Open and empty. That’s how Darden Smith describes the west Texas landscape that inspired his wildly creative new multi-media project, Western Skies.
“The horizon line has always been this grounding thing for me,” Smith explains. “There’s something reassuring about the desert, about all that open, empty space. It’s a place to put your brain.”
Comprising a new studio record, a book of photography, lyrics, and essays, and an accompanying album of readings set to music, Western Skies is an immersive journey through a world both real and imagined, a place of mystery and mythology, possibility and longing. Like his photographs, Smith’s writing is steeped in isolation, though rarely lonely; timeless, yet acutely aware of the hours and minutes whizzing by like mileposts on the highway. The songs on Western Skies are spare and deliberate, often marked by a distinct sense of motion and transience, and the performances are similarly raw and intimate, reflecting the desolate beauty of the region that so captured Smith’s imagination as he crisscrossed it time and again throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think about the great contrasts here,” Smith writes in the book’s opening essay. “Ghosts, heroes, love and danger are ever present.” For Smith, the West is a weird and wonderful place where history and fantasy walk hand in hand, where the living and the dead meet beneath a sea of stars and whisper their secrets in the rumble of a distant freight train. More than that, though, the West serves as a blank canvas upon which he can explore the endless horizons of his own mind, a vacant section of map in which he can forge beyond the familiar and cast his lot with the long line of American pioneers who came before him, embracing adventure and following the setting sun in search of new frontiers.
“I wasn’t interested in making just another album,” says Smith. “I was interested in pushing myself to places I’ve never been before. I was interested in getting way out past my comfort zone.”
That’s no easy feat given just how much acreage Smith’s comfort zone encompasses. Over the course of his remarkable three-and-a-half decade career, the Austin-based artist has released 15 critically lauded studio albums, landed singles on both the country and pop charts (including the Top 10 hit “Loving Arms”), penned a symphony, scored works for theater and dance, published a widely celebrated book on creativity, exhibited works of visual art, and co-founded the non-profit SongwritingWith:Soldiers program, which pairs veterans with musicians in order to tap into the transformational possibilities of collaborative songwriting. (During the pandemic, he also helped launch Frontline Songs, which connected musicians with healthcare workers to aid them in telling their stories and healing their trauma.) The Daily News hailed Smith as “one of the most respected American musicians working today,” while the Austin Chronicle dubbed him a “master song craftsman,” and AllMusic called him “a singer-songwriter blessed with an uncommon degree of intelligence, depth, and compassion.”
Despite the steady stream of acclaim, though, Smith wasn’t quite sure he needed to make another album after 2017’s Everything.
“I thought that that might be my last record,” he confesses. “I felt like 15 albums was maybe enough and that would be that. But then I started going on these drives.”
It was those drives—a series of solo odysseys from Austin to southern Arizona and back—that would spark the entire Western Skies project. Born out of necessity, the trips began in early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic made air travel a risky proposition and Smith needed to get himself across nearly 1,000 miles of flatlands and desert for writing projects with veterans. Smith found he was able to make the journey in two days with an overnight stop in Marfa, but his fascination with the landscape soon led him to lengthen his return trips to three, sometimes four days at a time. He discovered an old Polaroid camera in his garage and began documenting the drives with photographs, capturing eerily deserted scenes from an already lonely stretch of the country made even lonelier by lockdowns and quarantine. Soon he was writing behind the wheel, dictating spoken word pieces as he cruised the open, empty highways and watched America unfold around him.
“I haven’t been able to write like that in 30 years,” Smith reflects. “I was just talking into my phone and letting it all pour out freeform.”
After roughly a half-dozen of these trips, Smith booked himself three days at the legendary Sonic Ranch studio outside of El Paso, where he cut 25 songs by himself with just a guitar and a piano. What he would ultimately do with those tunes was anyone’s guess, but Smith felt compelled to go ahead and capture them nonetheless.
“My second night there, I was standing outside the studio watching the sun go down and something strange happened,” he recalls. “Suddenly I knew what this thing I was working on was. It was a book. And an album. And the book would have the album in it along with all these Polaroids and essays I was collecting, and it would be called Western Skies.”
From that revelation, Smith began to view his subsequent trips in a different light, no longer considering the photography and the writing to be separate endeavors but rather two sides of the same coin.
“I started to work a lot more intentionally from that point on,” he reflects. “I let the essays and the photos and the songs out of their different silos and allowed them to all interact and inform each other and shape where I was headed.”
With a clear vision of Western Skies now burning in his brain, Smith assembled an all-star band—guitarist Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello), drummer Ramy Antoun (Seal, Pat Benatar), bassist Glen Fukunaga (Robert Plant, Shawn Colvin), and pedal steel guitarist Ricky Ray Jackson (Steve Earle, Phosphorescent)—to help flesh out his solo recordings, capturing the rest of the music back in Austin in a matter of days with the help of co-producers Michael Ramos and Stewart Lerman. With the basic tracking completed, Smith then dubbed much of his own harmonies along with help from acclaimed songwriter James House (“Ain’t That Lonely Yet,” “This Is Me Missing You”), who contributed additional vocals from Nashville.
“I showed everybody my photos and explained the vibe to them and they just got it immediately,” says Smith. “I kept telling them ‘Open and empty, open and empty.’”
That spacious sound, at times reminiscent of Neil Young or JJ Cale, permeates the record, which finds Smith playing more piano than ever before. Album opener “Miles Between” sets the stage, with a driving rhythm and airy arrangement that evokes the endless expanse of desert scrub brush and tumbleweeds rushing by through an open car window. Like much of the album and accompanying essays, the song is a meditation on mortality and time and distance, a reflection on the open emptiness we all carry inside and the ways we learn to live with it. The bittersweet “Running Out Of Time” searches for gratitude in the midst of loss and pain, while the simmering “Not Tomorrow Yet” works to be present in the face of doubt and anxiety, and the tender “Los Angeles” (which features a performance from longtime Willie Nelson harmonica player Mickey Raphael) contemplates the power of memory and the pieces of the past we carry with us into the future.
“It’s not a pandemic record,” says Smith, “but there are certainly a lot of things on this album that I found myself thinking about quite a bit because of the times. The world shifted in such a profound way, and it was fascinating to be in motion through that and to take notice of what I was seeing all around me.”
Smith’s photographs document the moment through his eyes: stark, black and white, devoid of people, often with the straight line of the horizon looming somewhere in the distance. His essays, meanwhile, tap into something deeper about the American experience and our relationship with the West, locating “narrative gems hidden in plain sight,” as Rodney Crowell puts it in the book’s foreword. Written with rhythm and melody and line breaks that feel more like poetry than prose, the pieces can at times evoke Steinbeck or McCarthy, recognizing our smallness in the face of the geography and geology and mythology of a land that will go on existing long after humanity’s reign has ceased. “All of this used to be underwater,” Smith writes in an essay titled “The Ocean Under The Desert.” “Standing on a rise looking down on the valley of the Pecos / A great loneliness comes / Calling from horseback riders, / Pursuers and pursued / At home in the place of no home, / Where stars on their mystic roll / Through and above cloud and moon / Night after night, day upon day, / Flower to prairie fire, / Ocean tide to fragile streambed / Know there is nothing permanent, / And that one day all of this— / Every shell, shadow and road— / Will again be submerged.”
Rather than render our existence meaningless, though, this impermanence is precisely what makes life so beautiful, so fragile, so impossibly precious. The gentle “Hummingbird” finds magic in the kinds of questions that can never truly be answered, while the jazz-tinged “I Can’t Explain” locates heaven somewhere beyond language, and the lilting title track meditates on the power of love to transcend time and space. Certainly, tracks like the somber “Perfect For A Little While” and hypnotic “I Don’t Want To Dream Anymore” are full of sadness and ache, but even that sadness and ache are impermanent, passing overhead like the towering clouds that so frequently dominate the sky in Smith’s photographs.
“I’m almost 60 now,” Smith reflects, “and I don’t think about time the way I used to. I’m more acutely aware of the way it moves and the way I move through it, which makes it hold a greater value for me than ever before.”
Ultimately, that’s what Western Skies is all about. Sure, our existence is fleeting, a mere blink of an eye in the cosmic scheme of things, but why blink when there’s such immense and infinite beauty to behold? It’s all out there, ours for the taking, stretched out from one horizon to the next beneath the endless Western Skies.