helton, for instance, expresses well the couple’s newfound purpose. With lyrics wrapped up in sweetness (tea parties and little baby girls / hide and seek and bows and little curls / and little smiles that light up my world), the song was tough to get down in the studio. “We just bawled,” smiles Amanda.
The title cut, by Dennis Duff, also helped set the tone for the project, Amanda shares. “I sang this song to Annabelle when she was born,” she says. “Now, she likes to sing the word unbound back to me.”
Recorded by Glenn Tabor at GAT3 Studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, Unbound also includes cuts by established writers Ronnie Bowman, Barry Bales, and Tim Stafford and by new writer Ellie Rowe, 15, who achieves her first cut on the album with “Reaching Out.” Special guests on the album include Wayne Winkle (harmony vocals), Kyle Perkins (bass), Jacob Burleson (mandolin), Kenny (guitar), and Justin Jenkins (banjo), who helped deliver a decidedly grassed-up take on Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wherefore And Why.”
Tabor has worked with artists across the board (James Brown, Fantasia, Matchbox 20, and Chris Tomlin, among others). He met Kenny years ago in his studio. “Kenny came in to do some guitar overdubs on another project, and we became fast friends,” says Tabor. “Later, when he and Amanda were looking for a place to record their next album, Kenny had liked the way his guitar sounded here. We have been working together ever since.
“Kenny and Amanda are talented musicians and wonderful people. They drive past many great studios to come to me, and it’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly,” he says. “It’s important to me that the bluegrass world gets to hear what they have to offer. Purists in many senses of the word, they respect the history of the music, but they also have their own music to make. The trick, for me, is to stay out of the way and let what they do come through as pure and live as possible. Amanda’s incredible vocals and Kenny’s fingers, his guitars, and the way he plays speak for themselves.”
Speaking of fingers on frets, Kenny reaches most often for his 1935 D-18 Martin, but other favorite frets include a 1948 Regal Milord and a Suda 12-fret dreadnought. In coming months, you’ll find the guitar master involved in even more teaching, storytelling, and educating about “all things guitar” through his brand new website, www.kennysmithguitar.com (under construction, coming soon).
Kenny, Amanda, Annabelle, and the band are certain to acquire new fans as they share their music and keep the festival routes warm. Keep up with tour dates, accolades, purchase information, and “all things Kenny and Amanda Smith” at www.kenny-amandasmith.com.