Something to howl about in Bethesda
Mar. 15, 2001
Chris Slattery
Staff Writer

Writer-producer-composer Greg Smith just can't stop making music. Good for us!

Singer/songwriter Smith an eager beagle

The cover of "Training the Beagle," the latest recording by Bethesda singer/songwriter Greg Smith, is given over to a pretty young girl named Lucy. Wearing very little, she poses eagerly on a patio with a saucy, come-hither smile.

Lucy is a big-eyed beagle puppy. And Smith, too, is an increasingly common breed: a guy who, despite impressive career success elsewhere, can't get over the need to make music. He'll be playing songs from his fourth CD, "Training the Beagle," at Barnes & Noble in Rockville on Friday, March 23.

"Music has always been my first love," he says. "If I could make a fulltime living at it, I would."

Not that Smith is out toiling in the salt mines until the day his big break comes. The University of Maryland alumnus explains that he's just returned from Florida, where he was recording audio of the launch of the space shuttle for IMAX. He also works for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition as a senior editor, and before that, was a news producer for CBS-TV's Washington Bureau. And there were the five years at Lucasfilms in sunny California, where he did "foley," or sound effects work, for the film industry. The guy's day jobs are pretty exciting, all right. But the urge to make music just won't go away.

"I come from a large family," the affable Smith explains. "Four sisters and a brother in a crowded house in Bethesda -- and there was a piano in the basement."

Fourth from the eldest, Smith was delighted with the instruments his siblings had tired of, and he taught himself to play the piano and a discarded guitar as well.

"I found I had a knack to play by ear. I just heard it," he says.

He only heard it at home. While at Bethesda's Little Flower School, Westland Middle School and Walt Whitman High School, Smith avoided officially organized music except for a brief stint drumming at football games in the high school pep band.

"There's always a band floating around a high school," he says. "And I played in two."

They played at school dances, mostly, and then at a celebrated gig in the District's Fort Reno Park in 1972. Even back then, he was collaborating with Rich Krents, the childhood best friend who grew up to open EOP studios in Bethesda, where Smith's four CDs (three as "The Far Cry") were produced. Krents plays drums and keyboards on the latest record, and shares production and engineering credits. Most important, Krents owns Lucy the beagle.

"While we were in the midst of recording this album, she was in the midst of puppyhood," Smith explains. Playing back some tracks one day, he heard the sound of Lucy's howl in the background, and decided to keep the sound there, although it's barely audible in the final version. When Krents presented his friend with a mock-up of the CD cover with Lucy's picture on it, Smith went along with the joke.

That's not to say that "Training the Beagle" isn't a serious effort -- far from it. This is a collection of songs that are original and thought-provoking, storyteller-songs in which Smith evokes scenes and experiences with a mix of music and poetic narrative that seems to be uniquely his. Listening to the CD means getting tangled up in the tales the singer is telling, not getting distracted by copycat sounds.

"I'm always aware of what I listen to," he says. "I don't want to be a clone. I wanted to make my own sound. It's always about where your impulses take you."

He's cast his net wider than most singer/songwriters tend to: despite a lack of formal training, Smith has learned to appreciate the classics. His friend Osman Kivrak, composed a string section for the tune, "God's Own Moon," and performs on the CD with wife Teri Lazar and Nancy Snider of the Sunrise Quartet.

"We recorded the rehearsal," remembers Smith. "He was spot-on; he really enjoys the pop stuff!"

Smith does, too. He's had many influences over the years -- he mentions the Beatles and the Everly Brothers, two bands he didn't start listening to until after their heyday had passed. He talks about Lindsay Buckingham, Simon & Garfunkel, REM. He muses about the kind of original thinking that's essential to any art form.

"If you fall into a set of rules, your music is going to be limited," he says. "The song will sort of tell you if it has to have bridges, or choruses."

Will his songs also tell secrets about the singer's personal life?

"The perfect song is in between what is real and what is accessible," says the happily married father of two boys. When his songs speak of tortured romance or love gone sour, it may feel real, but it's not necessarily happening in real time -- or to him.

"I have a very, very good memory, and I remember every relationship," he says. "Most of what I write is about real experiences I've had in the past, people I've met. You can tell a lot about people in 30 seconds, [although] some of that is projected.

"I remember the first girl that kissed me," he says. "I remember that emotion. I try to feel life when it happens, to not go through with blinders on.

"A good musician doesn't miss much; he sees what other people don't. I watch life, I watch people a lot. I guess I'm kind of a voyeur."

Smith laughs.

"Not THAT kind of a voyeur!"

Greg Smith will perform along with Lynn Grunza on Friday, March 23, at 8 p.m. in Barnes & Noble, 12089 Rockville Pike, Rockville. Admission is free. Call 301-881-0237.