Albert Smith’s music has a smile in it. No matter the subject, the South Carolina pianist’s rattly, rollicking keyboard accompaniment creases a listeners’ face with happy lines as Smith tosses off raucous jelly-roll licks fit for curing any malady.
Another obscure discovery from Tim and Denise Duffy’s Music Maker Foundation Listener’s Circle Series, the tracks on Big Belly Mama were culled from field recordings Tim Duffy did in the 1990s while visiting Smith’s hometown of Rembert, South Carolina, about 40 miles from Columbia. The pianist was rather reclusive, refusing multiple offers by Music Maker to tour, preferring to stay near his hometown. He gave piano lessons and made money playing in church as well.
Smith sounded just as happy singing about churchy stuff as he did extolling the virtues of a big leg woman. “Roll Is Gonna Be Called” is a snippet of an old hymn, “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” from the late 1800s. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn have all taken a swipe at it, but nobody bounces it off the stained glass windows like Smith.
He even manages to give Louisiana Governor Jimmy Davis’ “You Are My Sunshine” a gospel overcoat, belting it out like a tent revival preacher searching for souls to harvest.
Even the old blues chestnut “Gimme Back My Wig” sounds more like a hymn than Hound Dog Taylor’s glorious, furious, fuzzy, rattly take on the sassy snatch-it-back anthem adapted from the Lightnin’ Hopkins original.
But Smith is at his best with the bawdy barrelhouse stuff like the title cut, bubbling with glee as he extols the benefits of having both a big and little leg mama to satisfy his soulful (and earthly) needs. “Hey hey mama, take you big leg offa me,” Smith demands of his larger loved one. “Can’t have fun with your big leg holding me down.”
“Monkey Man” is not the Toots Hibbert swipe at an ugly romantic rival, but a protest of his beastly treatment at the hands of a lover who dogs his existence.
Big Belly Mama is a rowdy, jelly-roll piano narrative that fills the belly and pumps up the lower extremities for a lively strut through a barrelhouse of fun.