Gaston guitarist inspired by old country heroes

by: COURTESY FOREST GROVE FIRE & RESCUE - Singer-songwriter Josh Smith performed for the crowds at Forest Groves Fourth of July festivities earlier this year. This weekend hell take his brand of outlaw country to Ballad Town Billiards.A life of structure never felt natural for guitarist and singer-songwriter Josh Smith, 30, who served six solid years in the United States Army.

Today, with few provoking job prospects or a desire to do much else, Gaston-based Smith relishes the creative life as a full-time musician. Whether he can afford to feed himself or not, he spends his days listening to music he's never heard before, writing new material and playing live shows anywhere he can get a gig.

And this Friday Smith will be doing what he loves live on stage at Ballad Town Billiards in Forest Grove.

His music inspirits the raw and soulful sounds of outlaw country. His lyrics draw from real life — from his deployment overseas to off-hours spent absorbed in the Nashville music scene to comforts of civilian life, such as sitting at home watching the Discovery Channel with his brother (one particularly “badass little creature,” the honey badger, inspired his first album).

“There's no pretty little box,” said Smith when asked to define his music. He likes to keep it that way.

Though some of his songs reflect a depth that only a veteran could fathom, the singer-songwriter scoffs at corny lyrics and generic country songs that pump through Nashville and cycle over mainstream radio.

“Outlaw country speaks to me more,” said Smith. He says the likes of Johnny Cash, Travis Tripp and recent southern outlaw Texas boys Ryan Bingham and Hayes Carll, are influences.

by: COURTESY FOREST GROVE FIRE & RESCUE - Josh Smith played atop a fire engine at the Forest Grove Fourth of July event. You can hear his new record Honey Badger on iTunes.

To the Army, Nashville and back

If anything, Smith's adolescence was common. He got his first guitar in high school, worked odd jobs, joined a band, and listened to the Beatles and old country music. Voted most likely to barely graduate at Gaston High School, at 18 Smith got his first real job as a firefighter with Forest Grove Fire & Rescue.

Three years later, he quit the fire service and left the little house he managed to buy for his second real job in the U.S. Army.

Active from 2004 to 2009, Smith experienced many wild things. What first appeared to be the biggest mistake of his life turned out “mostly awesome” for the twenty-something soldier who had left his home state just a few times before his deployment.

There were, of course, days of intense training, discipline and, eventually, his deployment into a foreign war overseas. But there were also, the days off. Stationed for some time at Fort Campbell somewhere between southern Kentucky and northern Tennessee, Smith was just a forty-minute drive from Nashville, the country music capital of the world.

The Gaston boy fell in love with a nightlife saturated with live music, bars, free shows and some of the country's most talented musicians along with the best you've never heard, all singing a name for themselves on the city's main drag.

“I don't think it can help but leave an impression on you,”he said.

Smith said he met a number of musicians and played music as often as he could, usually with the chaplin from his unit. The two would sit together and play for people around a bonfire.

However, Smith soon recognized Nashville for what it was: a tough, competitive city with artists gnawing and clawing to get to the top. He saw musicians, in attempts to appeal to the masses, get sucked into mainstream rhythms and pop country culture.

The scene wasn't for him. “That's the place to be, but it's not necessarily the route I'm going,” he said. For Smith, “it's all about being original.”

A gut feeling

When Smith got out of the Army in 2009, he used the G.I. Bill to go back to college, but like previous (minimal) efforts to be a student, “it just never really felt natural.” So he dumped school, took a few more odd jobs then decided that if he was ever going to make a move into music, now was the time. “I just had a feeling inside,” he said.

Back at home and broke, Smith started writing. He found a local producer and put out his first album, “Honey Badger.”

In 11 songs, Honey Badger is a mix of light and dark emotion.

Like his outlaw predecessors, Smith likes to play intimate dive bar shows as much as he likes to rock out for large crowds. Smith recently performed in front of thousands at Forest Grove’s Fourth of July festival, but he’s just as excited for lower-key shows like the one this week.

“After it's all over, I feel like its more fulfilling than any job I’ve ever had,” said Smith.

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