With more than 15 albums to her name, several decades of touring with the group Liberty Pike and one of the top 60 bluegrass songs of the 1990s, musician Valerie Smith is one of bluegrass' brightest stars. Saturday, Smith and Liberty Pike will bring their blend of bluegrass, folk and world music to the Carroll Arts Center as part of the Common Ground on the Hill Westminster Concert series.
Smith said while music has been a lifelong passion, growing up in the Midwest she wasn't surrounded by it the way many of her peers were. Despite the cultural setback, she began studying music at the University of Kansas City, focusing on jazz, opera and blues. It wasn't until she moved to Nashville to start her music career that she fell in love with bluegrass.
"There was something about the purity of the art form," Smith said. "Not that other music doesn't have that purity, but I was able to find my voice in the feel of the acoustic music. It was easier to latch onto than other kinds of music."
She released her first album "Patchwork Heart" in 1998, which included the song "Red Clay Halo." The song remained on the bluegrass charts for five years and Bluegrass Unlimited named the song one of the top 60 bluegrass songs of the decade. Smith said it was the reaction to "Red Clay Halo" that really launched her career.
"I come from a town of 300, so moving into a city with so many opportunities was a little overwhelming," Smith said. "I didn't know how to put myself out there. I didn't grow up in a situation where that was available to me, so I didn't know how to show up at a club and say, 'Hey, I sing.'"
Soon, though, Smith said she began performing at bars and attending writers' nights where she started to make the connections with the industry that would help her career. She said she got to know Johnny Cash, Charlie Louvin and Waylon Jennings who helped her develop her craft.
"I'm not saying these names to throw names around," Smith said. "I'm just telling my story and these are the people I ran into. If you had moved to Nashville during that time, you'd run into them as well."
Smith said over the years, the city and culture has changed, and it's become even more difficult to make a name for yourself by hitting the streets the way she did.
"It was like one big school of life," Smith said. "If you weren't inspired by that, you're made of stone."
Over her career, Smith has released 14 albums, with the most recent "Small Town Heroes" coming out from her label Bell Buckle Records in 2016. Smith said she loves performing in front of a crowd, because it allows her to be completely honest with both herself and a room full of strangers.
"I feel like that's a place where I can be myself," Smith said. "It's a place where I feel a little more free than I normally do. Some people feel safe on the internet to say whatever they want. I don't. I guess I find my freedom on stage while expressing myself through my music."
Carroll County Daily Headlines
She said her writing is about expressing her views both on the world and on her own life. She said her music largely isn't about anger, but rather about positivity, hope and love.
"I'm more of an optimist than a heartbreak kind of gal," Smith said. "Looking at everything, I've been pretty lucky for the most part. I think more than ever we really need that message. This has been a really tough time right now on everybody. When you have good news, something as pure as music can be a blessing."
If You Go
What: Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 7
Where: Carroll Arts Center, 91 W. Main St., Westminster
Cost: $25, $22 Carroll County Public School staff with ID
For more information: Visit www.carrollartscenter.org or call 410-848-7272.