Jan Smith’s Warning to Guitarists Who Share

“Don’t give a woman a guitar you want to keep,” sings Jan Smith on “Woman Your Guitar” from her sophomore CD, 29 Dances [Landslide]. It’s ironic, because Smith put away her own ax, and allowed generous space for the boys—such as session star Johnny Hiland—to play fabulous down- home country licks and bluegrass breaks. Album producer Bil Vorndick captured all the acoustic acrobatics impeccably, and ensured that Smith’s fresh approach to roots music reigned supreme—regardless of whose hands were on the instruments.

“My dad was a guitar player, and he always played country songs by Hank Williams, Dolly Parton, and John Prine on his Gibson J160,” recalls Smith, a native of Louisville, Kentucky. “But I didn’t get serious about playing until high school, when I got interested in a boy who played guitar. I figured if I learned how to play, we’d have something to talk about.”

That romance didn’t materialize, but she eventually found a man who appreciated her talents. Nowadays, she travels the country singing and hammering out steady rhythms on her Martin OM-18V, while her musical partner and husband, Jeff Vogelgesang, handles lead duties on guitar and mandolin.

“Woman Your Guitar” is a great song. What inspired it?

A friend of my husband’s had a really nice Martin D-18. This pretty woman moved in just up the hill from him, and she wanted to learn how to play guitar, so he thought he could impress her by giving her some lessons. The only problem was that she didn’t own a guitar herself. He made the mistake of lending her the Martin. He never got the guitar back, and he never got anywhere with the woman, either.

What’s the greatest influence on your songwriting?

My songwriting is very influenced by my physical surroundings, and it’s rather conversational. I try to use an economy of language—maybe one word or syllable per melody note. My style is very rooted in traditional country and folk, and, since I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, I’ve also been influenced by bluegrass musicians—including one particular guitar player who I ended up marrying [laughs].

Do you write together?

I write songs by myself mostly, but we’ve co-written a few. I’ll start the lyric and have the melody in mind, and Jeff will use his wider musical repertoire to help make the chord progression more interesting. “Woman Your Guitar” happened like that.

How did getting bluegrass in the blood affect your songwriting?

When I started playing with Jeff, I became familiar with the bluegrass song form. Sometimes, there are several lead breaks within a song, and the break is never played the same way twice, so it’s very similar to jazz in that regard. I began leaving room in my songs for that improvisation—which is something I wasn’t conscious of when I was writing in a more contemporary folk style.

29 Dances is full of band interplay. How do you approach the same songs as a duo?

We certainly can’t duplicate the record in a duo performance, so we focus on the songs themselves, my vocals, and Jeff’s abilities as a mandolin and guitar player. It’s a tough question for independent artists: Do you record an album that’s very true to your live performance, or do you record an album with full-band arrangements? We went with the full band, and we were able to get some radio play. Now we’re just hoping that the album will get some people out to our live duo shows.