The Garrett County Arts Council (GCAC) community is made up of multiple artists and art lovers from a wide range of backgrounds, talents, and accomplishments. This month we are excited to highlight one of Garrett County’s favorite singer/songwriters, Mr. Robert Levee Smith.
Rob has long been known as one half of the Smith & Roberts duo with friend and co-musician Keith Roberts. The two men formed Smith & Roberts in 1978 and put out an album in 1980 titled “Buffalo Run,” named for the valley where Rob lives. Since that time, the musicians have attracted a wide and dedicated fan base. Locally popular, Rob and his cohorts have made significant splashes outside the mountaintop community. In fact, Rob and Keith and their band were among the very select group of music groups who were invited to participate in the Virtual Inaugural Gala of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris, held online Jan. 19. Two videos were submitted for the event, created by Mark Stutzman of Eloqui Inc. in Mtn. Lake Park. They can be viewed online at https://vimeo.com/492918713 and https://vimeo.com/492315102.
This was just one achievement in the lifelong success in music for Robert Levee Smith, who has been a musician for 55 years.
“I started out singing in the church choir, which I loved, but the choir director kept giving me solos to sing — something that scared me to death,” Rob said. “But I learned to fight that stage fright and perform, and I think that was a critical development. I got my first guitar at age 12 at a time when folk music was big in America, so that’s what I cut my teeth on: The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger and all the hootenanny people. I learned to sing and play many of their songs not at home but with my neighbor kids, whose mom was a piano teacher and choir director in another church.”
Rob said his musical instincts apparently did not come from his parents, neither of which were particularly musically inclined. But they did appreciate the arts.
“I got my love of poetry from my father, and that’s where the song lyrics part came from,” he said.
When he was first starting out, Rob was part of a trio of young guys who bought used sound equipment, “large-sized, not living room stereo stuff,” he noted, and they put together a sound system that could handle a rock concert for big crowds.
“We toured with rock & roll bands for a couple years, and then the trio split up,” he said. “I ended up in New York where I met Artie Resnick (Under the Boardwalk, Good Lovin’). He liked two of my songs and published them. That’s where I got the idea I might make a living at songwriting.”
After a time, Rob said he couldn’t stay in New York City. He found a place in Garrett County in 1975 and has been here since. That first album – Smith & Roberts, Buffalo Run – sold several thousand copies and received airplay in the U.S. as well as other countries. “It was a modest success that kept us alive for a while,” Rob said.
Near the turn of the 21st century, Rob and Keith recruited musicians Dick Lansberry on bass, Fred Crozier on mandolin, and Alex Hicks on drums, and that group constituted the first official Buffalo Run Band. In 2005 they recorded the album “By Accident,” titled as such, Rob explained, because it was recorded in Accident, Md. It was released in CD format.
Rob also worked as woodworker, carpenter, and self-employed builder for many years, and then was hired as the county’s Chief Building Inspector. He served in that role for a decade. When not on the job, Rob continued in the art of songwriting and singing, generally performing at least one gig per week in clubs across the tri-state area.
“When I retired in 2014, I decided that I wasn’t dead yet so I might as well play some, and they had just opened a new place in Friendsville called Ken’s Irish Pub,” Rob said. “I did several solo gigs there playing new original stuff. One night Bob Shank, who played with us on our first album in 1980, walked in the door with a banjo and asked if he could sit in. Bob is a legendary, much-decorated banjo and hammered dulcimer player and an old friend, so of course he could sit in. Then Michael Hall showed up with his upright bass and he started sitting in. Hank Schwartz, who I had played with a lot anyhow, joined us, too. This was the core of Buffalo Run.”
“After gigging together for a while, we decided to record,” Smith said. Shank has a studio in Bruceton Mills where he lives in an old farmhouse. “I asked Keith, who had pretty much retired from playing, to join in for the recording, sing harmonies, and help out on the bass as Michael was really just starting to learn bass and we needed a bit more,” he said. After tinkering with a few different band names, Rob said they ended up going with the “tried and true” and remained as Buffalo Run. At Shank’s studio, the group recorded the next album, “Bemused in Bruceton.”
Rob said he is a “soldier fighting the War of Art.”
“It is always a battle trying to find time to write and practice, practice, practice,” he said.
Rob became a member of the Garrett County Arts Council some years ago “because that’s what you do if you’re an artist – you join your local arts council,” he said. In addition to his musical pursuits, Rob has acted in local theatre productions over the years and said he would like to do that again at some point.
He has considered putting some of his woodwork pieces in The Gallery Shop in Oakland but so far has not had time to get back into his woodshop. However, he does keep the Gallery stocked with Buffalo Run CDs.
In addition to providing display, vending, and marketing for his CDs, Rob said the GCAC gives him “a backstop a bit, a place to get some feedback.”
As for his advice to artists just starting out, Rob cautions that the “War of Art” is real. “The chances of actually producing anything original are pretty slim. Everyone you love will make it hard to write and practice, not out of meanness but because they need you to help out in the daily tasks that steal all your time away from your ‘worthless’ pursuit of art,” Rob said, interjecting his own brand of sarcasm. “All the venues where you perform will try to take advantage of you, not because they are mean but because they need to make a living off their venue. You will be asked to play benefits for political fundraisers and community emergencies or fundraisers to support this or that and even though they may make thousands off the event, you will get nothing but – ‘You will get great exposure!’”
“Nonetheless you must persist because you love what you do,” he said. “It is possible to compromise and still do ‘normal life’ – but you don’t get great exposure for that!”
Rob’s musical endeavors can be followed on Facebook at www.facebook.com/buffalorunboys/ and his CDs are available at The Gallery Shop, 108 S. Second Street, Oakland.
The Garrett County Arts Council is fortunate to include artists such as Rob Smith among its members. The organization works year-round to support, promote, and enhance artistic endeavors across the entire county. The GCAC is supported by the Maryland State Arts Council, the Garrett County government, and through individual memberships, which are just $25 annually. You, too, can join in the GCAC success and celebration by becoming a member today! Go to garrettarts.org to find out more.
By Mary McEwen of The Garrett County Arts Council