Funky soul sister Bette Smith
photo by Shervin Lainez
Hailing from hip-hop hotbed Bed-Stuy, Bette Smith grew up digging some very different roots, steeping herself in sweltering soul-gospel and red-hot grooved-blues that conjure the heyday of Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples and Etta James. Currently on tour with Kenny Wayne Shepard, Ms. Smith was kind enough to respond to a few email questions before she prepares to tear the roof off Milwaukee’s Shank Hall August 12th and Madison’s High Noon Saloon August 15th.
MAXIMUM INK: Anyone who hears you will probably jump to the heavy hitters of sixties R&B as influences, so I was curious if there are any singers people may not know about that helped shape your sound?
BETTE SMITH: Yes, as a matter of fact, I grew up with my mom playing sister Mahalia Jackson. Mahalia is one of my greatest influences.
MI: “The Good, The Bad and The Bette,” came out last fall co-produced by Drive By Truckers’ Matt Pattton. How did you two find each other and was there a moment when you knew Matt understood what you wanted the record to be?
BS: Well, I met Matt playing bass in the studio recording my first album “Jetlagger.” This was actually my first time in the South. We were at Dial Back Sound in Water Valley, Mississippi and producer Jimbo Mathus was at the helm. Both Jimbo and Matt had a very paternal vibe and we hit it off from the jump. Matt really understood the song I wrote about my mother’s passing called “Whistle Stop.
That meant a lot to me.
MI: From cultivating your style in Brooklyn to recording the album in Mississippi, what sort of cultural shift did you experience between the two places?
BS: It was a great experience. For “Jetlagger,” Jimbo really took me out of my Brooklyn element and introduced me to the sights and sounds of the deep South like the Mississippi swamplands. What’s more, we recorded live studio style with all the bells and whistles of vintage equipment. Using antique gear for the first time and generating those magical sounds was unforgettable—something that seemed to have eluded me in NYC studios.
MI: The album hits all the buttons from the entire band. How do you go about finding musicians who possess that old school soul?
BS: That’s one of the really special things recording at Dial Back. With Matt on bass and co-owner Bronson Tew on drums, there was a continual flow of great musicians dropping by to contribute, including the amazing horn player Henry Westmoreland and North Mississippi Allstars founder Luther Dickinson who recorded from a tour in Utah. I was very fortunate that Matt did all the leg work, arranging all the musicians to play. My album turned out really authentic because the musicians were all raised in the deep South, and you just can’t mimic that same Delta flavor up north!
MI: Are some of the players who recorded The Good, The Bad and The Bette also hitting the road with you?
BS: Yes, my talented bandleader, Curtis J. Brewer, also came down and contributed very nicely. Curtis has been an invaluable member of our touring band on lead guitar.
MI: You are playing several places in Wisconsin – have you been to these places before or is this new territory for you?
BS: I was recently on tour supporting Kenny Wayne Shepherd and we played Waterfest in Oshkosh. In fact, it was my first time ever in Wisconsin. I had a blast. I’m so excited to play more towns in the Midwest, including Madison. This New Yorker is falling in love with the Heartland!
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CD: The Good, The Bad and The Bette Record Label: Ruf Records
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