Mindy Smith – On the inside
When I suggest that this might not make for such a limited compass for a songwriter — indeed, that it might lend Smith’s work more focus — she says, “You think so?”
“I hope so,” she says after I nod my head by way of affirmation. “It’s working out so far.
“I’ve been really blessed in people’s reaction to me,” she goes on. “People who maybe need to have a voice or something. People who say, ‘That’s what I’ve been trying to say but I didn’t have any idea how to put it into words.'”
Smith cites Buddy Miller’s Universal United House Of Prayer as a recent, and singularly prophetic, case of an album conveying a crucial spiritual message and doing so outside of a narrowly religious format.
“That was an amazing record, but it wasn’t your typical gospel record,” Smith says. “And I love gospel music. I love me some good old Bill Gaither Trio, I’m not going to say that I don’t. But that’s not really what I’ve been put here to do. I think the way that I approach my spirituality or songwriting is more of a discussion than a case of, ‘You must believe the way I believe.’
Smith freely invokes the vernacular of evangelical Christianity in conversation. She talks about being one of God’s creatures and about being put on earth for a specific purpose. She alludes to God working directly in people’s lives and to having her prayers answered (or just as often, not). When our conversation turns to where God might be amid all the suffering in the world, she says, “I think He’s ready to go. I think He’s ready to work with us if we just ask and let him. I don’t know, but that’s what I’ve been taught.”
Smith might be comfortable with conventional Christian parlance, including the use of a male pronoun to describe God, but it’s the tensions between such received notions and the more searching undercurrents in her lyrics that lend her music ballast. It’s this relentless struggle, never taken for granted, that gives Smith’s work such moral authority.
Nothing comes easily in her songs, not even coming to Jesus — that is, if the minor key in which she sings of doing so is any indication. This conflict is at the heart of the gospel according to Mindy Smith, where God’s absence is felt along with God’s presence.
“I’m definitely not dogmatic,” she says. “I have my ideas and try to apply them to my life. I think you do better by setting an example.
“I’m not always a good example,” she hastens to add, lowering her voice to a whisper and stifling a giggle. “I think it’s better to leave it as an open discussion than to point your finger or stand on a soapbox.”
Smith grew up a preacher’s kid, or “PK,” on Long Island and only moved to Nashville in the last decade. Her father, a non-denominational Protestant minister who still pastors a church in New York, is a proponent of tolerance. But that wasn’t what Smith, who is adopted, encountered after graduating from high school, when her search took her to an ultraconservative seminary just outside Memphis.
“It wasn’t healthy,” she says, not volunteering the name of the institution. “I didn’t agree with their doctrine of God at all, and that caused problems. And they didn’t agree with me and made it very clear.
“I think God is less shallow than we sometimes give Him credit for. I think He’s a little more open to the fact that we’re a little screwed up. I mean, He made us all, so, you know, he already knows.”
A better fit was Cincinnati Bible College, the seminary Smith later attended for a couple of years. It was shortly after the death of her mother, who directed the choir at Smith’s father’s church and seems to have had the greatest impact on Mindy’s spiritual and musical development.
“I went mostly just to recover from my mother’s death,” Smith says of the school in Ohio. “I grew up in the church, but I wasn’t necessarily going to become, you know, somebody profoundly church-driven. I’ve never been that person. I’ve never been into missions.
“I had no intention of going back to seminary school after the bad experience I had in Memphis. But there were people that I knew in Cincinnati, some students I’d grown up with that had known my mother. I found great comfort in that. I had to get out of New York and get away from the ghost of missing her, and try to figure out how to pick up the pieces.”
Smith confronts this ghost on her new album’s title track, where, longing for home, she anticipates a different sort of family reunion. “There my mother Sharron lies deep in the earth of the Long Island Shores/I will visit her grave and plant yellow roses at her stone,” she sings in haunted waltz-time, strains of cello and viola sighing behind her.
To hear Smith tell it, she wasn’t the only person upon whom her mother left a profound impression. “My mother could move mountains just by singing one or two notes,” she says. “She moved your heart to a place that you weren’t expecting to go. She meant every word of it and found great joy doing music.
“At times it was a pain in the ass,” Smith goes on, whispering that last word as if she thinks her mother might hear her. “If you’re a choir director, you’ve got to shut up a lot of people, a lot of adults. Every now and then she would have to holler at people. Mainly, though, she was really patient and fun, and pretty cool, but there were times…