Cover photo © 2022 Roman Sobus
When the conversation rolls around to the top blues drummers, Kenny Smith will certainly be one of the first percussionists to be mentioned. Learning from his father, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, the Hall Of Fame drummer who was a key member of the Muddy Waters Band, the younger Smith has been a fixture on the blues scene, a first-call musician who can adapt to the various styles of the music while laying down a rock-solid rhythmic foundation at every turn.
In 2017, Smith released a project under his own name, Drop The Hammer, on his own Big Eye Records label, formed as a living tribute to honor his father. His instrumental backing came from a group he named the House Bumpers, which consisted of an array of veteran guitar players including Billy Flynn, Guy King, Ari Seder, Greg Guy, and Nelson Strange, along with Felton Crews on bass, Luca Chiellini on keyboards, plus Sugar Blue and Omar Coleman on harmonica. Smith handled the drums and percussion, wrote the arrangements, and laid down the lead vocals.
“My goal was to feature musicians who normally are in the background, making music all the time but never getting to be the focus. So even though I called them the House Bumpers, it was a group effort. Everybody participated, there wasn’t just one shining star. On stage, people would see a variety of faces making strong contributions because they are comfortable in their element.
“Musically, for me, that album was stuff that had been brewing in my head and needed to come out. It was the way I felt, feelings that needed to come out right now at that point in time, in the styles and approaches that I used. Of the twelve songs, I wrote all but one. The other one I co-wrote with Billy Flynn. But the big thing was letting the musicians have a chance to shine. Like me, they are typically in the background. Normally, all you see of me is the top of my hat! It was a refreshing change.
“I know the business, how things work. I still work with other record labels. But I want to be an all-around guy, so I wanted to put my skills to good use. I released a couple albums with my father while he was still alive. It’s nice to be able to do your own thing. I remember the days when it cost $20,000 or more to do an album. It is a lot more economical now.”
The relationship between Smith and Flynn goes back to the drummer’s childhood. The duo has played countless gigs backing other artists as well as stints with the Cash Box Kings.
“I’ve been knowing Billy since I was ten years old. We first met when my father, drummer Willie Smith, was playing with Billy in the Legendary Blues Band. He used to come to our house. We hit it off immediately. I was already writing songs back then. Billy used to ask what I was working on, did I have any new songs. I gave some of those songs to the Legendary Band, and they actually did a few of them.
“Since then, we have been like bread and butter. He is a good friend. As a guitar player, Billy not only has the passion, but he can play any style of the music, and beyond that, he has the “touch”. He knows when to put the pedal to the metal, and when to stroke the guitar strings like a feather. Right there, that sets him apart from a 1,000 other guitarists. He is a world-class musician, and a great guy who is never in a bad mood on stage.”
Bob Stroger is another musician who has been a big part of Smith’s career. The veteran bass player has a new album, That’s My Name, out on Delmark Records. But Smith featured Stroger on their 2014 project, Keepin’ Together, with additional backing from Flynn, Jerry Portnoy and Joe Filisko on harmonica, and Barrelhouse Chuck on piano.
“Bob and I are very close. We speak all the time about life. I wanted to push him out there just as I pushed my own father. I wanted him to be confident about what he has to offer, to be able to really shine and share his gift so he could see how people truly enjoy it.
“Bob automatically brings the floor. He is a solid, solid player who knows the material. You can feel his gentle soul coming out through his playing. It gives me chills sometimes, to feel that energy. He digs into the bass, not trying to be flashy. It’s like the turtle and the rabbit. Bob can do both if you want him to. You might forget that he is there because he is so solid. It is good to see him stepping out more and more to the front of the stage.”
When it comes to playing the blues shuffle , there are few drummers who have Smith’s level of mastery of the seemingly simple rhythm. His resume includes numerous award nominations, resulting in a 2021 Blues Music Award in the Blues Instrumentalist – Drums category, and has garnered similar recognition numerous times from Living Blues Magazine. He also has recently received a nomination for a 2022 Blues Blast Music Award in their new Drum category. Smith has also been recognized for his ability to play a “triple” shuffle.
Asked to explain the art of the shuffle, Smith lets out a hearty laugh.
“Normally when I try to explain it, it is like looking at a deer in the headlights. The shuffle is the go-to rhythm in blues music, so if you are going to play drums, you better know how to really dig into it. If you don’t, the audience, the musicians you are playing with, they will know the difference. For me, it is like a surfer riding a wave. You have to listen to the music and practice the shuffle to even remotely be able to play the basic part.
“Most drummers say, yeah, I can play that. When it actually comes time to lay it down, that is when all hell breaks loose on stage. It is more than playing a beat. The song can be in 4/4 time, but that timing is going to move, not stay the same. You have to know when to play the downbeat as opposed to the upbeat, and anticipate what the musicians around you are doing. Otherwise you will end up sounding like a shoe in the dryer!
“I have played the straight shuffle and double shuffle all of my life. Eventually, you start progressing as you build up the muscles in your arms and hands. I can’t explain what the triple shuffle sounds like, but I am definitely playing it. Part of it is how I hold the stick, and I know how to play a double shuffle. The faster you run, the better you get. I like to study, to find ways to enhance the shuffles, and the beats.
Through the Covid lock-down, Smith’s survivalist tendencies served him well as he was prepared to deal with effects of the pandemic. He weathered that period pretty well, even venturing deeper into the survival mode. He welcomed the chance to be home with this three children.
“Like everyone, I was sad that I couldn’t get out to see my friends, and especially missed the opportunities to play with my fellow musicians. I used the time to make a few good videos on how to play blues drums, and put those out there free of charge for other people to help them learn how to play, and to help them stay sane.
“I am always moving so fast, so it took a bit for me to learn how to slow down. I learned it pretty good. It was a blessing, a good reset that got me well-grounded. It also helped me rationalize some other aspects of life, to regain my balance. The bright light for me was that it gave me a true self-perspective of myself and my own well-being.”
In his decades of playing music, Smith has learned a great deal about the ins and outs, ups and downs of choosing music as your career. For him, there are a few simple truths to live by.
“It is like being in the Marines. You want to protect the guy on your right, protect the guy on the left. You want to protect the brothers around you. It is the same feel when you are on the bandstand. You want the best outcome for every musician around you. When you have that, that is when the magic is really made on, and off, the stage. You get the job done by listening to each other, but once you have that bond and connection, it drives you to play even better.”
Another career highlight for the drummer was playing on the 2010 release, Joined At The Hip, featuring his father on harmonica and vocals along with Pinetop Perkins on piano, who was 96 years old when the album was recorded. The album received the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album.
“That was fun times in the studio. When they originally started it, I thought it would be a long process getting everything done. Instead, everybody went in and boom, just felt the music. There were no hardcore rehearsals. For me personally, I was trying to give my father and Pinetop my best, not just keeping the beat, but playing with all the love and respect that I have for them. Just being able to back them on stage was the best gift ever.”
In keeping with his efforts to polish his skills while extending his reach into various aspects of the music business, Smith also works as a booking agent, managing to find time to book gigs for other artists despite his own demanding schedule.
“It comes from learning the business. It is another part of the puzzle for me. You can book a gig, I can book a gig. It is nice to know how to navigate those things. I have probably worked with 100 or more musicians in and around Chicago. A lot of them are blues artists. The business has been going very well. Interestingly, sometimes I can sell my own self out there for an event, and get paid the kind of money that a high-profile blues artist would make a given festival. I have made my own road,
“I book tours for artists, I put together bands to back me at my gigs, and set up club dates for local artists. No event is ever the same. People have a general idea of what they want to do at their event or venue. I try to cater to those things. In the blues world, I have a pretty decent name, so I sell that down a different avenue. Another part of the puzzle is booking out bands all over Chicago, Wisconsin, and up into Minnesota. A couple of weeks ago there was a group here from Singapore. They were having an event, found me, and I know how to sell it.”
Over the last five years, Smith has been gathering music and lyrics, working on getting a batch of songs together. But he is struggling as to how to deliver the new material to the world.
“This is the question that is going back and forth in my head. My hold-up is that it takes a lot of time and effort to put it all together, and I don’t know what outlet to use right now. I don’t really want to do another CD. They are pretty much obsolete. Yes, I can sell a few. But I don’t even have a CD player in my car any more. So I am stuck in a spot of trying to figure out what format or medium I want to use. I could sell discs, or even some LPs, but that is not the real trend. But what is the real trend? Eventually I will figure it out.”
Never afraid of working, Smith maintains a full schedule, fitting for a drummer well-versed in the various shades of the blues world.
“I am doing some All-star stuff. Bob Stroger and I work together quite a bit. I do shows with Billy Flynn, also with the slide guitarist Donna Herula, and the amazing guitar player Joel Paterson, who I know from my time in the Cash Box Kings. There are a lot of moving parts, different bands and acts. I jump in, and get in where I fit in!
“Typically, these days, I am playing about 4-5 days a week. Since Covid, I have slowed things down. I used to run ragged going from show, to show, to show. Now I am using the “Work smarter, not harder” mentality. I am more selective, making it more about playing the music, not just getting on stage to keep the beat. In the past, I would do gigs where the musicians are fighting on stage. I didn’t like the energy but I would do it. I don’t do things like that any more. Now I am selective about who I want to play with.
“I love working with Donna and her band. They have great energy and great souls. I love being around the energy they bring, and the music. She goes deep, very deep. I respect that. I’m pushing her to get started on another project. I always feel good after playing one of her shows.”
As you might expect, Smith has an assortment of drums, cymbals, and drumsticks that he has acquired over the years. One might wonder where he manages to find room to store his collection.
“That’s the fun question! Sometimes I play a hybrid kit because I enjoy the variety of different sounds. I have a Roland set that I play, as I have an endorsement deal with them. I also play a Tama kit and a Ludwig set. Then there’s what I call the “mud” kit, because it has a little bit of everybody. Another favorite is a smaller Pearl kit that is small, compact, and easy to carry. I like using it when I need a smaller footprint, but I still get a nice sound from it.
“For cymbals, I never play a matching set. I have an older Paiste 505 model that I got at a pawnshop about 20 years ago. Everything else I like are Zildjian, including one that I call “frying bacon” because it sizzles. The snare drums get changed around, too. There are over 20 kits in my collection. So it’s not just guitar players that have to have one of everything. But they probably have a bit more room than I do! For sticks, I have a variety including some non-breakable ones. I’m pretty certain that I have about 70 sticks in one bag, mostly because I play so many variations of the blues that I want to be prepared.”
Like many blues artists, Smith understands that the music needs to grow. At the same time, he is adamant that the music has stay true to its roots.
“You can’t grow the music without the root. To be a part of the future, you have to respect the past. To me, the big picture was starting to feel unbalanced. There were artists popping up that weren’t really part of the music, just playing the old lump-da-lump. They don’t care about the heritage of the music, just get up on stage and play. We do have a handful of younger musicians that I know of that are playing the real music, like Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and Jontavious Willis, who is taking the music way back. Covid probably helped start the reset. So, I think the music will last. I’m not worried about that part. One thing for sure, as long as I am around, I will continue to try to express myself as best I can.”