HOUGHTON - How does a guy from Hancock land a record deal in Nashville with a producer who's worked with the likes of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Waylon Jennings? In one word - connections.
For singer-songwriter Paul Smith, it was his connection with a student who came to him for guitar lessons that landed his demo work in the hands of Nashville record producer 'Cowboy' Jack Clement.
"Nels came here as a student years ago. We started playing music and hanging out and at one point he started writing music," Paul said. "He paid me to make demos for him and he liked them so much, he brought them down to Jack in Nashville."
And so the ball began to roll.
Jack's studio hired a Nashville band and a singer was selected from Tootsies on Broadway. In the middle of the first recording session, the engineers and Jack himself decided to bring in the original voice from the demos.
"Jack and I ended up talking," Paul said. "He said, 'I'd like to make an album with you. I like your style.'"
That's when Paul flew to Nashville, where he met the famous record producer/songwriter in person.
"I became friends with Jack," he said. "I stayed at his house for weeks on end working on material."
Although Paul has been on other recordings and published before, Boundary Road, "Me n' Paul" is his first completed album.
The album, produced by Jack and Nels, features 14 tracks, the last of which is performed by Jack. Two of the songs on the album, "Pearl" and "Wish I Had Forever" were written by Paul.
"'Wish I Had Forever' is my favorite because it's a marriage of old and new," he said. "It has an edge of new country. It's sincere and it has excellent instrumentation."
Paul said Jack commented on the song, saying if he were to release one single, that song would be it.
"I agreed with him," Paul said. "There's a lot of great songs on it. It just goes all over the place."
Paul describes his music as being a mix between old and new country, with a tinge of southern rock.
During the final recording sessions for the album, Paul said Jack recommend he play his guitar and sing at the same time.
"I said 'OK' and asked if I could stay at his place to have access to the studio to prepare for these particular recordings," he said. "So I practiced and practiced and practiced for those sessions."
The following day, Paul returned to the studio to find Jack holding up a copy of the CD in his hand.
"He asked, 'Have you heard this thing?'" he said. "'Now this is how you record an album, Paul.'"
Paul said all in all, the recording process took about one year.
"It was a long process with a lot of moments going, 'Man do I stink,'" he said with a light chuckle. "But you look back at it and you say you shouldn't really ever be afraid to be the weakest link in the chain because then you wouldn't grow."
One of many fond memories Paul recalls of Jack was attending the premier of his documentary "Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan" in Nashville. Also in attendance were music artists John Prine, Marty Stuart and Hal Ketchum.
"We were sitting in this reserved section together and the theater was just packed with people," Paul said. "At the end of the show, they had a question and answer thing with Jack. One of the reporters asked him, 'Well, what are you doing now Jack, you're 74 years old?' He said, 'I'm producing Paul Smith from Michigan."
At that moment, Jack asked Paul to stand up in the audience and the entire crowd clapped. After the show, he said people were approaching him, asking what it was like to work with Jack.
"Later that night we were sitting at his house and I asked Jack, 'What did that mean?'" Paul asked. "He said, 'I'll tell you what it means. It means don't quit your day job. I think you're damn good, just don't get too excited.'"
Catch Paul and his band performing this summer at the Houghton County Fair, Saturday, Aug. 29 at 7:30 p.m. Paul will also be performing at the E.B. Holman country show Nov. 7, along with featured guest, Jack Clement.
In August or September, he plans on heading back to Nashville for a radio program with Jack. They will also be collaborating on new material. Following Nashville, Paul said he's heading to Traverse City for additional promotional work.
"I'd love to earn a slot there next to the records you see on Jack's Web site," he said. "I'd love to see 'Boundary Road' next to Waylon Jenning's 'Dreaming My Dreams,' or U2's 'Rattle and Hum.' That's my ultimate dream."
Boundary Road, "Me n' Paul" can be purchased at Good Times Music in downtown Houghton or online at boundaryroad.net. For more information, visit mynorth.com, boundaryroad.net or cowboyjackclement.com. To purchase Jack Clement's documentary, visit Amazon.com.
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