Popular-music trends come and go, and sometimes they hit a crossroads. That's where things stood in country music a dozen-or-so years ago. Mainstream country had devolved into such hackneyed pabulum that it was clear something would have to come along to change its direction. For one brief shining moment, most analysts were putting their money on a group of smart, pop-trained, folk-inspired singer/songwriters determined to buck the trends of the day. Incredible as it may seem now, when Garth Brooks first came along, he was often perceived as part of this revisionist wave, one that would make stars of such acts as Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Lyle Lovett and Darden Smith.
Of course, history didn't work out that way; instead, the industry mixed neotraditionalism with rock histrionics to achieve its biggest sales ever. Meanwhile, Smith, along with so many others, found himself making great records that fell further and further from the public's view. He acquired a following of hardcore fans but never achieved widespread acclaim. Smith hasn't released an album of new material in five years, but his old songs still stand as delightful blends of pop, rock, country and folk styles. Smith's melodies build on traditions and veer into hookish surprises. His lyrics tell stories, bend clichés, search for truth and question sincerity. He squeezes lots of words into short melodic lines, then stretches a few words into long ones. He creates songs that ring in the memory, improve with age and deserve to be much better known.