After the untimely passing of longtime bass player Dan “Bee” Spears, Willie Nelson called upon the impressive bass skills of Kevin Smith. Smith has played with many musical legends over the years (including Asleep At The Wheel and Dwight Yoakam), but early this year he took over bass duties with Willie Nelson and Family. And that’s where I caught up with him: on the way to a Willie gig.
Michael: I know you joined the band under sad circumstances, but how are things working out?
Kevin: Yeah, it was sad, you know? It’s an unfortunate way to come into this sort of situation, but I can’t tell you how much I enjoy being here, and everybody’s been so nice. Of course, the music is great. So I’m having a great time. I’m really, really enjoying it.
Michael: You know, Willie is noted for being somewhat hard to follow vocally, because of his jazz phrasing. Are you finding it difficult?
Kevin: Not really, the structure is always there. He varies from the structure a little bit, but he always knows where the structure is and he always returns to it. As long as I’m on my toes and listening, I know that he’s listening, and he knows what’s going on, so we all take different routes but we all end up in the same place.
Michael: So how did you end up with Willie? Did you just get a phone call out of the blue?
Kevin: Yeah, pretty much. I got a phone call at about 8 in the morning and they said ‘You want to come out and play tonight?’ And I said ‘Sure, of course.’ So after a couple days, I drove out to Winnie, Texas, which is about four hours east of Austin. I listened to the show on the way down. And I also had done the Willie and The Wheel tour and some of the album, and also the “ACL” (“Austin City Limits”) show. So I had played a bunch of the standards before … they were filed away back there in my brain. So when I came out that night, I listened to the show on the way down, and when I got there I listened to them and played along with them a little bit with my bass and got up there onstage and did the show. And got on the bus that night.
Michael: So there was no actual rehearsal with the band beforehand?
Michael: I have to say that’s pretty amazing.
Kevin: Well, I’d already learned some of it and probably the harder stuff I’d already learned. I also knew that this was the kind of window that wouldn’t stay open for very long. I just did everything I could and I just kind of let it happen and it worked.
Michael: How would you describe him as a boss? Mickey (Raphael) calls him “the benevolent dictator.” He also called him “the greatest.”
Kevin: Well, he is. He is the greatest.
Michael: Where are you from originally?
Kevin: I’m from Colorado.
Michael: So how did wind your way from Colorado to Texas and then onto the bus to West Virginia?
Kevin: After I got out of high school, I just didn’t have much going on and I met some guys that had a band and we played down in Austin and then moved down there two weeks later because it was so great. There was so much music and it was cheap living and it was fun. So that’s what we did. We moved down there and I started playing with everybody I could. I played with a rockabilly band for about nine years called High Noon. We went to Europe, we did 14 countries with that band, we did a lot of fun stuff. And from there, I just played with everybody I could and played all the different kinds of music I could.
Michael: Tell me about (Austin Country Supergroup) Heybale.
Kevin: Yeah, that’s like my steady Sunday night gig that I’ve had in Austin, it’ll be 12 years this fall.
Michael: Does Redd Volkaert play in that band?
Kevin: Yes, he does. … Redd’s got so much going on. He goes to Australia at least once a year. He gets around pretty good doing his own thing. I think he’s having a good time. And also in that band is Earl Poole Ball, who played with Johnny Cash for 20 years and produced records for Capitol. … He’s just done a lot.
Michael: Well, you’re amongst the greats there.
Kevin: Yeah, talk about going to school. I’ve been playing with those guys every Sunday night for years. That’s some serious learning, man. If you can’t play a little country bass after you do that, then there’s something wrong.
Michael: Well, in my dealings with Willie and Family, I’ve found that everybody is really nice and gracious, so you’re amongst good people.
Kevin: Yeah, I know. I had no idea what kind of dynamic was going to be here when I came in. You know, when you come in and you’re in a spot where somebody else was for so many years, it was a little intimidating. But from the very beginning, everybody has been just so gracious and nice … except Budrock, the lighting director, who has been a constant hassle.
Michael: He must be sitting right there.
Kevin: He’s sitting right behind me. (laughs)
Michael: Kevin, I really appreciate you speaking with me. You’ve been great.
Kevin: All right, man. I appreciate you talking to me.
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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