Forrest Smith with a "cigar-box" guitar
Under a sparsely clouded Arizona sky on a late November afternoon, I drove to Peoria on the northeastern side of Phoenix. The day was nearly perfect with temperatures in the seventies, unlike the scorching temperatures of my last Phoenix visit in July. On my CD player I was listening to the Anthology album by singer/songwriter Forrest Smith. In fact, I was on my way to interview Forrest who has lived in the Phoenix area for the past thirty years or so.
I became a fan of Forrest Smith's music about forty years ago when I first heard him back in East Tennessee where he had grown up and started his music career. He played in a number of rock and roll bands in those early days, but also began to gain a reputation as a solo performer. Forrest has a smooth, mellow singing style as he sings romantic ballads and folkstyle tunes accompanying himself on guitar. But he can also let loose on some good old rock'n'roll or sing heartfelt gritty blues when the occasion calls for it.
Around 1980 Forrest moved back to Phoenix, AZ where he was born. The move was a difficult one having to leave long time friends, an established music reputation, and the beautiful mountain scenery of East Tennessee. But Forrest was looking for a change of scene and also to be close to his mother and brothers, who had already made the move to Arizona.
He needed to play music and soon started making contacts in the local Phoenix music scene. Before long he had once again established a reputation and began working on a steady basis throughout the Phoenix area. Here also he began recording his first cassettes and then later CD's. Besides his solo work, he has also served as the frontman for bands that have played pop/rock styles, blues, and even cajun. He has been involved in a wide range of musical styles and has always excelled in them all.
When I arrived at Forrest Smith's home in Peoria, AZ I was cordially greeted by Forrest and his delightful wife Aurora. As I was invited inside, Aurora made sure that I knew that we would be having dinner later. She was fixing Mexican food and certainly not one to turn down a meal I of course agreed that I would definitely be staying. Forrest then led the way to the back patio which overlooked an expansive back yard.
His music room opens onto the patio. There he showed me some of his vast music collection and various clippings, photos, and mementos about himself and the artists that he admires. As I looked at some of his earlier pictures from back in his Tennessee days I asked him how he first got involved in music.
"I first got involved in music singing in church when I was just starting high school. Back then in East Tennessee just about everyone went to church and it was there that I first met some of the local musicians who played rock'n'roll," he said. Forrest has an soft-spoken easy way with conversation that comes across as congenial and sincere.
He shows me some photographs of some of the early bands he played in. It was the late 60s and they were emulating the San Francisco and L.A. hippie band scene that was popular at the time. "My biggest influences at that time were Crosby, Stills, and Nash; Bob Dylan; and Neil Young. Later in the 70s the Allman Brothers band really influenced me. All of these artists, as well as many others, influenced my singing, playing, and songwriting styles."
"How do you feel about the music today?" I asked.
"Half the modern music I like and the other half I ignore," he replied. This struck me as ironic since to me he comes across as a walking musical encyclopedia. He can cite current musical facts and trivia as well as those of past eras. Forrest could engage a person for hours with his musical knowledge. Then he adds, "In my opinion the best years for rock were from 1955 to 1975. For jazz and blues it would be 1924 to 1969."
I asked Forrest if he would mind playing something for me. He gladly complied by playing a heart-wrenching version of "4 and 20" by Stephen Stills. It almost brought tears to my eyes. Then I requested one his original tunes and he expressively performed one of my favorites, "Asleep With My Mind's Eye Open". Forrest told me that he doesn't play his original tunes that much any more because audiences want to hear the songs they know. That's too bad because to me the songs that Forrest wrote are my favorites.
He also mentioned that he hoped to be releasing another new recording soon. I tell him he should run some new pressings of his older material so it can be made available to the public. Of course it's all a matter of financing. Not being on a label, Forrest has to pay all recording expenses and it's not cheap. It would be nice if he could find someone to finance his venture and help him get wider distribution because there is a lot of real fine music that is not being heard by lot of people.
Later we are strolling in Forrest's park-like backyard. Forrest has a delighfully quirky sense of humor. Animal figures and various idiosyncratic constructions are interspersed amongst the trees and plants.
I asked him about some of his philosophies and preferences about music.
"Beyond the financial rewards of performing I always enjoy seeing someone watching my performance and sharing a smile or just seeing anyone paying close attention to the performance. I'm an entertainer and people want to escape and I'm just happy to help them do just that."
"Which is your favorite style of music to play?" I asked.
"The Blues," Forrest immediately replied, "The Blues keeps my feet on the ground and my heart and soul filled with good vibes. And it's a crowd pleaser. People want to have a good time and that's the music that seems to strike a chord with them. "
"What's your greatest musical asset?" I asked.
"My voice," he replies, "then my guitar playing and songwriting."
"When you write a song, what comes first—music or lyrics?"
"Words usually, because I mainly see myself as a singer so the words and message are real important. But a few times it's music--I hear a melody in my head or start playing something on my guitar and then start adding words to it."
By now it's time for dinner. A soft-toned sunset painted the Arizona sky as dusk settled in from the east. A cool breeze brushed past as I asked, "What has been the most difficult part of your musical journey and where to next?"
"Working too much and not spending enough time with family and friends," Forrest reflected. "In the future I see new opportunities with my band and solo work in the 21st Century with my 20th Century music."
Aurora serves us an outstanding meal of homemade tacos, tamales, and enchiladas with chips and some dynamite salsa that she made right there in her own kitchen. The meal is another blog article in itself. We finish off my visit with good food, good company, and good conversation.
As I drive back to where I'm staying, I once again put on the Anthology CD and listen to Forrest's music. I recall that I have every cassette tape and CD that Forrest has released over the past 20 or so years. I start to wonder if he doesn't rerelease this music if someday my cassettes and CDs will become collector's items. I'm hoping that they will be available again soon so people can hear Forrest's music like it deserves to be heard. If you are interested in hearing some of his music and perhaps contacting him to see if he has a few stray copies of past recordings still available, you can reach him through his website, http://www.musicbyforrest.com/ .