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SANFORD NC — If Erik Smallwood ever does hit the big time, he can credit his work ethic, passion for music and perhaps even the water in his hometown.
Smallwood, who now lives in Fayetteville, is a native of Muscle Shoals, the small northwestern Alabama town where legendary recording artists like Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and newer artists like Carrie Underwood recorded some of their biggest hits. It’s also the hometown of John Paul White of the Civil Wars and is the subject of a recent documentary, “Muscle Shoals,” which received rave reviews at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
Erik Smallwood will be among the 10 live performances throughout the day Saturday at the Sanford Arts & Vine Festival, which runs both Saturday and Sunday at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center. To learn more, visit sanfordartsandvine.com. To learn more about Erik Smallwood, visit his website at http://www.reverbnation.com/eriksmallwood
Smallwood took to music as early as the seventh grade, but it wasn’t until he reached his 20s when he learned about his hometown’s place in music history. He grew up listening to a lot of Christian bands like D.C. Talk and Switchfoot and played mostly Christian music in bands with his friends throughout his teens and early 20s. Now 30, Smallwood branched out into different sounds about seven years ago and developed what he calls today a “country and soul” sound; a sound that is both infectious and passionate, with “blues, pop and a little Muscle Shoals flavor.”
“Muscle Shoals is like country mixed with Motown. It’s a cool sound,” said Smallwood, who’ll be performing on Saturday at the Arts & Vine Festival in Sanford. “You’ve got the documentary coming out and John Paul’ success with the Civil Wars. But there’s also Alabama Shakes, who has a member from there, and up-and-coming groups like the Secret Sisters and Local Saints. The talent coming out of that town is phenomenal.”
Add Smallwood to the growing list. He won “Best Country Male” at the 2012 Carolina Music Awards, and was named “Entertainer of the Year” that same year by “Best of Fayetteville.” He has worked with or opened for several well-known artists, including Donna Jean of the Grateful Dead, Will McFarlane (guitarist for Bonnie Raitt, Etta James and Jackson Browne), Jason Isbell of the Drive-by Truckers and Shooter Jennings. His biggest gig was opening for Joe Diffie before about 10,000 fans at the 2013 Fayetteville Dogwood Festival.
This week, he signed a deal with a North Carolina-based music promoter to get two of his most recent recordings, “Sweeter” and “Come Home Soon” on regional country music stations. He has 19 shows scheduled for May, including Arts & Vine, where he’ll take the stage at 3 p.m. before traveling to nearby Hope Mills for a night show.
“We play full time,” said Smallwood, who plays most of his smaller acoustic sets with friend Neil Ray. “Three to five times a week, all over the state and the Southeast. But I’m not complaining … I get to do what I love.”
When he finds time, Smallwood is currently working on a new EP, which will include a revised version of “Sweeter” and other new songs. He left Alabama for Fayetteville in 2006 to take a music position at a church, but a tough economy nullified that position and left Smallwood at a crossroads. He stayed in Fayetteville because he met his wife there and made several close friends. His biggest music moments were born there, too, from playing before thousands at Dogwood to opening for and playing on stage with one of his heroes, Shooter Jennings.
“There are so many great moments to choose from,” Smallwood said. “I don’t know if any of them rank as the best, because I’m at home playing in front of 30 people who are into my music more than I am in front of 3,000 who might not care what’s going on. I’m just very humbled and blessed and honored that any of this is happening to me.”
REVIEW BY TOM GONZALEZ My review of the Erik Smallwood duo on 4/18 at the Jefferson Inn: First, let me say that I have tried posting this several times, over the last few days, to no avail. Facebook kept shutting down on me. Here I go again! In recent years, Erik and I have become long distance friends, and I have followed his progress through audio files and videos he posts on here. I have always been a fan of his original songs and his delivery. He writes “feel good” music. And he does it very well. At the risk of comparing him, I would say that Zac Brown is going to be feeling some pressure from this guy very soon. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this duo, as I had never attended a show. When I walked into the patio area, my ears were immediately given some candy with an explosive, crisp sound coming from a very high end sound system. Erik was on a stool with his trademark smile, his Martin, and his partner in harmony, Mr. Neil Donnel Ray. The stage was brightly lit, and the tone of the music was upfront and very personal. Erik was moving from song to song effortlessly, peppering in his own brand of humor and creating an atmosphere. From country to southern rock, to ‘70’s hits and soul, this young man has a catalogue to be admired. There are no tricks. No digital dependency here. Yet, you feel as if you just put on your favorite cd, fully mixed, with a system that you would die for in your own house. How is this possible? Let’s start with Neil. Aside from his presence as the coolest sideman I have ever seen, his main instrument is a board. Not a fancy board from some rainforest unknown to the western hemisphere. A good ole piece of American plywood. He fashions a box around the board, which doubles as a seat. His hands do all the work from there. From bass drum hits created by his palms to high pitched snare sounds from his knuckles, every beat is spot on and exactly where you wanna hear it. He delivers harmonies as well as lead vocals and adds a personality to the show. Erik makes Neil’s job a little easier by being inconceivably on time with every note. His guitar playing is flawless and every move is deliberate. He moves his picking hand around to find varying tones to accent the song as a whole. He eyes the audience to find response where other players may never notice. His voice is boisterous, incredibly pure and in my opinion, his audio recordings do not do him justice. You have got to hear him live to get the real deal. Overall, I could have stayed and watched these two guys until the cows came home. This is not rough talent. This is polished and finely tuned. You will enjoy this show regardless of your taste in music. (they even do some hip hop….wow). You will enjoy this show regardless of your age. And when you leave, you will feel good. Erik and Neil have that effect on everyone.
"Indie Musician Erik Smallwood, Sweeter EP Sounds So Sweet! by Heather Jacks, The Noise Beneath the Apple" Let’s hear it for the country boys of independent music; specifically for, Erik Smallwood. The second EP from Smallwood, simply (and appropriately) titled Sweeter, opens with a distinct southern feel that marks this, country through and through. In the five tune compilation, he takes you through the Tennessee hills and cries in your sweet tea, which in the world of country music is akin to a great adventure through a musical stratosphere. With impeccable delivery and his ability to present the feelings of the songs, Sweeter is sweet, polished and enjoyable from note to closing note. Hailing from Alabama, today Erik calls North Carolina home. His sound lands somewhere between the country stylings of Darius Rucker and Keith Urban. Perhaps it is Garth Brooks who can be credited with ushering in this modern breed of new country, when he landed on stage wearing a ten gallon hat and citing KISS as a main musical influence. The title track is a rollicking, boot stomping, feel good tune, that would successfully coax even the most timid wallflower into a grapevine. Find Me in Tennessee, is a soul searching number; a haunting duet with Jo Hazlerig ; and a standout track. Follow that with Come Home Soon, which is like a time warp to the classic country days of George Jones or Merle Haggard; it’s smooth and sexy, filled with longing and desire. Erik pulls it off stunningly. To say that Erik is solely a country artist would not be entirely correct. He is at heart, a storyteller of love, heartache, heartbreak, joys and sorrows—basically he tells stories about life, which we can all relate to. He is a very skilled songwriter, with poignant guitars and blindingly bright swatches of lyricism laced throughout. You could call it county, if that’s a fair way to describe music that leaves a boot print on your heart and your ears; you could call it rock or soul, for the same reasons. Ultimately, labels don’t really matter. At the end of the EP, Erik proves that the journey is nowhere near over; in fact it has only just begun.
BY KATHERINE SMITH
Special to The Pilot
Erik Smallwood’s music is like a young Southern suitor — the kind that wraps you up in its arms for a sway in a night-shrouded cornfield but still gets you home on time.
The brassy chords of his guitar chime with his hearty voice. His safe-and-sound lyrics from his debut album, “You, Love,” croon of honest country love, charmed from his March marriage to his wife, Hannah.
On Friday, June 22, at 9 p.m., and Thursday, July 5, at 8 p.m., Smallwood will be performing at the Jefferson Inn, 150 W. New Hampshire Ave., Southern Pines. Admission is free.
Smallwood’s mix of alternative country and soul was born in his Muscle Shoals, Ala., hometown, where at 13 he began collaborating with others to sing and write.
At the age of 15, he taught himself to play the guitar and drums, primarily for his church. At 18, he was admitted to the nine-month program at the Visible Music College in Memphis, where he studied music theory. He worked a few jobs and played in a small band. He joined the choir and was classically trained in vocals while feeling out the local community college.
Smallwood staccatos flawlessly through this history before saying, “I realized music was my life, and I grew up with a lot of great musicians, but I needed to break free from my hometown.”
With the tight-wire freedom and insecurity that comes from no longer being known as “that kid,” Smallwood moved away from complacency and looked for his niche.
He circled through Tennessee and Michigan before settling in Fayetteville.
Self-described as a “spur-of-the-moment person,” Smallwood says he was always scouting for personal information about people he met while on the road.
“I lived in Fayetteville for a couple of years and didn’t really get the response and emotional connection that I wanted,” he says. “Paddy Gibney owns a place there called Paddy’s Irish Pub. He’s a musician too, and he told me that he thought I was a great guy, but if you don’t love people like you love yourself, nothing will matter.”
Since then, Smallwood was named Fayetteville’s best local entertainer in 2012.
Smallwood believes that great entertainment is irrelevant and futile if one is not first a great person.
“I make mistakes and fall very far from the glory of God,” he says. “But I want to be ambassador of Christ and of love. That is the message of my music — to make sure people know that there is hope and they are not alone.”
The light of his music branches from his fulfillment from Christianity and sometimes the conflicts within religion.
“I’ve been a worship leader at a few churches, and it is a joy to lead people in worship because they are freedom songs and so uplifting,” he says. “And I want to represent a church well. But one that I was at accused me of having a drinking problem when I didn’t ever drink. I wrote two songs about that, because I was put in the position of relating to someone with the problem of drinking to forget. But that’s also when I felt I wanted to branch out to be more available.”
Smallwood says that the beatnik chill of Asheville and a weekend of writing in a mountain cabin coax from him the ideas that lead to music.
“I’m limited with my playing,” Smallwood says. “I’m not the best guitarist or vocalist. But I do what I love, because you put your all into something, and you’ll find people that will relate.”
He says he encourages the public to support local and independent music, because without the formula mainstream beat is a lacking formula mainstream audience.
For more information, visit www.eriksmallwood.com.