“The music itself draws elements from the roots of American music,…but is also informed by today’s modern songwriters. Putnam’s music isn’t anachronistic or archaic, it’s just heavily informed by a sense of reverence for our shared past and a deep abiding love for the future pathways of American music.”
—Devon Leger, No Depression
Inside the Songs: Putnam Smith’s Cast Iron Songwriting
I started doing these “Inside the Songs” articles based on a hunch: if a great songwriter could write a great song, couldn’t they also write a great story about it? After all, whatever inspired them to go out of their way to put a story to music must have been pretty interesting. Now with fifteen features under our belt, the hunch has proved absolutely true. So it’s a pleasure to bring along our sixteenth Inside the Songs feature with Maine folk/roots songwriter Putnam Smith. Many folks these days are attuned to creating music the “old-fashioned” way and melding this old music with a lifestyle that harkens back to pre-digital times. Putnam takes this a little farther than most; the cover of his new album, Kitchen, Love…, was printed via pedal-powered letterpress, and features his ongoing obsession with antique cast iron cookware. The music itself draws elements from the roots of American music, featuring some beautiful clawhammer banjo playing, but is also informed by today’s modern songwriters. Putnam’s music isn’t anachronistic or archaic, it’s just as heavily informed by a sense of reverence for our shared past and a deep abiding love for the future pathways of American music.
“It will be on rotation on your summer play hit list for months to come.”
—Portland Press Herald
CD Review: ‘Kitchen, Love’ by Portland folk musician Putnam Smith
Portland Press Herald
Just the name of the new CD by Portland folk musician Putnam Smith, “Kitchen, Love,” conjures up emotions and imagery that happen to fit right in with his down-home style of music.
In his biography, Smith makes no bones about the fact that he is like “an old world troubadour, fresh from the 19th century who lives in a log cabin, plays his grandfather’s banjo and prints up the jackets of his CD’s on an antique letterpress.”
Smith’s music is refreshingly folky Americana, old-world style, with a contemporary spin. He uses his breathy voice to seduce the listener, then shocks them with his humor as in “Succotash” and “Cast Iron Pan.”
“Succotash” opens with Smith’s banjo playing, then a violin comes charging in with a very catchy melody that echoes his verses through the entire song. The lyrics move from talking about cooking food together to how life is always changing, but the subject is always true to his heart. I like this idea of incorporating the cooking of food into lyrics about life’s wonders and mysteries.
“Cast Iron Pan” introduces some of the humor Smith uses to inject a bit of “what did he say?” shock value. Again, by using references to food and cooking to talk about life, he warbles, “Nothing turns you on like my cast iron pan.”
Smith’s energetic banjo playing is once again prominent, and the song has a bit of an eerie sound to it, inferring that something’s about to happen (like a Denver omelet or something).
“The Stars Will Line Up Someday” is a beautiful ballad, seemingly about having hope and searching for meaning in whatever path one chooses to follow. The song is introduced by soft-sounding horns that act as a prelude to the melody of the rest of the song’s acoustic guitar, bass and drums before retreating to the background.
You can buy “Kitchen, Love” on Smith’s website, putnamsmith.com. If you do, I’m sure it will be on rotation on your summer play hit list for months to come.
“Putnam Smith’s music flows easily, sweetly, like a spring hidden in the woods…”
— Sara Willis, MPBN
“Putnam Smith’s music flows easily, sweetly, like a spring hidden in the woods. But don’t be deceived by the ease, beneath the simplest songs lie the most complex emotions and ideas. And music like this allows us to hold them. Putnam is a poet who sings and plays, think Randy Newman or Loudon Wainwright in a good mood. Great playing too from a host of talented musicians and produced with just the right touch, letting the songs live on their own merits. Bravo to Putnam Smith.”
“In for a penny, he’s in for a pound, especially adept at arranging a variety of acoustic instruments and backing singers into songs that capture the escapist zeitgeist of a time seeming to run parallel to the present day, where folks can focus intently on making a fine succotash and writing epistolary novels and without worrying about getting the kids to Little League…”
— Portland Phoenix
Filling up with Putnam Smith: Kitchen, Love, and Emily Dickinson
After about the fifth listen of Putnam Smith’s fourth album, Kitchen, Love . . ., the Grizzly Adams flashbacks kick in. While there’s no reason to believe Smith’s been accused of a crime he didn’t commit, it’s probably safe to say he’s down with the idea of escaping into the High Sierras and living almost exclusively among the trees and animals.
Heck, the dude wishes he could trade places with Emily Dickinson. His raspy, just-above-an-exhale voice sits on top of chiming mandolin and a bit of glockenspiel as he pines, “Oh to be, Emily Dickinson/A few good books to keep me company/Bake some pie and fold the laundry/Write down some words that no one will see.”
That’s commitment right there. The woman was ready to give it all up just to save a fainting robin. Maybe that’s a little out there, commitment-wise, for some people.
Not Smith, though. In for a penny, he’s in for a pound, especially adept at arranging a variety of acoustic instruments and backing singers into songs that capture the escapist zeitgeist of a time seeming to run parallel to the present day, where folks can focus intently on making a fine succotash and writing epistolary novels and without worrying about getting the kids to Little League practice or making it from Job A to Job B thanks to the kindness of a friend with a car that actually works.
Four albums in, and Smith is still hand-printing the CD sleeves, still making sure to note that he’s willing to barter his discs for a good meal or some firewood. Is it a good thing or not that the price of an album wouldn’t get you all the way through a night’s fire, nowadays? On the one hand, that album’s not worth much. On the other, it seems like the deal of a lifetime when you consider how quickly those logs go up in smoke.
The only addition Smith does seem to have made over time is that of some musical friends. Fiddler Erica Brown is probably most prominent here, with a Nashville flair of descending riffs in “Succotash” that teams with Smith’s percussive clawhammer banjo style and is well balanced by Seth Yentes’s grounding cello work. Then she revisits some of those phrases in the ultra-trad “New Shoes,” where Pete Morse at Red Vault Recording has managed to make Smith’s banjo in the open sound nothing short of fucking amazing. Make sure you play this through some good speakers in a big room. You could subsist on some of these notes.
Lest you think this is just another stringband record, though, listen for the piano-fronted pieces, like “Looking Up,” where Smith is buffeted by trumpet (Alan King), trombone (Jeff Ertman), and even a little French horn (Caitlin Ramsey) in a song that could probably be featured prominently on Sesame Street.
The culmination of all this collaboration, though, is “The Stars Will Line up Someday,” which opens sparely with just Smith, guitar, and some cello before opening up into what would be a simply huge chorus if done by a radio rock band, swelling with Sorcha’s harmony vocals, and delivering real emotional rise. By the finish, there is building action with Zak Trajoano’s drums, a lilt of soprano sax from Brad Yoder, and a solid sense of wonder: “And though your bed is cold/And your wallet’s thin/And you still have made a good friend/The city’s so alive.”
True, you have to indulge Smith at times. The songs tend to run on longer than they need to. He on more than one occasion rhymes “corn” with “morn’.” “Cast Iron Pan” is the kind of jokey gimmick song that made my wife pick her head up and say, “What song is this? This is ridiculous.”
When he’s on, though, he delivers real depth of feeling. “The Artist up on the Hill” is a nostalgia-fueled narrative that recalls the Summer of Love and Neil Young’s autobiography. “Paris in June” is another piano piece that captures that city beautifully and manages to make being jealous of Thoreau not sound indulgently idealistic (plus, there’s a scrap of Gillian Welch’s “Tennessee” thrown in at the finish).
Best is probably “The Lion Tamer Is the Cruelest Creature,” which recalls a newer kind of sound, like Parlour Hawk, with an excellent combination of warm guitar strum and mid-tempo vocals. Coming in under three minutes, it is delicately crisp and well executed.
If nothing else, Smith just shows such great care for the crafting of these songs. Nothing seems rushed or tossed off, and the attention to tone and precision makes for a great listen in the headphones. Got yourself a cabin for a few days up by Rangeley? This is your disc. But it will probably work on a Portland streetcorner, too, if you’ve got yourself some imagination.
“His rippling banjo and soft-spoken low tenor voice feel like they’re being played around a campfire, in this century or the last. Fans of folk or bluegrass – new or old – would do well to give a listen to this album from one of Maine’s best roots musicians.”
—Bangor Daily News
Putnam Smith – Kitchen, Love
Bangor Daily News
Portland-based banjo player and songwriter Putnam Smith, who’s been playing Americana years before the word Mumford meant anything, has just released his fourth album of spare, heartfelt folk songs, “Kitchen, Love.” Featuring longtime collaborators like cellist Seth Yentes, the album is in keeping with his previous albums – it feels at once decidedly old-fashioned, and yet strangely on-trend with the roots music boom of the past five years. But Smith doesn’t appear to be one to cater to the hype machine; his rippling banjo and soft-spoken low tenor voice feel like they’re being played around a campfire, in this century or the last. Piano, trumpet and drums flesh out parts of “Kitchen, Love,” like on the jaunty piece of self-reflection, “Looking Up,” while songs like “Cast Iron Pan” thump along to an ever-so-slightly funky beat. Fans of folk or bluegrass – new or old – would do well to give a listen to this album from one of Maine’s best roots musicians.
“The soul of Putnam Smith’s work is steeped in simplicity. And the expansion of his horizons hasn’t changed that – his songs still reflect a man who wants to live that simple, separate life. He’s just found some new ways to tell his stories.”
—The Maine Edge
Food for the Folky Soul – ‘Kitchen, Love…’
The Maine Edge
To my mind, musicians are at their best when they’re telling a story. Some people believe the melody to be the most important part, others will swear by the rhythm. And they’re not wrong.
But for me, nothing beats a song that tells a tale.
Maine folk stalwart Putnam Smith offers up a dozen such tales with his latest album “Kitchen, Love…” This marks the singer/songwriter’s fourth release, all of them on Itchy Sabot Records. Smith, a do-it-yourselfer to the core, even prints his own CD cases on a century-old letterpress obtained and refurbished for that very purpose.
Suffice it to say, he’s a throwback.
Every track on the album has something to offer, but there’s a run in the middle of the lineup (tracks 4-6) that is particularly strong. Track four is “Emily Dickinson,” a sweet and simple song where Smith harmonizes with fellow singer Heather Styka and offers an homage to the idea of an Emily Dickinson lifestyle. The fifth track, “The Stars Will Line Up Someday,” is one of the more complex that Smith has ever tackled, featuring rhythm and brass sections; it features the impassioned introspection that Smith’s vocals carry when they’re at their best. And track number six is “Cast Iron Pan,” a raucous and joyfully s—t-kicking tune offering Smith’s version of pitching woo (which unsurprisingly includes wearing a vest and cooking eggs).
Smith’s previous albums have involved relatively few people, but with “Kitchen, Love…” he had a lot more help than before. Not only does the album feature frequent Smith collaborator Seth Yentes on cello, but Smith gets some help from the dynamite fiddle playing of Erica Brown. Jason Rafalak plays upright bass while Zak Trojano handles percussion and Brad Yoder plays such disparate instruments as the soprano saxophone and the glockenspiel. He’s also got a number of beautiful voices helping with the harmonies, not to mention the rock-solid brass section.
There’s a feeling of transition that flows throughout this album; Smith seems to be spreading his wings a little bit. Part of that is the natural evolution of any artist; while Smith’s earlier efforts had a stripped-down feel to them, some of the songs on “Kitchen, Love…” show that he has clearly grown comfortable with broader, deeper arrangements. His work’s musical complexity has increased, as has his confidence in terms of that complexity.
Of course, the soul of Putnam Smith’s work is steeped in simplicity. And the expansion of his horizons hasn’t changed that – his songs still reflect a man who wants to live that simple, separate life. He’s just found some new ways to tell his stories.
“Kitchen, Love…” is the work of someone who loves music the way it used to be. Whether Smith is playing the guitar or piano, plucking a mandolin or clawhammering his banjo, he’s evoking the voice of the past in a modern context. It’s rare for music to be of an era without feeling derivative; the key is the genuine joy Smith takes in what he does.
“One of the most magical performances I’ve had the luck to attend!”
— Sarah Banks, of Spuyten Duyvil
“If you’re a fan of Mumford & Sons, Iron & Wine, Josh Ritter – or just sitting barefoot in the sun – this album [We Could Be Beekeepers], with a glass of lemonade, is for you.”
— Ari Goldberg, Performer Magazine
“Honey From the Bees”
Much of Putnam Smith’s We Could Be Beekeepers sounds like it could have been lifted from an Anthology of American Folk Music record. All of it sounds like it could be lifted from a slow drive down an Appalachian country road.
With a voice strikingly similar to a breathy Josh Ritter and with a troubadour’s collection of banjos, guitars, and fiddles, Smith strives for a 19th Century aesthetic with a 21st Century conscience. The result is a deeply satisfying collection of simple, well crafted, and heartfelt folk gems.
While the musicianship is largely steeped in folk tradition, lyrics stray somewhat from folk’s storytelling roots. Rather than paint his characters into minstrel stories, Smith has a knack for painting them into evocative scenes – and just letting these settings speak for themselves: a flustered soldier looking after a baby on “Hush,” a bittersweet home- coming on “Thought I Knew” or a husband “wondering about wandering” as he shovels snow on “It Ain’t Time.” And at every point, his sighing vocals lend an emotional weight to these scenes with an ever-present twinge of longing.
If you’re a fan of Mumford & Sons, Iron & Wine, Josh Ritter – or just sitting barefoot in the sun – this album, with a glass of lemonade,is for you.
“A sexy voice…”
— Karen Frangoulis, WERU-FM
“Some of the most charming people you’ll meet will tell you that they feel out of place. Take Putnam Smith for example. With his rustic outfit and never fading smile, he looks like he stepped out of an early American history book…”
— Jim Blum, FolkAlley.com
Review of “We Could Be Beekeepers”
Some of the most charming people you’ll meet will tell you that they feel out of place. Take Putnam Smith for example. With his rustic outfit and never fading smile, he looks like he stepped out of an early American history book. In fact, he’ll tell you that he would probably feel more comfortable in the 19th Century. It makes no difference – his new release of old sounding music shines and it’s ours to treasure now.
This multi-talented minstrel from Maine writes using literal or implied themes and accompanies himself on guitar, banjo, and piano. Filling out the sound are Seth Yentes on cello and Joe Meo on clarinet. Two singers join him, Jenee Halstead and Mariel Vandesteel, who also plays fiddle throughout.
The album opens with an original instrumental “I Dream of Apple Orchards” which is edgy and should inspire you to dance. There you have it, one song and you’re on your feet.
On “Say Darlin Say” Putnam is joined by Mariel in sort of a singing proposal of old fashioned love. It’s clever and can easily make you wistful for a sweeter, simpler time. The cello/violin interludes are impressive. Perhaps the most thought provoking number is “Thought I Knew,” a coming of age message about returning home years later. Putnam reveals to us that the character in the song almost doesn’t recognize himself in his old possessions; he has changed so much.
The music is fun, the ideas are thoughtful, and the variety of instruments keeps your interest. If you are ever fortunate to meet Putnam Smith or better yet to hear him play and sing, don’t be surprised if you too don’t begin to feel like stepping into the past.
“Goldrush…is one of the standout releases of the season. Much like the craftsmanship taken to produce his hand-printed CD jackets, Smith breaks every song on the record down to its core parts, and in turn breaks many of the rules for contemporary songwriting. Tightly written, unconventionally performed and emotionally dense, “Goldrush” simply begs for repeat listening.”
— Bill Earl, The Maine Switch
Rewriting History – ‘Goldrush’ translates traditional sound in unconventional light
The Maine Switch
It isn’t surprising that Portland-based Americana revivalist Putnam Smith’s latest album, “Goldrush,” draws heavily from the mood of classic period Neil Young. Through continuous evocations of hurricanes, moons and other Young metaphors — including the album’s title — it is hard not to make a connection to the Canadian legend.
Arguably, Smith delves far more into a roots country backing than Young ever ventured. The multi-instrumentalist showcases a deft blend of guitar, mandolin, piano and banjo through the tracks, supplemented by haunting cello courtesy of Seth Yentes and sparse rhythm section work.
The album opens with the harrowing “A Natural Disaster is What We Need.” Hoping for “A flood to wash all the rules away,” it is tempting to view the lyrics as a parallel to Smith’s approach to composition. While many songwriters write solely to fit in a popular pigeonhole, the tunes on “Goldrush” are unearthed with just the right touches of musicality, illustrating a utilitarian approach to instrumentation.
Subtle shifts in tone illustrate the complexity with which Smith views his work. The off-kilter banjo and cello interplay on “Full Moon, Baby” washes the tale of displaced love with a decidedly sinister feel. “Postcard to Mum and Dad” is something of a centerpiece, gently spinning an epic ballad out of a stark vocal and guitar performance. The gentle jazz of “The Bartender’s Elsewhere” is a prime showcase for Smith’s vibrant and versatile voice, sending the listener from their headphones to a dirty gin joint. And while many records end on a dour, reflective note, rollicking closer “Rolling Blues” is a perfectly suited romp through the backdoor jams which could soundtrack a hoedown.
One of Smith’s many talents is his sense of place, obsessively detailing events in order to transplant the listener to the center of his mind. On “I Think It’s Almost Summertime,” shambling lyricism such as “I am nakeder than the day I was born and I’m scared to death and happy as a hummingbird” makes for a fascinatingly jarring experience.
Although much of “Goldrush” is too dark for summer, it is one of the standout releases of the season. Much like the craftsmanship taken to produce his hand-printed CD jackets, Smith breaks every song on the record down to its core parts, and in turn breaks many of the rules for contemporary songwriting. Tightly written, unconventionally performed and emotionally dense, “Goldrush” simply begs for repeat listening.
“Hardly the typical folkie fare…”
— DW, Dirty Linen Magazine
Dirty Linen Magazine, Issue #144
It’s a safe bet that any singer/songwriter who’s in favor of floods washing out roads, hurricanes blowing money out to the bay, and cyclones whisking us to foreign lands as part of a societal soul cleansing is bound to be quirky and unconventional. Maine’s Putnam Smith sure is. He lives in a log cabin, plays his grandfather’s banjo, and prints CD jackets on a hand-set, pedal-powered 1901 Pearl Letterpress. He sings in a soft, whispery voice and colors his jaunty, austere arrangements with clawhammer banjo, a cello that’s bowed across the rumbly, low strings, and parlor-room pianos tinkling the higher ivories — hardly the typical folkie fare. He sketches scenes of a wannabe rock star (“Postcard to Mum and Dad”), an aloof, working mom bartender (“The Bartender’s Elsewhere”), and how the only crop that grows now on his grandfather’s farm is condominiums (“Gold Rush”). While there’s a prevailing theme of misfits struggling to find their way, on “Rollin’ Blues,” a hot-pickin’ feast of a track, Smith portrays the wandering troubadour who champions his restless lifestyle.
“How do I love this record? Let me count the ways…”
— Aimsel L. Ponti, Portland Press Herald
Aimsel L. Ponti
Portland Press Herald
Portland acoustic-Americana-roots musician Putnam Smith celebrates the release of his second album, “Goldrush,” with a Friday-night show at One Longfellow Square.
Thirty-eight seconds into the opening track, “A Natural Disaster Is What We Need,” I was in like Flynn. With harmony vocals from Sorcha Cribben-Merrill, cello by Seth Yentes, five-string upright bass by Adam Frederick and guitar, banjo and vocals from Smith, the song is fantastic.
“Wish there was a hurricane, blow all our monies out into the bay/ Wish there was a cyclone, spin us ’round and ’round, leave us far from home/ And I could just be with you, and you could just be with me without all this world around,” sings Smith.
I could leave it at that, not even listen to the rest of the record, send you to this show and tell you to get this CD based on just this song. But I just refilled my mug with decaf and am settling in for the 11 remaining tracks.
Smith takes the first of several turns on the piano with “I Think It’s Almost Summertime.” “Postcard to Mum and Dad” tells the story of a young man who leaves home for the pursuit of music and self-discovery.
“New York, 0-2” is just Smith and his piano. My heart grew heavy as he sang about the imminent demise of a relationship and the clamoring for hope and solace that accompanies it.
Yentes’ intense cello opens “Wouldn’t Need This Whiskey,” soon to be joined by Smith’s banjo. “Carlos the Mechanic” is yet another jewel with Frederick’s upright bass and Smith on mandolin. “Goldrush” ends with “Rollin’ Blues,” an optimistic three-minute tune about a wandering soul.
How do I love this record? Let me count the ways — and while I’m doing that, why don’t you zip over to www.myspace.com/putnamsmith, where you can hear the unexpectedly poignant non-album track “Reese Witherspoon Is His Queen.”
“What is it that makes a record stand out? It’s hard to describe…. a feeling. Listening, your mind and heart get engaged. Maybe there are goosebumps, it just happens. Why? The words, the voice, the chord changes… maybe the drums come in just at the right moment. It’s magic and when it happens, it’s satisfying on many levels. That’s how I would describe Putnam Smith’s new cd, “Goldrush”. IT, all of IT, is there, just listen.”
— Sara Willis, Maine Public Radio
“It’s old-timey phrasing from an old-timey sort of guy, but he manages to keep his sound fresh like a new age of simplicity…”
— Sam Pfeifle, Portland Phoenix
“Fresh Sounding Old-Timer”
With a name right out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel and hand-pressed CD packaging graced with images of antique farming tools, Putnam Smith does nothing to dispel the notion that he wouldn’t mind living in 1809 instead of 2009. And while his sophomore release, Goldrush, explores plenty of contemporary themes, there is a pervasive feeling of displacement that weaves its way through the 12 finely crafted acoustic songs, a feeling that Smith always finds himself in places he doesn’t quite want to be.
He’s wishcasting from the open, really, with “A Natural Disaster Is What We Need.” Like a Traffic tune shaped with rambling banjo and a gripping cello, we hear him “wish there was a tidal wave, to carry all our things away … [so] … petty troubles would just fall on through/And I could be left with just you/And you could be left with just me.” It’s the same escapism that finds a son leaving his parents for Austin in “Postcard for Mum and Dad” and a protagonist stuck in the city and pining for a time when old farms didn’t get turned into “luxury estates” in the album’s title track.
He’s a modern-day back-to-the-lander, with commands to “love compost” and an offer in the liner notes to trade the album for “firewood, home-canned goods, artwork and man-made monies” (of course, you’ve likely already purchased the album if you’re reading the liner notes). His music can sound downright ancient at times, too, going even farther back than the roots stomping of the Avett Brothers and Hackensaw Boys to a more old-timey and dusty sound, with vocals sometimes breathed as if by Old Man Winter; in the opener and elsewhere Sorcha Cribben-Merrill is his backing-vocal Persephone.
But it’s when he opens up his voice into the higher register and instills more emotion where he really succeeds. The piano ballad “I Think It’s Almost Summertime” paints Smith as a more laconic, more intellectual, and geekier (if that’s possible) Ben Folds, modestly stripping down into swimming suits when “it was the perfect night for a skinny dip.” When the song ramps up in the second half with a half-rap and a hard-charging Seth Yentes cello you might be disappointed, even if it is good songwriting.
Fear not, though. With “New York, 0-2,” he gives us a delicate piano piece that he manages to escape without gussying up. In halting, concert-hall vocals, he’s “hoping what you said was true/But New York, I’m oh for two.” Again, he can’t quite find a place to be.
Maybe he just needs to let his hair down more often. “Wouldn’t Need this Whiskey” sees him get aggressive in his vocals and playing, gaining body and verve. It opens with just bowed bass from Adam Frederick (borrowed from Emilia Dahlin, who did Smith’s album artwork), super deep, and then a melancholy and spare banjo that picks up speed and starts to roll like bluegrass: “Oh, darling my dear/800 miles from my lips to your ears … Wouldn’t need this whiskey, were you here.”
It’s old-timey phrasing from an old-timey sort of guy, but he manages to keep his sound fresh like a new age of simplicity — a new age he’s desperate to find and call home.
“Putnam Smith… is a new artist for me. He was kind enough to submit his album Goldrush to Acoustic Pie for screening and I just fell in love with it. It makes me happy whenever I hear his voice come on the Pie. I’m glad to see that listeners feel the same way.”
— Acoustic Pie Blog (San Diego, CA)
“I listen to a lot of terrific CDs that are submitted to the Folk Show for the WPSU broadcast library, but Putnam Smith’s 2009 Goldrush really knocked me out!”
— Mel DeYoung, WPSU