On This Episode:
Stephanie Smittle has performed with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, sung Ashkenazic folk music with Meshugga Klezmer Band, performed songs of politics and Arkansas history with duo Stephen and Stephanie, southern sludge metal with Iron Tongue and sacred music as a cantor and chorister at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and at Christ Church Episcopal. She has recorded two albums of genre-hopping original material with The Smittle Band, toured in December as a featured soloist with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra for ASO's holiday show, and has sung the role of Fiordiligi in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" with Opera in the Ozarks, the role of Virginia Clinton in Bonnie Montgomery's opera "Billy Blythe," the roles of Queen Anne and Queen Elizabeth Woodville in the premiere of Karen Griebling's "Richard III: A Crown of Roses, A Crown of Thorns," the role of Jesse in Kurt Weill's "Mahagonny Songspiel" with Opera in Concert, the role of Second Lady in Mozart's "Magic Flute" with Opera in the Rock, and oratorio performances of Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde," Rutter's "Requiem," and Brahms' "Ein deutsches Requiem." Smittle is culture editor for the Arkansas Times and an advocate for The Natural State's rich history of musicians and artists.
Stephen Koch is an award-winning journalist in both broadcasting and print, with a focus on Arkansas music and culture. He’s creator and host of public radio’s long-running “Arkansongs,” heard weekly on affiliates across the state, in east Texas, and Louisiana. Koch has been involved in recognition and preservation efforts of such Arkansas musical greats as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Levon Helm, and CeDell Davis, but especially Louis Jordan, the ground-breaking musical pioneer who influenced James Brown, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and others. Koch’s Louis Jordan musical, “Jump!,” directed by the late Cliff Baker, premiered at Wildwood Park in 2008; he was part of a Jordan documentary film called “Is You Is” that premiered at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, and hosted the annual Louis Jordan Tribute concerts for more than a decade. Additionally, he’s author of the 2014 biography "Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&B." As a cartoonist, he’s self-publishing a series of graphic novel coloring books called “Ozark Murder Ballads Illustrated,” based on traditional folk songs of crime and retribution collected in the Ozarks in the 20th century, and is launching a comic strip based on real-life stories of growing up in small towns in the United States. Both as a solo performer and in the duo Stephanie & Stephen, Koch performs his own originals and songs made famous by Arkansas legends. He’s performed at folk and blues festivals around the country as well as in the UK. Koch's band ARKOPOLIS has released two albums, “Excruciating Circumstances,” and the forthcoming “Grand Mal.” Koch’s latest project is the documentary film “Music In Arkansas Origins: 200 B.C.-1941 A.D.” for Arkansas PBS, which airs May 17 as part of the Shelter-in-Place Film Series, and for which Koch will be a post-screening panelist.
Up In Your Business is a Radio Show by FlagandBanner.com
[00:00:08] GM: Welcome to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy, a production of flagandbanner.com. Through storytelling and conversational interviews, this weekly radio show and podcast offers listeners an insider’s view into starting and running a business, the ups and downs of risk-taking and the commonalities of successful people. Connect with Kerry through her candid, funny, informative and always encouraging weekly blog.
Now it’s time for Kerry McCoy to get all up in your business.
[00:00:35] KM: Thank you, son, Gray. Today we have two guests who not only share their lives but also their creative love of music. Operatically trained vocalist, Ms. Stephanie Smittle; and her partner, Stephen Koch, founder and host of the syndicated radio show, Arkansongs.
Stephanie’s love of music is wide, evident by her list of work and performances. In The Smittle Band, she sings a smoothy jazz style of music. On the weekends, she sings sacred music as cantor and chorister at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, and on her side gigs you might find her sitting in with any number of bands, ranging from folk music, to performing with the Arkansas Symphony and other operatic productions.
Her long long-time partner, Mr. Stephen Koch shares in her love of music. In 1998, Stephen began a two-hour program on KABF in Little Rock, Arkansas where he dug deep into the music pioneers of Arkansas. Without Stephen’s love of music and due diligence at uncovering these musician songs and stories, many important artists might have been lost.
In addition to their dedication to music, both Stephanie and Stephen and journalists and contributing editors of the Arkansas Times Newspaper.
It is with great pleasure I welcome to the table Arkansas’ cultural attaches, Ms. Stephanie Smittle and Mr. Stephen Koch. Is this the first time you’ve ever been called an attaché?
[00:02:06] SS: To my safe.
[00:02:08] SK: Yeah.
[00:02:09] KM: I know both of you. I just want to tell our listeners, I know both of you, and I wrote cultural attaché. I thought, “I love that.” Okay, who wants to tell me how you two first met?
[00:02:20] SK: Go ahead, Steph.
[00:02:21] KM: All right. Tell us, Stephanie.
[00:02:23] SS: I guess it was 2010, and Stephen and I met at a friend’s Christmas party and just got to talking and found that we shared a lot in terms of an experimental approach to music. Just, you know, I ended up giving him The Smittle Band album, which was very new at the time, and I guess the rest is history.
[00:02:55] SK: I became a fan.
[00:02:56] SS: Almost 10 years.
[00:02:57] KM: Yeah, you did became a real fan. You started The Smittle Band and met Stephen in the same year.
[00:03:06] SS: A few months apart. A few months apart. Yeah, that’s right. I had a dear friend, Elizabeth, who’s a fabulous singer, and had gone for an audition. She saw some sort of advertisement from the fellows that I ended up playing with in The Smittle Band but said that they were looking for – And I love this. They didn’t say they were looking for a female vocalist. They said they were looking for a girl singer. My friend, Elizabeth, who is a fabulous girl singer said, “Oh, I’m going to go try.” She ended up jamming up with them for the evening. Loved it, but have this like little voice in the back of her head that was telling her something. As she told me later, she ended up calling the fellows, and The Smittle Band at that time, it was with Wythe Walker, Ray Wittenberg and Jim McGehee at that time, and she said that she really enjoyed the evening. The songs they played were a blast, but that she couldn’t help but think of a whole night of her friend, Stephanie, and that she said, “I don’t think that I’m your person for this band and this repertoire, but I think I know who is.” So she passed along my number. We all connected and got together one night and played a bunch of like – I’m sure we played Rolling Stones covers and Lucinda Williams and all sorts of things and just really struck from there and we all were in a space where we could just kind of be a little bit free creatively and a little bit vulnerable, creatively, and none of us having any other projects where – Certainly, it was my first time singing in front of a band. The guys had all been in bands before, but kind of looking to stretch their wings a little bit into some different repertoires. Yeah, and then we started kind of the song writer process just came along. Not surely.
[00:05:13] KM: You were born in Cave City, Stephanie, on a chicken farm. How did you make that leap to this love of music and where did it began?
[00:05:24] SS: Sure. I was born in Cave Springs. It’s a little tiny town in between Rogers, but in Little Springdale, Fayetteville. It was population 969 when I went to high school and it’s something like 4,900 now. It’s a little bit of a boom count.
[00:05:46] KM: Did they have a music program at all?
[00:05:49] SS: Like most people from small towns, I got my start and my initial sort of hook into music was in church. I did my first solo in church. I’m told when I was not tall enough to see over the banister, that in Baptist churches, it’s very funny you have that little banister with little curtain on the bottom of the stage and I couldn’t see over it. So they set up a stool for me and I sang a solo. I’m sure it was like [inaudible 00:06:19] or Sandy Patty or something like that, and I think I must have gotten hooked, because I don’t think I ever stopped singing in church afterwards.
Then I was very, very fortunate to – I guess this is a mixed blessing that Cave Springs is too small who have a school of its own. I went to Bentonville High School where this is a fabulous choir program underneath –
[00:06:46] GS: Still is.
[00:06:46] SS: Yeah, a person named Terry Hicks, who’s still quite involved with the choir program up there, and got linked into choir and sort of got my propers there I guess as far as like singing and learning how to work in an ensemble.
[00:07:04] KM: Stephen, is that the same story that you remember of how you met Stephanie at a party and started talking about music?
[00:07:11] SK: That was pretty close. It was a cookie party as I remember. There was a lot of cookies being served. Probably a sugar rush thing happening.
[00:07:23] KM: Stephen, I read where you grew up in the Delta and your father was a DJ. Tell us about that.
[00:07:28] SK: Well, I always thought it was weird. Stephanie and I – Arkansas is just a small state, but our experiences growing up were quite different, because I was in the big city. I was in Stuttgart, which was like it was 1,300 people at the time and it gotten smaller. Of course, during that time while Stephanie’s hometown has gotten bigger that I felt I love music and arts. I thought I was going to grow up and be a syndicated cartoonist. That was my dream and I didn’t get into playing music until, well, high school, I started playing drums. I’m left-handed, so I’ve never been able to make sense of a right-handed guitar. After I graduated college, my friend gave me a right-handed guitar that’s been restrung left-handed. So it was sort of like door was open up to me in terms of being able to play or to create my own music. But I’d always loved music and, yeah, my dad was a DJ. I was a little child and we’d listen to music of Louis Jordan, and Muddy Waters, and bad love ragtime. We listened to a lot of weird jazz and weird blues. He liked music that was over then, himself too. He was really too young to be in the Louis Jordan demographic, but he’d grown up hearing those songs in the 40s when he was a little kid.
[00:09:02] KM: Was your father a musician?
[00:09:03] SK: He was a wannabe. He had a lot of enthusiasm and not much talent. He liked to play the jaw harp that was shaped like a little guitar. You put it up to your mouth. It’s about the size of a harmonica and you sort of hit this metal peg and breathe in and out and it makes bass notes. He played jaw harp on my Excruciating Circumstances album. Yeah, he’s the only person I’ve ever known that can play one of these that I’ve seen him on TV of people doing it.
[00:09:37] KM: Doe that why you play the harmonica?
[00:09:41] SK: Well, I think that’s a great instrument for kids. I was playing harmonica from early grade school on, and I love the harmonica, and I think every kid should be given one at age 6.
[00:09:56] KM: It’s interesting that you thought you’re going to be a cartoonist, but you’ve been playing music all your life. Have you also been drawing all your life?
[00:10:03] SK: Actually, when I kind of got into music in high school and college, I sort of left that behind. It’s only been in the past two years that I’ve really been embracing that again. Mostly it’s just telling stories, but I love to draw along with it, that I love to have a narrative, and I’ve been doing cartoons on Ozark murder ballots lately. These are songs that are about crime and retribution and they were all sort of gathered in the Ozarks in the 1950s and ‘40s by John [inaudible 00:10:38] and all these guys, sung by Granny Riddle and all these famous Ozark people. I’ve been illustrating the murder ballots lately.
[00:10:47] KM: I’ve read that about you. We’re going to talk about that here in a minute. But you’re both musicians, but you’re both also journalists for the Arkansas Times. How did that come about? Were you both already journalists before you met?
[00:11:01] SS: Stephen has been a journalist for far longer than I – Definitely for longer that I was. Yeah, for quite a while. His writing for the Arkansas Times precedes my time at the Arkansas Times and he’s been a contributor for longer than I have been there. But I started in 2016 as the arts and entertainment editor there and didn’t really have anything on paper. I certainly don’t have a journalism degree, but I had a great curiosity for it and I loved to write.
[00:11:36] KM: You live with an editor. He can read all your stuff and edit it before you –
[00:11:40] SS: You always need – You’re only as good as your editor, right?
[00:11:43] KM: Right!
[00:11:45] SS: That is very helpful. It’s very helpful. We definitely have that great luxury of being and to say, “Can you just look over this?” It’s great to have that, that partnership. But I will say that when I jumped in to writing, that’s pretty much what I had. I didn’t have a resume that said I could do it. I just had written a few pieces, and I’d like to think that my editor at the Arkansas Times has a great talent for hiring. So here I am, and it’s 2020 and I’m still loving it and it’s given me a chance to sort of delve into a lot of the music that’s going on now, but also a lot of the music that I didn’t know about that’s from my own backyard and some of that has undoubtedly come from living with the person who for who names like Louis Jordan are literally –
[00:12:44] KM: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, all those – You had a bunch of them. I saw Soophie Nun Squad, whoever – Unheard of them.
[00:12:54] GM: Soophie Nun Squad.
[00:12:55] KM: Yeah, how did you have heard of them?
[00:12:56] SK: Soophie Nun Squad. Yeah. [inaudible 00:12:57].
[00:12:58] GK: Well, I listen to Arkansons, mom.
[00:13:01] KM: There you go.
[00:13:01] SK: Thank you.
[00:13:04] KM: Stephen, why did you studied journalism and not music in college?
[00:13:10] SK: Oh! Well, I was never – Stephanie is the real musical talent. I’m just sort of a rhythm guy. That was never a consideration. I almost studied arts, but writing was – It came a lot easier to me, and I’m pretty fast. Yeah, my background was that, and I went to Arkansas State and became – I was a reporter around the state, different little newspapers. I came to Little Rock in mid-90s and was – You may remember this, Kerry, the editor of the former Little Rock Free Press.
[00:13:50] KM: Oh yeah! Oh yeah!
[00:13:52] SK: That was a great introduction for me to understand how creative the city is and all the artists and writers. It was really just. I had no idea, and it was really revelatory for me to come to this city and like get to really know all these people and all these musicians that were doing such great work. At the time, in the 90s, there was such great – It seemed like Little Rock could have become the next Austin or something. There was just so much energy because of the Clinton years and all that. We’re still doing really great, but then I’m glad we didn’t become the next Austin. Little Rock has always been a soulful of creativity. It was easy for me to live into that because I was able to write music and write about film and arts and basically anything I wanted to at a newspaper like Free Press.
[00:14:51] KM: You’re listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy, and I’m speaking today with Arkansas journalists, musicians, cultural influencers and power couple, Stephanie Smittle and Stephen Koch of the popular radio show Arkansongs.
Stephen, you do a lot of things. You have many creative outlets. You’re award-winning journalist in both broadcasting and print, the host of Arkansongs, journalist for the Arkansas Times Magazine, and I think you’ve been published in many more places. You’re a musician in your band, Arkopolis, you’re a cartoonist and author of the 2014 biography book Louis Jordan: Son of Arkansas, Father of R&B, and your latest endeavor is the involvement in a documentary film for PBS called Music in Arkansas: Origins 200 B.C. through 1941. I think that’s a very interesting title and date. But let’s talk about Arkansongs first. How did that come to be and who was your cohost that you started with?
[00:15:53] SK: Let’s see. This was late 90s and Keith Mercks, who I attended Arkansas State with. He’s also a journalist. He lives in Oklahoma now, but he’s still a producer of the program. He and I cohost back on KBS. Really, Louis Jordan was kind of the catalyst for me to do a program like Arkansongs, plus it had this great name, Arkansongs.
When I was a kid, like I said, I was listening to Louis Jordan and like, “Wow! This guy is cool. It’s a great music for kids.” As I got older, I wondered what sort of legacy was going on in his hometown of Brinkley. When I was a child, I would imagine there was a big statue of Louis Jordan and there of course was nothing for this guys who had 50 top 10 hits and influenced Ray Charles and BB King and Chuck Berry, all the people we consider the influences of American popular music today. They all were influenced by Louis Jordan. I started wondering, “If this guy has fallen through the cracks, who else is out there that is putting down some really groundbreaking music that’s from the state?”
As a journalist, I did I don’t know how many part series of Arkansas musicians that I was able to dig up and different genres. I have that. It was sort of a template for all the artists that we could play on a radio program. Around 2002, Keith had left the state. So I don’t know if you guys remember Ron Breeding, a well-known radio journalist of the era, and Ben Fry, they asked me to come over to KUAR and reformatted the show to be prerecorded and to be sort of a segment to fit into public radio day parts.
From there, I’ve been able to get the show syndicated on all the public radio stations in the state, KUHS in Hot Springs, which is the community radio station, solar powered. The only solar powered station on the state, second in the country, and also KFFA, which is a commercial station, Peabody Award Winner in Helena that’s launched King Biscuit Time, a famous radio station. But anyway, got there and down to El Dorado and over in stations in Louisiana and East Texas. The program has been something that I’m very proud of and very passionate about and I’m very glad that people get a chance to hear it around the state and even elsewhere. I’m flattered that someone in Texas would ever think to listen to Arkansongs. You know what I mean?
[00:18:48] KM: I read where you made a quote, you said a quote that says, “You don’t have to be dead on to be on Arkansongs, but it helps.”
[00:18:57] SK: Yeah, that’s maybe making taking it a little far. In the early days, I did try to do – I don’t want anyone to die.
[00:19:10] KM: You don’t have to be dead to be on the show, but it does help.
[00:19:16] SK: I really liked there to be an art, a story art that something happened with someone. I found that like when I tried to do a program on a local popular band, it would quickly go out of date as well, but it would break up or something would happen. Also, there was so many unsung heroes of Arkansas music that had passed away and had been from different centuries or different eras. That’s what kind of drove me to make a little bit more historical, and I really loved facts and geography and I want to pack all that stuff I can and do an episode.
[00:19:54] KM: Are you ever running out of people or subject matter for your show?
[00:19:59] SK: You know, Kerry, I got to say, I remember someone ask me that 20 years ago. Once you’ve done Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash, what else can you do? I got to say, there’s still so many people and so many things I’d like to cover that I hope I can still get around to, and I want to keep doing this for as long as I can. But no, I don’t see any end in sight.
[00:20:22] KM: Wow! That’s pretty neat.
[00:20:22] SK: The end [inaudible 00:20:22].
[00:20:24] KM: How does Arkansongs get its name?
[00:20:26] SK: This was kind of before. I think there’s what called chimeric words like Arkansas, Arkansongs, and it didn’t seemed as popular when I came up with it. Now you see that a lot that people will kind of smash two words together, but it was just something clever I came up with. I try to be clever, Kerry.
[00:20:43] KM: Okay. I thought. Well, I know you’re a musician and I know that Arkopolis is the name of your band, and I do know where that name come from. Can you tell our listeners?
[00:20:55] SK: You and I are into history, Kerry. We both know that was the original name for Little Rock, was Arkopolis.
[00:21:02] KM: I just love that. I kind of still wish it was that.
[00:21:05] SK: It’s really Greek and it’s very classical, and I liked it. It sounded like it’s a rocket or something, but it’s a terrible band name. No one can pronounce it. Yeah, mostly –
[00:21:16] KM: Oh! Well, that’s a good point.
[00:21:18] SK: Amy Garland was the first person to play our record years ago and I was like, “Wow! It’s exciting. She picks to play my music on the radio,” and then she stumble over Arkopolis and I’m like, “Okay! That’s a terrible band name.” Then that was when I knew.
[00:21:35] KM: Too late. You have an album, Excruciating Circumstances. Have you made a second album?
[00:21:41] SK: Well, we’ve got one almost in the pan, and one of the songs on this record is this rap song.
[00:21:49] KM: I actually have a tape of that. So we’re going to play a little bit of it.
[00:21:52] SK: Oh, good. Yeah. Little Rock needs to get that into their official song category [inaudible 00:21:59].
[00:22:00] KM: You know, when I heard it, I thought this is a song for the City of Little Rock to use.
[00:22:09] GM: Yeah.
[00:22:09] KM: It lists all the neighborhoods. It’s clever. It’s got a good beat. What do you think about it, Stephanie?
[00:22:15] SS: Oh! It’s already a classic.
[00:22:18] KM: It’s already a classic.
What do you want your legacy to be?
[00:24:01] SK: You know that great introduction that you gave in the beginning of the show? I would aspire to be that person that made all these Arkansas greats well-known to Arkansas’ own people.
[00:24:16] KM: I think you’re accomplishing that very well. You’ve got a new thing coming up, and then we’re going to take another break. Quickly, the latest project you’re working on is Music in Arkansas: Origins 200 B.C. to 1941. What does that mean?
[00:24:30] SK: It’s really amazing. I hope you can see this when it’s aired on Arkansas PBS earlier this month, and there’s a shelter in place film festival it’s part of in May. It really shows how integral the state of Arkansas is to development of music in the hemisphere. Not just in the United States. This was several years in the making, and my partner Zach McCannon, he worked at Arkansas PBS at the time and we worked on this for about 3 or 4 years. We went to Oklahoma. We tracked the music of the Quapaw and the Osage. So a lot of the first part is about we kind of begin at the La Salle Expedition of 1682. Then we go back to pre-European settlements. The first musical instrument we’ve found in the whole Western hemisphere was in Arkansas and it’s in the Hopewell exchange area in a rattle and a pipe, and we don’t of course know if they used it in a musical sense or in the sense that we know music, but these are musical instruments and they were found in Arkansas and it’s the earliest known instrument. I mean, it’s really so cool and amazing how Arkansas is sort of this lynchpin of music all around us.
[00:25:57] KM: Wonderful. This is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Arkansas musicians, journalists and culture advocates, Ms. Stephanie Smittle and her partner and radio host of Arkansongs and historian, Mr. Stephen Koch. I want to remind everyone, we’re broadcasting live ever Wednesday from 6 to 7PM Central Time on 101, The Answer, and also on Fridays. The show is rebroadcasted on KABF 88.3 at 2PM and a podcast is made available on all popular listening sites and our YouTube channel. We’ll be back after the break to hear more from Stephanie Smittle and her band, The Smittle Band.
[00:26:38] Announcer: Are you videoconferencing at home? Flagandbanner.com has a home office backdrop for you. Choose between industrial chic, cozy den, or the bookworm all in stock. Order online at the flagandbanner.com or come by the show room. Open Monday through Friday, 8 to 5:30; and Saturday, 10 to 4.
[00:27:00] KM: You’re listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy, and I’m speaking today with Arkansas journalist, musician and power couple, Stephanie Smittle and Stephen Koch of the popular radio show Arkansongs.
Before the break we talked about how those two met in 2010. We talked about Stephen’s movie he’s got coming up on PBS as a documentary about the history of music. If you haven’t seen it, everybody needs to go see it. I can’t remember what the name of it was. What was the name of it, Stephen?
[00:27:30] SK: It’s called Music in Arkansas: Origins 200 B.C. to 1941 A.D.
[00:27:35] KM: Yeah! That’s a big spread. So, everybody, it’s available. Everybody needs to go see it on PBS or wherever you like to watch your movies. Now, I’d like to talk to Stephanie a little about her band. She, at the beginning of the show, mentioned that in 2010, she went to an audition or her friend went to an audition and met these guys who were looking for – What do you call them, Stephanie? A girl singer?
[00:28:03] SS: They were looking for a girl singer. That’s right.
[00:28:05] KM: Yeah. How professional. I need a girl singer. Anyway, her friend thought that Stephanie would be perfect for it. Tell us about the day you went in and met these guys who were looking for the girl singer.
[00:28:22] SS: At the time, we were jamming, and truly jamming by the way, very unstructured. It was the first situation I think I was in musically where we could easily play for four hours and you’d look at the clock and it felt like 20 minutes had gone by. Despite the fact that I was by far the youngest person in the room, I found pretty quickly that we had a lot of musical affinities in common. I grew up listening to The Beatles. We found some common ground there. I think like a lot of ensembles, before you can get to the point where you’re writing and creating new material together, it helps to kind of find the ground that you both can meet on. That was the ground where we could both meet on, is things like Lucinda Williams and The Beatles and even some old soul stuff, Eddie James. Yeah, we started sort of creating out of that. We put out an album called Bright Streets in 2010, which is a take on the street that I grew up in on in Cave Springs.
Then a couple of years later, I met a fabulous musician named John Davies. John Davies plays bass in Earl & Them’s, which is a pickoff of the popular blues rock band The Cate Brothers. You may know, he’s a fabulous bass player. But what I also discovered in becoming friends with him is that he’s not just a bass player. He really has a knack for sort of producing and experimenting with sounds. So we went into Wolfman Studios, which is a long-standing sort of staple of the Little Rock recording scene run by Jason Tedford, and we created an album called Tales from Childtown, which I was called it like hymns and sort of fairytale-feel. It’s by no means a cohesive album. It feels to me a little bit like each track, you’re sort of flipping the radio channel to different radio stations. It’s very fun to make and certainly taught me a lot about sort of the recording process in and of itself. I’m incredibly grateful to John Davies for sort of stretching our limits in the studio there. We used a megaphone. We used a toy piano. We got a small choir together.
[00:31:02] KM: I don’t think I like the way toy piano sounds. They kind of cradle my nerves. They remind me of my children’s too much noise.
[00:31:08] GM: Let’s say it’s a mothering flashbacks.
[00:31:12] KM: I don’t know if people would like that.
[00:31:14] SS: It’s an instrument that [inaudible 00:31:16] in small doses.
[00:31:18] KM: Oh, that’s true. Right! You were kind of unusual. I read that The Smittle Band actually wrote songs and produced an album before they ever performed publicly. Is that true?
[00:31:32] SS: It’s true. Honestly, I don’t know that we thought that it was supposed to be any other way. There’s really a gift for me to have fallen in with a group of musicians who cared a lot less about creating a sound that could be a brand and could be marketable and they cared a lot more about being whatever is coming to them musically at the moment.
Well, I understand the need for bands to sort of develop an identity and develop a cohesive sound. It certainly wasn’t where any of us were at. We might have been flailing, but we were flailing wildly and creatively, and I’m very grateful for that. Yeah, it was actually a great experience.
By the time we started playing in front of anyone, we had jammed together for so long that we had a lot of flexibility. We could respond if there were people getting into the music and dancing, we’d take it around another time, and it’s certainly taught me a lot about stage craft, a lot of which was honed at a bygone spot called the Afterthought, which is Hillcrest on the corner of [inaudible 00:32:47] and Beechwood. Although I hear the nostalgia in your size, I really do, and I feel it. I have that nostalgia too.
I will also say that as much as we miss that vibe at the Afterthought, the jazz, it’s still out there. It’s just spread out. There are all these little great jazz projects all over the city. Jazz at the Joint over in North Little Rock is fabulous. There is a free Jazz in the Park series over summer at Riverfront Park. It’s out there and to be found. While I share your nostalgia for the Afterthought, it’s sort of spread out in all of these other places.
[00:33:29] KM: And South on Main.
[00:33:31] SS: Sure! Yeah, South on Main. Absolutely.
[00:33:33] KM: Your music has been called the Arkansas Democrat Gazette jazzy Americana, and another review called it genre hopping. What do you call it?
[00:33:42] SS: I think genre hopping is fair. I have a habit, a questionable habit of saying yes to a lot of different styles of music and I’m maybe comfortable being a chameleon in that way. It doesn’t make sense to me that one, if your voice can have different colors, then I think it’s okay to explore those different colors, and I think it’s okay to sort of find where they might fit. The style of singing that I use when I’m doing sacred chant with [inaudible 00:34:23] at Trinity Episcopal and creating these lovely like 16th century like polyphonic works is a very different style than I would use when I’m singing with the Klezmer band, but both styles feel like me. Both of those voices feel like me.
[00:34:44] KM: You are really right-on when you say that you’re a chameleon, because some of the bands I’ve read that you sang with, southern sludge metal and iron tongue, folk music and Meshuggah, sacred music, as you just mentioned, cantor and chorister at the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and Christ Church, featured soloist at Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. That’s a big variety. If anybody wants to – I think very big.
One of the clips that you sent me, a YouTube video you sent me that I really enjoy. You sent me two of them. One of them was Funny How the Money, and I thought it really showed soft and delicate your voice could be and also how strong it could be in that song.
[00:35:33] SS: Well, thank you. I’m actually sitting in the very same chair and the very same spot that I wrote that song right now. I remember it. I was looking at The Capital and there were – Some of us had gone down to protest a bill that we thought like we should protest. That song came out of that. The video itself is formed with a film by a really talented videographer named Samuel Pettit. We filmed it, and it’s actually an outtake. We weren’t there to perform that song, but we went down to the Albert Pike Masonic Lodge, which was at the time just sort of starting to dip its toe into having more of the public come in and see this amazing, hallowed, gorgeous space. Somehow or another, I left my way into being able to film another song there called Embassy, which Samuel Pettit did for us, and we’re getting ready to pack up and leave. We had a little bit of time.
I said, “Hey, I’ve got this little kind of protest piece. Do we have time to take this?” Wythe Walker, the guitarist in that video set up – We set up a couple of chairs. We faced them backward on the stage. It was the stage where later Opera in the Rocks and Arkansas Symphony Orchestra would do the Magic Flute, Mozart’s Magic Flute. It’s that very same stage. Incredibly amazing.
If you’ve ever been in the Albert Pike Masonic Temple, you know exactly what I mean. The whole place is just charged. There’s just an energy in the whole place. So we filmed Funny How the Money there. That song still stays with me. I’ve still got it in my pocket.
[00:37:19] KM: Good! Let’s play it.
[00:39:31] KM: Speaking of operas, you played Virginia Clinton and Bonnie Montgomery’s Opera, Billy Blythe. Tell us about that.
[00:39:41] SS: I did. It was a great privilege, but it’s never often that you get to perform the work of a living composer and it’s even less often that you get to perform the work of a composer who you know and who you admire. I mean, what a thrill to get to sing Arkansas story brought into life by an Arkansas opera company by an Arkansas-based composer. I mean, I think this opera has a life beyond Bill Clinton’s story and beyond Arkansas. I hope a lot of people find it. It’s really a true sort of an early American style of intimate opera. I’ve loved seeing it staged. I’ve seen it staged a couple different ways. I’ve loved it most when it’s really intimate. It’s a beautiful story. The books [inaudible 00:40:38] are beautiful, and all of Bonnie’s work also. Thrilled to be a part of that.
[00:40:43] KM: Stephanie, I’m going to ask you the same question I asked Stephen. What do you want your legacy to be?
[00:40:46] SS: Well, I hope it’s not over yet.
[00:40:49] KM: I do too, and it is, or you can have a legacy while you’re living, I guess. Can’t you?
[00:40:56] SS: I have to say just on a personal note, part of what I’m starting to feel in terms of like legacy and the responsibility of a legacy isn’t the music that I’m creating publicly so much as it is of my family. I have a brother who has – He and his wife has six children and they have started to pick up instruments of their own. Well, I’m not suggesting that I am the reason that they are picking up instruments or singing. There are many wonderful people in their lives supporting them in their musical endeavors. That’s honestly the first thing that comes to mind when you say that it’s just the thought of my niece at the piano making a video on her phone. That’s so tender and so true and so smart and so honest. If I just like had one tiny piece of that was a result of my influence, then that would make me wildly happy.
[00:42:03] KM: That’s what we talk about, is that all successful people have the heart of a teacher. They really do. This is a great place to take a break. When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Arkansas musicians, journalists and culture advocates, Ms. Stephanie Smittle and her partner and radio host of Arkansongs, Mr. Stephen Koch. We’ll be back after the break.
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[00:43:17] KM: You’re listening to Up in Your Business with me, Kerry McCoy. I’m speaking today with our Arkansas journalists, musicians and power couple Stephanie Smittle and Stephen Koch of the popular radio show Arkansongs. Let’s talk about some of the music legends of Arkansas. We’ve talked a lot about Louis Jordan and how his work influenced James Brown, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, and we’ve talked a little bit about Rosetta Tharpe, but we haven’t talked about Levon Helm. He was in the band. He died not very long ago, and I think Kevin Kresse made a statue of a bust of him, a bronze bust. I heard that there was a conflict between Robbie Roberston and Levon Helm for who wrote the songs.
[00:44:03] SK: There’s a little and still is a lot of bad blood, but I will say I’ve got the privilege of knowing Levon. I remember we talked about, he mentioned sort of that in his autobiography, and he was not a bitter guy. I’ll put it that way. He was a dude that loved life, and I’d say don’t meet your heroes, but I met him and got to know him. He was a fantastic guy. We guys talk about legacy. He left not such a great musical legacy, but a legacy of kindness and generosity towards people and he’s justifiably well-loved in Arkansas. Someone I’ve been kind of studying for some future episodes of Arkansongs is his mentor. I know this is a show you like to talk about the power of mentoring and passing legacies on in that way, and kudos to you for doing that.
This guy Henry Glover who’s from Hot Springs, Arkansas is someone I’ve been doing a lot of research on, and next year we’ll be in the Glover’s Centennial, his 100th birthday. He died in 1991, but he was Levon’s mentor who’s a great songwriter and producer in the 40s and he was the first guy to record Levon and The Hawks in the early 60s and late 50s. He wrote the song California Sun. He wrote Drown in My Own Tears. He produced the original version of The Twist. He produced the original version of Fever. He was a great behind-the-scenes person, but he became – He was Levon’s mentor.
[00:45:53] KM: Conway Twitty. Of course, everybody knows. Glen Campbell, Al Greene, Johnny Cash, but this was one I saw in your bio, cult leader, Tony Alamo did a stint as a musician.
[00:46:07] SK: Oh yeah! Where did you find that stuff?
[00:46:08] KM: I don’t know.
[00:46:10] SK: He had a cult [inaudible 00:46:11], but he was also very interested in music. I mean, I have some of his records. That to me is like a great Arkansas story. He was obviously a repellent man, but the fact that he recorded music makes it very interesting for an Arkansongs episode.
[00:46:33] KM: Yeah! Was he any good? Just before we move on. Was he any good? Where did he play?
[00:46:37] SK: No. He may have played stuff. I mean, to me, that could still be a – Even if it’s bad –
[00:46:44] KM: It’s interesting.
[00:46:46] SK: My radio show, it’s only 7-1/2 minutes long. It’s just a segment. Even if it’s someone that’s bad, it can still be an interesting story, something fun to listen to.
[00:46:57] KM: Stephen, if I just wanted to go and listen to a bunch of Arkansongs episodes, is there a website I could just go and –
[00:47:05] SK: On arkansongs.org, I have hundreds of episodes and a lot of them are online. You can just listen to on-demand.
[00:47:14] KM: It’s arkansongs.org, and you just – I’m going to go listen to them on-demand. I can do 7-1/2 minutes of anything for a long time. Stephanie, how about you? Stephanie, how about you? If we want to go hear your music, where should we go?
[00:47:27] SS: They make it pretty easy these days. If you type in Stephanie Smittle or Smittle Band, you will find me. A great place to find what I’m working on and doing is just to follow me on Instagram. I’m just @StephanieSmittle and also Facebook, just under Stephanie Smittle. I promise, I solemnly swear, I’ll keep you in the loop.
[00:47:52] KM: Being an artist is a haphazard career. This is my last question. It’s always moving and changing. When you look back at your career, both of you, is there is a missed opportunity that if you had been a little bit older and wiser you might not have missed?
[00:48:09] SK: I’ve been going through boxes recently and I found some old journals. I was an Austrian exchange story. Since, I did travel riding back in the day. I’ve got to travel to a lot of places, but my first international trip was when I was had just turned 17 and I was reading this journal and I was very disappointed in my 17-year-old self for not fully taking advantage of those opportunities and sort of waiting for things to happen to me rather than trying to make things happen. I looked at that and I realized I couldn’t be too hard on my teenage-self. But also I think having had that experience and then it helped me travel alone and all the other places I got to go. Yeah, I wish I’ve taken more advantage. It was really just the tragedy of youth and inexperience.
[00:49:07] KM: How about you, Stephanie?
[00:49:09] SS: You know, I have those. I probably have a list, a mentalist of those that’s a little bit more handy and readily available to me to recall of this, and maybe it even should be. Honestly, I try not to dwell too much on that, because I know myself and I know that there are also opportunities that I did say yes to when I wasn’t ready. When I looked at those opportunities, those are some of the things that introduced me to someone that ended up being a real creative mentor to me or introduced me to an experience that definitely looking back I would have said, “Oh! I wasn’t ready. I need to perfect that, and I needed to hone that, and I needed for it to be a little bit more polished before it went out into the world.” The reality is like you’re just really never ready. You just kind of got to do it.
At least for myself, I have to fight the tendency to hold on to a song, for example, until I think it’s ready, but if we’re waiting until I think it’s ready, we’re going to be waiting too long, right? I think there’s a power in being vulnerable and there’s a power in saying yes to things that you might not feel like you are equipped with all the tools to do, because honestly, some of the times, you just develop those tools on the fly, in the moment. That’s a good skill to have too.
[00:50:44] KM: Talking to all of us though. Thank you, Stephanie Smittle and Stephen Koch for preserving and promoting Arkansas arts and culture and for sharing your stories with our listeners today. You are both treasures for Arkansas.
[00:50:58] SS: Thank you, Kerry.
[00:51:00] KM: In closing, to our listeners, thank you for spending time with us. We hope you’ve heard or learned something that’s been inspiring or enlightening, and that it, whatever it is, will help you up your business, your independence or your life. I’m Kerry McCoy and I’ll see you next time on Up in Your Business. Until then, be brave and keep it up.
[00:51:19] GM: You’ve been listening to Up in Your Business with Kerry McCoy. For links to resources you heard discussed on today’s show, go to flagandbanner.com, select radio show and choose today’s guest. If you’d like to sponsor this show or any show, contact me, email@example.com. Kerry’s goal is simple, to help you live the American Dream.