Sahara Smith's folk-country connection works

from Chicago Tribune on

It's entirely likely that Sahara Smith would have found her way to a music career even without the radio contest.

She began playing guitar at age eight, writing songs at nine, and her parents are friends with such Texas music luminaries as the songwriter Jo Carol Pierce and the singer Jimmie Dale Gilmore.

She played open mics in her home town of Wimberley, Tex., in the Hill Country southwest of Austin, at 13 and soon landed a regular weekly gig at the venue.

But the fact that her father encouraged her to enter the "Prairie Home Companion" Talent from 12 to 20 contest gave her a jump start. "I sort of relucantly did enter," Smith says by phone from Austin, "completely believing that nothing was ever going to come of that."

Half a dozen years later — with her widely heralded debut record, "Myth of the Heart," having been shepherded to completion by the legendary producer T Bone Burnett, with a series of critical accolades so glowing that the publicity kit practically writes itself, with an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman" — something has come of that.

Smith sang on the national broadcast of "PHC" and placed second in the contest, back when she was 15. "My manager heard me singing on that," she says. "He came out to one of my gigs, and he signed me when I was 16."

It wasn't her first connection with Garrison Keillor, the show' s host: "When i was really little, my parents would put on a tape of his monologues, and they would put me right to sleep. So I went to bed listening to Garrison Keillor like every night from the time I was probably four to, I don't know, eight."

And while "Prairie Home Companion" has long championed music in Smith's folk-country vein, the connection isn't doing a lot for her "indie cred" among those her own age, 22, she says with a laugh.

"But people over 40 really love that," she says. "My audience, right now, at least, has been primarily that market, You know, the album we did is pretty folk-country, and I think that largely appeals to a more nmature audience. But also a lot of the tours we've done have been supporting people who have an older audience" — performers such as Marc Cohn, and Mason Jennings for a Chicago show.

The current tour, including a stop at Schubas on Saturday, has her headlining with a full band. "I'm looking forward to broadening the section of people who listen to my music," she says.

Still, she acknowledges there are benefits to appealing to the older folk: "They're so supportive and so sweet. If that winds up being my primary fan base, fine by me. And they actually go out and but CDs. I mean, punks my age don't buy anything."

Smith aims to write songs that are lyrically dense, she says, packed with imagery, and then she sings them in a voice that's breathy but also surprisingly rich. Her "ethereal pipes pull you in, and her way with words keeps you there," said American Songwriter magazine.

Smith says she's both touched by the attention, and a little put off by it: "I'm a shy person trying to wrap my mind around the fact that people wnat to hear what i have to say."

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