After finding love and hitting the road with the Dixie Chicks, Smooth Hound Smith return to their Santa Monica roots
By Bliss Bowen
Smooth Hound Smith — multi-instrumentalist Zack Smith and singer/sometime percussionist Caitlin Doyle — have logged upwards of 150,000 miles across North America and Europe and encountered a wild new world of fandom with their stomping, organic folk while opening arena concerts for the Dixie Chicks and roadhouse shows for Jamestown Revival, Lindi Ortega and the Record Company. But Santa Monica native Smith says their “craziest tour stories” are grounded in L.A.
“Honestly, the craziest shit happened when we were playing in L.A.,” he says, laughing while recalling a raucous episode involving a rope, a tip jar, and two drunks at Hollywood’s Sassafras saloon. “We used to play the Basement [Tavern] in Santa Monica all the time and people would just go crazy. For a while they had cocktail tables set up with nice, metal candelabras, and we were playing late on a Wednesday night and this woman grabbed one of those things and was trying to stab some guy she thought stole her purse in the middle of our set. We just kept playing.
“I miss those LA gigs. … Sometimes.”
Smith, who grew up taking guitar lessons at McCabe’s and later worked at Big Foot West, played standup bass in local bluegrass bands and was sitting in with Dustbowl Revival during its formative days, when Doyle was singing in DR’s revolving lineup. Despite mutual attraction, not until Smith relocated in late 2011 to Nashville, and Doyle visited, did they connect as a couple.
After he ping-ponged back to L.A., Doyle’s pristine, jazz-trained tones balanced Smith’s gritty slide guitar and foot percussion as they “buckled down” and played high-energy sets almost daily at L.A.-area bars, restaurants, parties — whatever gigs they could book, sometimes three a day. “If my left foot fell asleep, then there went the snare drum,” he jokes.
That frenetic time yielded Smooth Hound Smith’s self-titled 2013 debut, whose Mississippi country blues-inspired sound and harmony-laced songs found an early champion in Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines, who later sang on 2016’s “Sweet Tennessee Honey.” Doyle and Smith became bona fide road dogs, sleeping in their van and crashing in fans’ homes.
Now married “and still best friends,” per Smith, they return to McCabe’s Sunday with their full band. Alongside new music from their third album, due next year, they’ll introduce “Blaze,” which they haven’t yet recorded and whose relaxed grooves belie its “touchy” subject: mass shootings. Smith, who says he’d like to play it more often to “at least attempt a deeper dialogue,” was inspired to write the chorus after last year’s deadly Mandalay Bay shooting in Las Vegas:
“Burn a hole right through the darkness
That permeates your soul
Did you get what you wanted
From the lives that you stole”
“It hit really close to home because Caitlin and I could have been playing that festival,” he explains. “I put it aside, [thinking], ‘This is gonna happen again, and that’s when we’ll finish it.’ And the two of us did finish it the next time [a shooting] happened.”
After the banjo- and fiddle-heavy slickness of “Sweet Tennessee Honey,” he says Smooth Hound Smith’s new album feels like “coming back home to who we are … a lot of blues tunes, some more psychedelic overtones, a little classic country.”
In East Nashville, where they’ve lived since 2013, he and Doyle have forged musical friendships with other up-and-coming artists like Devon Gilfillian, Guthrie Brown, and the Forlorn Strangers. While consistently challenged to evolve by the Americana community’s high level of talent, Smith says sometimes it can get depressing.
“I get really down on myself,” he admits. “Then we go out on the road and play and people love it, and I realize: this is actually a good show we’re putting on.
“Audiences want to be acknowledged, and they want your time. We’re always at the merch table, we’ll chat, we’ll sign stuff. There’s nights where you don’t necessarily feel like doing that because you drove for eight hours, you’re hungry and tired, and you just want to get onstage and play and go hide in the green room. … But it’s part of the job. Ultimately, I think it’s why we’ve been able to sustain this so long. We’ve been doing it for over half a decade, but it’s still really fresh for me that somebody would even want a picture of me with their kid to frame, or that somebody comes up to after a show and says, ‘Your CD has been in my car for nine months straight because my kids want to listen to it every day on the way to school.’ I can’t imagine that ever getting old.”
Smooth Hound Smith perform at 8 p.m. Sunday (Sept. 16) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3010 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $15. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit smoothhoundsmith.com.