A little bit country

Up and coming singer/songwriter Mindy Smith will play more than just country at the Big Room

MINDY’S WORLD Nashville-via-Long Island sensation Mindy Smith is floating in the netherworld of “next big thing.” Check her out at Sierra Nevada’s Big Room and see if she sinks or swims.

MINDY’S WORLD Nashville-via-Long Island sensation Mindy Smith is floating in the netherworld of “next big thing.” Check her out at Sierra Nevada’s Big Room and see if she sinks or swims.

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

Preview: Mindy Smith Sierra Nevada Big Room Tues., July 6, 6:30 p.m.

Like many before her, singer/songwriter Mindy Smith is being sold as being “on the verge of becoming a country music superstar.” But since she comes with a hearty endorsement by country icon Dolly Parton, who has said, “I believe she will leave her mark as one of our greatest writers and singers ever,” maybe the manufactured buzz will prove justified.

Even though the Long Island, N.Y., native has moved to the home of the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, Tenn., don’t pigeonhole Smith by calling her “country.”

“I’m trying not to be pigeonholed,” she insists by phone from Boise, Idaho, where she is gearing up for her performance that night at The Big Easy.

“Just because I’m a girl with a guitar, I don’t want to be typecast as a country singer,” Smith explains. Not that there’s anything wrong with being called country. Smith just knows that her sound is more eclectic. She points out that her musical influences range from Americana princess Gillian Welch and bluegrassy Alison Krauss to jazz vocalists Nina Simone and Sarah Vaughn to UK pop bands The Sundays and The Cure. And, of course, she adores Dolly. “You know, I don’t want someone buying my album thinking it’s country, and then they take it home and listen to it and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t country music!'”

Smith certainly is on the verge of becoming very well-known and well-liked. Her debut CD, One Moment More, just came out on Vanguard Records in January, but before that even happened, Smith had already appeared on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien and on the Lifetime Network’s Women Rock special; had a video in top rotation on CMT; was featured in Rolling Stone magazine and in USA Today’s “On the Verge,” and was interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition.

She also had the lead-off single, “Jolene,” on the recent Dolly Parton tribute album, Just Because I’m a Woman, which also featured such big names as Norah Jones, Sinead O’Connor, Melissa Etheridge and Alison Krauss. Parton has said that Smith’s version of “Jolene” is her favorite.

Smith’s voice is pure and angelic, with the tiniest hint of an edge to it at just the right time. Her “Come to Jesus” ("Oh my baby/ When you’re crying/ Never hide your face from me…") is a beautiful semi-rocker, featuring Smith’s comforting voice complete with endearing yodel, and the fine electric guitar work of her band mate Lex Price.

There’s also “Falling,” the touching tribute to the fears and bliss of falling in love: “It seems like out of nowhere/ I’m coming apart/ and nothing could have saved me/ You went straight for my heart…”

“When I write, it’s kind of honest to a fault,” Smith tells me, “and I think people can relate to it.” On her website (www.mindysmith.net), Smith gives some of the credit for her emotional honesty to her late adoptive mother, Sharron Patricia McMahon Smith, a church singer who “had the most beautiful voice I ever heard,” and who died of cancer when the now-32-year-old Mindy was 19. “If I learned anything from her,” she writes about her mother, “it’s to put all of your emotion into your performance. That’s what music is for, I think…”

Smith rattles off a string of names to me of distinctive-sounding, independent-minded female musical artists whom she admires: “Shawn Colvin, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch, Nanci Griffith… Emmylou [Harris]: I’d like to have her longevity [in the business]…” She reflects on where she finds herself in her career, at a juncture between 10 years of working in relative obscurity and being on the edge of breaking into huge national and international popularity. “People are warming up to it,” she says of her music, gratitude in her voice, and contrasts what she does to the formulaic, slickly packaged pop of the likes of Britney Spears. “The vast majority of people are not 16 years old,” she adds, making sense of why she has a growing following looking for something more adult and real to sink their teeth into.

“I’m not trying to fit in; I’m not trying not to fit in … I just want to be a singer-songwriter doing my thing my way."