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Darden Smith's expansive 'Western Skies' combines music, essays and photos

Darden Smith was taking a break from a recording session near El Paso, watching the sun set over a grove of pecan trees, when it suddenly hit him that the songs he’d been writing were part of something bigger.

During the first year of the pandemic, Smith took several two-day drives from Austin to Tucson as part of the work he was doing for Songwriting With Soldiers, an organization he co-founded a decade ago as a musical form of therapy for veterans. Those drives became a creative spark: He would write songs, recite essays into his phone to transcribe later, and take black-and-white snapshots with an old Polaroid camera he’d recently unearthed from his garage.

Amid one trip, he booked three days at Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo to get some of the songs down. “On the second night of recording,” he recalls, “it just kind of hit me: These songs hang together with the photos and with the essays that I've been writing. And it's a book, with an album. As opposed to an album with a book. The core of it was this book.”

Darden Smith celebrates the release of "Western Skies" on Saturday at Stateside at the Paramount.

The result, “Western Skies,” combines 11 new original songs with a volume that includes photos, essays and lyrics. They’re meant to go together, but it’s also possible to buy or stream the album separate from the book. And there’s more to come: A spoken-word album of Smith reading the essays set to music is due in the fall, along with a package of videos he’s shot for the songs.

“Western Skies” might well be the best record Smith has ever made, stretching back to his 1980s rise as a promising young singer-songwriter following in the footsteps of Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith (both of whom sang on his 1986 debut, “Native Soil”). It follows a decade that found him focusing less on records and more on projects such as Songwriting With Soldiers and similar programs geared toward schoolchildren and frontline healthcare workers.

Related:Songwriter Mary Gauthier's collaborations with war veterans hit home

He also published his first book, “The Habit of Noticing: Using Creativity to Make a Life (and a Living),” in 2018. “I swore I'd never do another book because it's so much work,” he says with a chuckle. “But I remember walking back into the studio and I said to Mario, the engineer, ‘OK, I got it: It's a book.’ He's like looking at me like, what? ‘Yeah, it's a book. And it’s an album. And the book has photos, these essays and song lyrics, and these black-and-white photos.”

Back in Austin, Smith built on the Sonic Ranch recordings with contributions from an A-list cast of local players, including guitarist Charlie Sexton, bassist Glenn Fukunaga and drummer Ramy Antoun, with Michael Ramos and Stewart Lerman co-producing. Ramos is one of Austin’s top keyboardists, but Smith played piano himself on the record, in part because he wrote many of the songs on piano.

Of particular note is “Running Out of Time,” the album’s clear standout and maybe the best song of his career. Smith, who turned 60 earlier this month, says he wrote it “in like 30 minutes” after he’d made a point to work on songs and visual art every day in his home studio.

Inspired by the West Texas drives in which he’d listen to albums both old (J.J. Cale’s 1972 masterpiece “Naturally”) and new (Bob Dylan’s 2021 epic “Rough and Rowdy Ways”), Smith became determined “to turn the heat up on myself during this time that everything was so crazy,” he explained. “It was like, why don't I use this to really push myself and not descend into Netflix land?”

When “Running Out of Time” emerged, “it was magical,” he says. “Every now and then, songs just land on you. But you have to keep writing to give them the opportunity to land on you.”

The “Western Skies” book-and-album project is just the latest left turn for an artist who’s broadened his scope beyond the usual album-and-tour cycle for around two decades now. His experiences writing with students, veterans and healthcare workers are a prime example.

“I don't look at songs as the entertainment business anymore,” he says. “I look at music as a service industry gig. It's about what you can do with songs and music. Making songs for entertainment is cool; I've done that. Now I'm more interested in: What does it do in the world? And can you possibly transform a life? Can you change your own life? Can you change somebody's day with a song?”

Release show: April 2 at Stateside at the Paramount. Here’s the video for “Running Out of Time”:

More new Austin music

Here’s a look at a half-dozen more local records released in March, plus a list of what's coming in April and beyond.

Ray Wylie Hubbard, 'Co-Starring Too'

Though he was in the thick of the 1970s outlaw-country heyday in Austin, Hubbard lurked beneath the mainstream rise of Willie Nelson and others from that era. But here’s the thing about Hubbard: He’s so universally admired and respected by his peers across generations that when he calls, almost everyone picks up the phone. Thus we have Nelson himself singing along with Hubbard on the album-opening “Stone Blind Horses.”

His latest album follows up 2020’s “Co-Starring,” which featured big-name guests including Ringo Starr, Joe Walsh and the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson. That record garnered enough attention to finally get Hubbard a slot on the “Austin City Limits” TV show, so it’s no surprise he chose to go back to that well. Starr returns on a track here, along with marquee names including Wynonna, Steve Earle and Heart’s Ann Wilson.

More:Review of Ray Wylie Hubbard's 2020 album "Co-Starring"

The bulk of the co-stars this time around are locals. All-women band the Bluebonnets are a perfect backing crew for “Only a Fool” (“would disrespect a woman,” that is), while Shinyribs leader Kevin Russell and his Shiny Soul Sisters backup singers boost a track called “Groove” that’s built around a bass line from the late George Reiff. Ace guitarists/producers Charlie Sexton and Gurf Morlix team up on “Pretty Reckless,” while a Texas red-dirt posse of Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers and Cody Canada chime in on “Even If My Wheels Fall Off.”

Ray Wylie Hubbard plays an in-store performance for his new "Co-Starring Too" album on Friday at Waterloo Records.

Other guests include Hayes Carll, James McMurtry, Eliza Gilkyson, Jaimee Harris, Band of Heathens and the Last Bandoleros. A cast of two dozen contributors might risk too-many-cooks syndrome, but they all follow Ray Wylie’s lead, grinding out gritty blues-country-rock material stamped with Hubbard’s trademark ultra-cool wit and wisdom.

In-store performance April 1 at Waterloo Records. Here’s the video for “Stone Blind Horses,” filmed at Nelson’s Luck Ranch:

Ben Jones, 'Souvenir'

Nearly a decade after relocating to Austin from England with his Beat Root Revival partner Andrea Magee, Jones has been making records outside the band recently. We wrote at length about both the duo’s music and their respective solo projects earlier this month.

Beat Root Revival:Austin's dynamic duo grows apart, but stays together

“Souvenir” is a strong showcase of his songwriting chops, full of catchy folk-rock tunes with accents of pop, blues and country. It also testifies to his abilities as a musician: Though the album has a full-band sound, Jones plays everything on it.

Jones, who had released several solo albums in England, says he had enough songs not getting into Beat Root’s repertoire that it was easy to fill up “Souvenir.”

“I love to write, I love to record, I love to produce,” he explains. “I had these sets of songs that I was putting aside, and before I knew it, I had two albums that were ready.”

Playing April 15 at 04 Center. Here’s the track “Words Fail Me”:

Stephen Doster, 'Over the Red Sea'

At 66, this native Texan singer-songwriter might be considered a late bloomer as a recording artist, though he’d already left his mark on Austin music way back in the 1970s as a key member of Nanci Griffith’s early backing crew. He stayed plenty busy as a guitarist and producer with a variety of artists through the ’80s and ’90s but didn’t release his first solo album until 1996.

Another 18 years passed before 2014’s acclaimed “Arizona,” but now Doster is on a roll. “Over the Red Sea,” which follows 2017’s “New Black Suit,” features 11 original songs that further document his facility for keenly written folk-rock tunes with exquisite arrangements. It helps to have a strong supporting cast: Among the locals who contributed were multi-instrumentalist Rich Brotherton on tenor guitar and cittern, Chris Searles on drums and percussion, Andrea Magee on penny whistle and bodhran, and Brian Standefer on cello.

Here’s the video for “Who’s Crying Now”:

Ramesh's new record "Eternal Spring" was released March 11.

Ramesh, 'Eternal Spring'

Native Austinite Ramesh Srivastava first gained attention just after the turn of the century with indie-rockers Voxtrot, but he’s been performing and recording under his own name for the past decade. “Eternal Spring” is his first full-length release since 2014’s “The King”; Ramesh spent much of the time between “exploring my spirituality and psychology,” according to press materials accompanying the new record. Musically, it’s richly layered and steeped in orchestral pop, setting an uplifting tone for songs that dig deep into personal introspection. Here’s the video for the title track:

Matt Castillo, 'How the River Flows'

Originally from the Rio Grande Valley town of Edinburg, country singer-songwriter Castillo follows up a 2017 album with Matt & the Herdsmen with this 10-song solo debut. Castillo collaborated with several Nashville songwriters on the album, drawing inspiration from his border upbringing on tracks such as “Leaving Brownsville Tonight.” Playing April 2 at Sean Patricks in San Marcos. Here’s the title track:

Fastball, 'Soundtrack' EP

Austin’s hitmaking trio of Tony Scalzo, Miles Zuniga and Joey Shuffield are on a late-career hot streak, following 2017’s comeback album “Step Into Light” with 2019’s acclaimed “The Help Machine.” This four-song, digital-only set is perhaps a stopgap for whatever’s coming next, but it continues their winning roll. Scalzo’s hard-hitting “Chump Change” and pop-sweet “Electric Cool-Aide” balance against Zuniga’s moodier “House on the Edge of the World” and the midtempo title track. Here’s “Electric Cool-Aide”:

Coming soon

APRIL 1: Rachel Reese, “Motherland”

APRIL 1: Darkbird, “Ballad of a Junebug” EP

APRIL 8: Giulia Millanta, “Woman on the Moon”

APRIL 8: Good Looks, “Bummer Year”

APRIL 8: Roxi Copland, “I Come From Crazy”

APRIL 15: Freddie Steady Krc, “Dandy”

APRIL 15: Robin Mordecai, “Portraits” EP

APRIL 22: Lynn Crossett, “In the Company of a Song”

APRIL 29: Willie Nelson, “A Beautiful Time”

APRIL 29: Scott Strickland, self-titled

APRIL 29: Buffalo Hunt, “Ambitions of Ambiguity”

APRIL 29: Russel Taine Jr., “Tales”

MAY 13: Lyle Lovett, “12th of June”

MAY 20: John Doe, “Fables in a Foreign Land”

JUNE 3: Adrian Quesada, “Boleros Psicodélicos”

JUNE 24: Ralph E. White, “It’s More in My Body Than in My Mind”

More Austin music in 2022

February:Spoon, David Ramirez, Kiko Villamizar, Terry Klein, more

January:8-1/2 Souvenirs, Whitmore Sisters, Kydd Jones, Jamestown Revival, more