Summit Right Brain: Breckenridge musician James Russick Smith wins Colorado competitions
Breckenridge musician James Russick Smith has already made a name for himself in the area for his work recording an album with other talented local songwriters. His desire to boost not only his own work, but also the rest of the creative community of Summit County —along with a background in audio engineering — has propelled him to be a resource for other aspiring musicians.
The cellist can frequently be spotted playing in the Blue River Plaza during the summers and also hosts a monthly songwriters’ circle in the Arts District, but the musician has lately been pushing the boundaries of Summit County.
Smith — who also plays a myriad of other instruments including keys, bass, dobro, concertina, percussion, banjo and mandolin — has been entering competitions around the state and finding a lot of success. Using his multi-instrumental talents, he just returned from winning the Live Looping category of a competition at the new Vertex Festival in Buena Vista, with the prize of a full set at next year’s event.
He and another local musician, Cody Wayne, won the Eagle County Country Showdown a couple weeks ago and advance to the state finals at Copper Mountain over Labor Day weekend. The competition at Copper gives them the chance to advance to regionals, then nationals, for a chance at a grand prize of $50,000.
When called for a booking, Smith has to ask where the organizer found him due to his ability to genre-hop. From classical music to country, folk, bluegrass and electronic, he pushes the boundaries of the typical cello player. He has even been known to rap with the cello.
After playing two sets for the Breckenridge International Festival of Arts’ Trail Mix series, he can be caught next on the Riverwalk Center stage playing with The Moth storytelling event on Thursday, Aug. 18.
Summit Daily News: Tell us about your work with local musicians around Summit County.
James Russick Smith: Last year, I produced an album under the name of Breckenridge Authentic Music Project, Breck AMP for short. That was called “This is What We’re Doing.” My goal with that project was to encourage a lot of the local musicians (whom) I had met who weren’t necessarily pushing themselves to get out there, but who’s songs merited having everyone listen to it. … Given my production background, I thought that’s what I could do. … That took up almost the entire summer. I’m really proud of what happened, and it’s good to just say, ‘Hey, Breckenridge is more than just a ski town — the people on that album are baristas, preschool teachers, cab drivers’ … it was important to me to help them get out there as much as possible.
Currently, I run a songwriters circle once a month in the Arts District. That goal is to provide an atmosphere of constructive feedback. … It gives them the opportunity to be around a bunch of other people and get feedback from other songwriters to help them hone their craft. If everyone is pushing each other up, we all get stronger as a community.
SDN: You have a background in recording, what kind of work did you do?
JRS: I went to school for audio engineering, and through that I ended up in the Woodstock area in New York, working at a bunch of different recording facilities. Most people are usually familiar with Levon Helm — I worked on some projects with him. One album, “Electric Dirt” got a Grammy for Americana. … We always had a rotating cast of characters of people who would record there. It was a recording studio and on the weekends we had live shows. …
I did get really burned out with that, which eventually I left recording and went out to sea and worked on traditionally rigged sailing vessels.
It’s weird because even here when I’m at work now, I hear songs that I helped record. … Sometimes it’s challenging because the radio throws a past life back at you.
SDN: Where could people have seen you play?
JRS: During the summer I play a lot in the (Blue River) Plaza, on Friday and Saturday nights. I’ve been doing that for four or five years. … I play out there frequently, it’s heartening. I love being out there because it’s a public interface. … When I’m busking I can talk to people. If kids come up and they’re interested, I’ll give them a bow, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, come on over and I’ll show you how to play the cello,’ because I remember when I was 9, and the first time I got to bow a cello. My 9-year-old mind was blown. So I still try to pass that on in the street. It’s so organic and nice to be out there and have that interface.
SDN: How did you first get into playing music?
JRS: When I was 9, at the elementary school I went to, they had an instrument petting zoo, in the cafeteria, where they set out all the instruments and the kids can come and do what kids do. The cello was big and there was nobody around it, and that’s why I went over to it. That is exclusively why I play cello now — it was big and there was no one around it.
SDN: Why advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
JRS: Enjoy it. … There are a lot of people in especially in classical music that burn out because of the practice schedule. When I was 14, I was done with cello. I picked up the electric bass because I was really into heavy metal, and that’s what I wanted to play, much to my mom’s dismay.
But it was because what I was playing was all with my head, everything I was playing was an academic interpretation, the soul wasn’t there. It took me a long time to come back to cello, and through electric bass, I learned — I studied under an instructor where I learned a bunch of jazz theory, a bunch of improvisation — and it took me going through all of that just learning an instrument on my own, and then the jazz stuff to finally go, ‘Hey, come back to the cello and just play what you want to play, play with your heart, and don’t burn out, just do what you want.’ Adults come up time and say I want to learn to play cello, or, I play something but I’m not very good at it — all that stuff comes from outside. Somebody saying, ‘Oh, people don’t perceive me as a good player,’ but frankly if you’re having fun, you could be making really horrible noises, but in the end, regardless of what the people surrounding you say, you should enjoy it. It starts there. Having that joy of playing in your heart, then through music you transmit that. … That’s what music is about, there should be that joy. … To sum it up would be, playing with joy. Play with your heart and play with joy.
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