Quick Q & A with Putnam Smith

Putnam Smith

How many singer-songwriters do you know who live in a log cabin in Maine, have a sustainable garden and grow their own food, print their CD covers on an antique letterpress, and sing and play all over the country? Well, now you can say you know one and his name is Putnam Smith. Putnam is a multi-instrumentalist and changes up the pace and tone of each show with the ease of a veteran circus juggler except he’s using instruments and songs rather than balls or bowling pins. His lyrics are thoughtful and mature yet sometimes a little wry sense of humor shines through. Always entertaining. Always in the moment. Always right on. To learn more about Putnam Smith, visit his website.

For cast iron pan enthusiasts and for just-plain-old music fans, check out the video of “Cast Iron Pan” starring Putnam and the Amazing Cast Iron Pan Street Dancers.

Nearly every publicity piece that I read about you mentions the fact that your style of music harkens back to older days, maybe as far away and long ago as the last century! Do you feel like this is an accurate description of your style, and if so, why?
I have definitely found much inspiration from the venerable traditions of American Roots music — specifically the genre of Appalachian music known simply as ‘Old-Time.’ The Anthology of American Folk Music, put together by Harry Smith in 1952, and released on CD in 1997 was quite a revelation for me. I lived down in Asheville, NC for a while, and steeped myself in old-time banjo/fiddle music. I love that old stuff. I do often throw in a traditional tune or two in my shows, though I mostly get my fix of playing ‘trad’ with my contra dance band, Sassafras Stomp. First and foremost I consider myself a songwriter. I’ve been writing songs since I was 7 years old — and Old-Time is but one of the many influences on the songs I now write on banjo, guitar, piano, and mandolin.
Not only does your music remind people of old-time Appalachian tunes sung on back porches in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but your entire lifestyle seems have you with one foot firmly planted in the past and one in the very real present day of technology. You have invited music fans into your world by showing them a bit about how you live by sharing some fascinating YouTube videos about life on the road and most especially . . . eating healthy while on the road. Care to tell us a bit about those videos?
Ahh, yes! People often visit me at my log cabin in Maine, and comment on how it feels like they’re stepping back in time a bit. I’ve got an old Victrola, but don’t have a TV. I print my CD covers on an antique letterpress. Not only do I play my great-grandfather’s banjo, but I have a collection of cast iron pans — one of which came from my grandparents (and perhaps further back than that!). I think there’s a lot we in the 21st century can learn from old school ways of living. I love things old-fangled. My “Cast Iron Pan” video has now been getting some great attention — just connected with a whole Facebook community of cast iron pan enthusiasts! As for the “Road Food Foraging” videos — that’s something new I’ve been getting into: foraging for mushrooms and wild foods. I love learning about foods I can gather while out on tour, off the highway, or while on a little hike in the woods. Sure beats those fast food restaurants!!
Have you been a natural food kind of person forever? Or is a fairly new thing since you moved into a log cabin and began working the land. How many months a year are you able to devote to music since we know that you’re pretty busy planting, growing, tending, and harvesting.
I worked on a couple different organic farms, before taking up the music professionally. They seemed like contrary pursuits, the life of a farmer and a traveling musician — but Maine has a rather short growing season! So, in the summer months, I work on being an aspiring homesteader — that is, growing as much of my own food as possible, playing local shows as my “cash crop.” Then, October through April, I travel all over the country playing music. This touring season, I’ll head out into the midwest as far as Minnesota, down the East coast as far as Florida, than clear across country, through the southwest, to meet up with my contra dance band for a string of dances the length of California.
When you’re working on your land, do you ever get ideas for songs? Are you able to get into a groove where you can think of topics, lyrics, and sounds that you can then bring back home and mold together into a song? Or are you able to divorce yourself from your musical world when you’re farming and vice versa?
First, let me be clear that I’m not a farmer, since I don’t sell anything I grow. What I’m shooting for, is to get closer to the means of my own subsistence, cutting down my expenses, so that I don’t have to make as much money from music. That’s the goal! Trying to find the complementary aspects of these contrary pursuits! As for songwriting and gardening — I don’t usually come up with song ideas while out working; though, there is something deeply inspiring and fulfilling to me about working the land — I would say that the physical labor out in nature helps still my mind, so that the creative process can begin.
So tell us about Kitchen, Love. . . How would you compare it to your other recordings?
Brass! I’ve been wanting to write out brass arrangements for a long time — mostly for my piano tunes — and with Kitchen, Love. . . I decided to just plunge in and do it. So yeah, in addition to the usual instrumentation that you find in all my records: banjo, guitar, mando, piano, cello, fiddle, upright bass, this album also has French horn, trumpet, trombone, and soprano sax. Pretty excited about it. . . .
I know you play banjo, guitar, and mandolin. If could only play one of those instruments for the rest of your life (a hard question, I know), which one would win out?
Ahh — probably, the one you left out! Piano! I do have a very special connection with the banjo (how could I not, as my grandfather and great-grandfather both played?!), and I do most of my songwriting on guitar. But piano is my first love — it both challenges and inspires me the most.
Do you have any musical dreams that you’d love to experience? Think big.
18 piece swing band, with full brass and string sections, and period costumes. Guess I need to learn to play swing, first. But I have my grandfather’s Vega tenor banjo, and it would give me a great excuse to play it!!

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