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Darden Smith Shifts Into IOTA

With new album, Texan singer-songwriter continues shift away from country.

Darden Smith has been a musician for most of his life, writing his first songs at age 11, and recording his first album at 24.

Now 40, Smith has been through transitions personal and professional – he’s been divorced and remarried, he was signed to a major label, then dropped, and went on to record four more albums, including "Sunflower," released late last month. Smith is touring behind the album now, including a stop at IOTA Club and Café on May 28.

The name is a "talisman," Smith writes on his Web site. He planted wild flowers and prairie grass behind his house in Austin, Texas, a year ago, then stood back and let nature take its course.

"Growing up in the country, I love wildflowers," he said in an interview last week. "I’d be walking and suddenly see these pastures full of them."

Last spring, everything was in bloom, he wrote, except for a few weeds. "I was ready to pull them until a friend came over and said they were sunflowers," he wrote. "In a few short weeks after they were saved from the trash heap, the most beautiful blossoms appeared."

It seemed like a metaphor for people, Smith said. "We go through times when we don’t think we’re having any forward progress or motion at all," he said. "You go through times before the exhalation of breath, and then when you do that’s really good."

<b>SMITH’S A TEXAS</b> songwriter, through and through. He grew up in Brenham, Texas, learning to play guitar when he was 10, and writing his first songs a year later.

"I was listening to AM radio when I first started writing songs," Smith said. "My teacher taught me all of [Neil Young’s] ‘Harvest’ and ‘After the Gold Rush,’ and I was also into Leon Russell."

A few years later, he stumbled onto Bob Dylan and John Prine, and discovered a similar vein of Texas-based singer songwriters, musicians like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.

By the end of high school, Smith was playing local clubs. After issuing his first album, "Native Soil" in 1986, he was signed by Sony Records at age 25, introduced as a hot young country artist.

He recorded three more albums before being dropped by Sony, and went on to release his next album, "Deep Fantastic Blue," on an independent label. The year before had marked the end of his deal with Sony, and the end of his marriage. The personal and the professional combined to create a darker tone for the record.

"You write about what you know, and what you see," Smith said. It was a transitional record, he said – "I was getting used to writing more honestly, more personally," he said. "I started out young. My first record was in the country-folk vein, but that as all I knew. I didn’t know I could do anything different."

He changed his music a little more last year when he discovered a new sound, from a nylon-string guitar. "I got excited about making records that are quiet but rhythmic," Smith said, "with a different sound than singer-songwriter records usually have."

It all led up to the making of Sunflower, an album more pop rock than country. The themes are personal, looking at love and relationships from inside and out. The songwriting melds some of Smith’s early Texas songwriter influences with touches of jazz, folk, traditional country and rock.

"I see this record as being upbeat, definitely more positive than ‘Deep Fantastic Blue,’" Smith said.

<b>SMITH IS TOURING</b> with Chris Whitley, a musician with a similar background. After his first album, Whitley also found himself pigeonholed as the next great roots rock hope, and began experimenting with distorted guitars and feedback loops.

There were similarities between the two, Smith said. "I wouldn’t want to speak for him – he’s been through a lot of changes, but he’s still Chris Whitley."

But the same was true of almost all artists Smith admires. "Their music goes through a lot of shifts, but it’s still them," he said. "I doubt any person could be the same after 15 years.

"Look at Elvis Costello," he continued. "You never know what you’re gonna get when you get an Elvis Costello record. Sometimes, I don’t dig it. But I like it because it’s an Elvis Costello record."

Smith is happy with the sound of "Sunflower," although it came about quite by accident. "I did this without a real business structure," he said. "I said to myself, ‘ I wonder whether this is gonna be any good, whether anybody’s even going to care.’ And it’s all right."

But he isn’t planning another just like it. Smith is keeping his options open, listening to all genres of music except his own, looking for new sounds to enjoy and new ways to make music. "Hopefully, we never stop transitioning," he said.