Q&A with Debi Smith of the Smith Sisters

Q&A with Debi Smith of the Smith Sisters

By Jennifer Powell (Photo/John Kirchner)

Make no mistake. The sister act of Debi and Megan Smith — The Smith Sisters — harmonize like angels. Their collective voices have made Garrison Keillor of Prairie Home Companion fame “weep” at their ethereal beauty.

The sisters began to perform together after college — their ad at the time was “Ordinary name, extraordinary sisters” — on the college circuit when their first encounter with another sibling duo, Doc and Mearle Watson, led them to a quick demo tape and recording contract.

Fast forward 20 critically acclaimed albums and you’ve got Debi Smith, prolific songwriter and a master of many musical instruments. In addition to an octave-spanning vocal range, Debi is equally skilled at acoustic guitar, bodhran and piano.

The sisters toured together until 1990. Debi had a son and Megan did something else entirely — “She switched careers totally. She became involved in renewable energy,” Debi said.

After taking a little time off to raise her son Lee Jaworek, Debi realized that she “just didn’t want to stop. So I kept going and joined the Babes and did some solo stuff. Periodically Megan and I would do a show. This show is going to be really fun as our last CD together featured Al Petteway, who is an incredible Grammy award winning guitarist, and we are going to reunite with him [for this tour].”

A member of the talented Four B—-in’ Babes since 1994, Debi spoke with us the sister’s upcoming tour, kicking off at the Birchmere on September 22.

Alexandria Times: I’m not surprised that you are kicking off the tour at The Birchmere.

Debi Smith: Actually, my sister and I don’t really tour any more, so that is what makes this is a really special engagement. She is doing many other things right now, and I mainly tour with the Babes. I’ve been saying to her that we need to do a reunion tour.

When we first starting touring fresh out of college, we wound up meeting the Watsons’ manager, Craig Watkinson, who [then] had us opening for Doc and Merle. We really hit it off with them because we had that whole family connection. It’s just something that is very different [touring with family] than touring with a band.

Did Lee accompany you on those early tours?

Yes, he did. When he was young, my parents went along with us and called themselves the “world’s oldest roadies” and helped us out a lot on the road. We bought an RV to tour the U.S. with him. My dad would keep the RV running and my mom would take care of Lee in between sets.

Was your whole family a musical family?

No they were not a musical family, but I always sang. My earliest recollection was in a young choir. I could get my voice up to reach such high notes with the piano.

My choir directors seemed pretty dazzled by that, which made an impression on me. I stayed in choirs until high school, when I got into a folk group. When in college I joined a folk trio and taught myself the guitar. When I broke up with my college boyfriend, I decided to go whole hog into music. I eventually discovered that I could write songs as well.

Megan is five years younger than me and one time after coming home from a show, I heard her sing and play guitar downstairs. I realized, “Hey she can sing,” and that is when we started singing together.

What can we expect at the upcoming show with Megan?

Megan and I do a show that people will come out of feel- ing good. Upbeat dialogue and we have fun so people who come to the show do too.

We focus on lot on harmonies. People can’t generally tell who is singing what part. We weave in and out. Al Petteway will do some wonderful third-part harmonies and play guitar.

Will the Badhran make an appearance?

I used to be in an all woman Irish band called the Hags, where I learned to play the instrument. It’s a great to sing to and write songs for and I will definitely be playing it.

Lee will be exhibiting at this one local show?

We are only doing this [combination music performance and art exhibit] at the Birchmere because Lee is in this area. All three of us are artists, so it will be an all-family exhibit.

Lee has autism and is very talented. He has an amazing grasp of color and is really interesting to watch paint. He knows exactly what he is doing — there is no pondering. His college professor would comment on Lee’s marvelous grasp of color and he purchased one, the greatest compliment. Lee calls his art Artism.

Since you are representing all three artists today, what is a favorite memory of your sister and son?

Megan is so funny and a prankster that leaves little things in the house in a funny position, or mischieveous notes that you would find.

My favorite thing about Lee is that he is so unaware of other people’s judgments. He’s so just himself, not concerned about what others think.

Part of autism is that you really don’t have that sort of thing built-in, which I suppose is a plus and a minus. It’s almost like an unspoiled human spirit. It’s the way he looks at things. Everything is in its raw state. It’s not been touched through his eyes. I enjoy seeing things that way because of him.