4½ stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Never having had tremendous commercial success, Darden Smith has spent the better part of thirty years releasing a new album every couple or three years while mastering his craft and establishing himself as one of the most consistently satisfying Texas singer-songwriters.
From the two-step clarity of “Little Maggie,” through the hits “Loving Arms” and “Little Victories,” and the cinematic authority of ‘calling-card’ songs including “Levee Town,” “Frankie and Sue,” and “What Are We Gonna Do,” Smith has built a catalog of songs and performances that should place him in the highest echelon of contemporary troubadours.
Yet, he remains a rather well-kept secret. His previous album Marathon was a focused song-cycle containing deep, often moving songs that perhaps suffered from the lack of aural disparity between the individual songs comprising that recording. No such worry with Love Calling, a mature, substantial, and certainly impactful album with each of the album’s eleven songs standing as sentinels of power, creating a formidable production.
With more in common with his contemporaries—including Kevin Welch, Jimmy LaFave, and collaborator Radney Foster—than the previous generation of Texas legends—Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and even Steve Earle —Smith’s songcraft alternates between universal first-person reflections on hopes, dreams, and failings and personal wonder at the magic contained within our lives, homes, and world.
Foster and Smith co-wrote four of the songs, including the emotionally charged “Angel Flight,” a song honoring the volunteer pilots who fly home the bodies of fallen comrades, which initially appeared on Foster’s Revival album of 2009. With such heavy inspiration, in the hands of lesser writers and singers, the performance could be hackneyed and overwrought. Leading off Love Calling, “Angel Flight” is instead honest and true, a revelation of the devotion and commitment we possess when at our best.
In a different time, “Reason to Live” and “Better Now” (another Foster co-write) would be played on commercial country radio. “Medicine Wheel” is an impressively executed number, propelled by mandolin from co-producer Jon Randall Stewart, and here Smith’s voice (to provide perspective) reminds one of Kieran Kane’s: restrained but pure; elsewhere, “Favorite Way” calls forth Stephen Fearing’s unhurried and passionately poetic approach to singing.
Nashville studio A-listers serve as Smith’s band, including the likes of Michael Rhodes and Byron House (bass), Pat Bergeson (guitars), John Jarvis (keyboards), and Dan Dugmore (pedal steel), as well as Stewart on vocals. Jessi Alexander and Shawn Colvin each provide substantive vocal harmony to a single track.
No filler here with the haunting “I Smell Smoke” and the dark inner conflict of “Baltimore” late in the set standing equal to the especially powerful, front-loaded songs.
Bonuses of “I Say a Little Prayer” and a second performance of the title track make eschewing the digital version of the album a sensible plan; nice to see an artist and label giving something extra to those who purchase the physical album.
With several enduring albums in his past, and others not yet heard, this writer isn’t certain that Love Calling is the finest of Smith’s career. It is the most compelling that I’ve experienced, and has led me to download additional Darden Smith recordings.