Staring at Mountains – Then climbing them – with Todd Smallie
Todd’s musical journey began in Atlanta during the late ’80s and early ’90s in the heart of jam band scene.
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I like staring at mountains and then climbing them. I’m very blessed to have a beautiful family and we vacation at every National Park that we can.
Andy – I’ve been a fan of your playing for many years Todd, you’ve had a positive affect on me and my playing, and certainly inspired me in many ways. Will you please tell us abut how you came to the bass and music, how you got your early start, and how your passion for playing has carried you into a successful sustained career?
Todd – I was very fortunate to be surrounded by music at a young age. I grew up outside of St. Louis and two of my neighbors played bass and my dad’s best friend played bass as well. Every single one of them had a really cool Sunburst jazz or P-Bass. I was hooked from the beginning on the tones, sounds and grooves of the instrument. For my 13th birthday, I begged my Mom and Dad for an electric bass and they made it happen. They also hired a teacher at the local music store. At that point we lived in Cincinnati, another great music city to grow up in. I was learning songs by ear and working out of the Mel Bay 101 student bass book with my teacher. Like many musicians, I just simply loved to play and learn, unlocking the mystery of music. I could not put the instrument down and immediately started learning the bass lines that had influenced me before I even owned a bass. John Entwistle, Paul McCartney and James Jamerson were some of the first musicians I tried to learn from.
My passion for music grew stronger when we moved to Atlanta and I was influenced by Jeff Sipe, Jimmy Herring, Oteil & Kofi Burbridge, Ricky Keller, Russ Rodgers, Greg Curbo and Bill Hatcher. Col. Bruce Hampton & ARU warped me forever and gave me even more passion to learn and improvise. Atlanta is amazing. The wealth of talent, musicians, and creativity there was a true motivator for me. I knew at an early age, I wanted to play music for the rest of my life. A large part of my musical growth was accomplished while attending the Atlanta Institute of Music under the direction of Russ Rodgers. Russ was such a phenomenal teacher and inspiration.
Andy – You are out touring now and have been active in that realm of music for a long time. Will you please share a few of the ways you maintain your center out there, I mean in all facets – physically, mentally, spiritually – that work is grueling and can beat us down if we let it, many players are coming up and getting their first taste of this side of the profession, what advice might you share to help them fare well in the fray?
Todd – That’s a great question. I’ve been on the road for 22 years this year and even I wonder how I’ve survived it all this time. In my 20s I was a little wild and calmed down in my 30s. My wife and I started our family and that definitely put more focus and balance in my life on the road. You’re always going to miss your family and friends out there. It is the hardest part of traveling for extended periods. You have to find a way to enjoy the road and the travel because it’s not that easy or fun all the time. Playing the music and the shows is always the greatest. I really enjoy exploring the cities that I’m in. Going for 6 mile walks or, going to museums and cool landmarks. I even take my hiking gear on some tours, and on our days off, I’ll bust out into the woods. All of those things keep me balanced and in touch with reality. Not immersing myself in some BS rock star haze.
Andy – Your list of artists with whom you’ve worked is very impressive and certainly it’s been a thrilling ride for you. Will you please share if will a few of the performing or studio experiences that blew your mind, lifted your spirit or gave you that feeling of “Wow! is this really happening”?
Todd – I am very fortunate to have a lot of great stories. In the Derek Trucks band, we got to hang with a lot incredible musicians. Some of the most surreal moments are playing at Eric Clapton’s crossroads, touring with Carlos Santana and sitting in a few times. But my all-time favorite is sitting in with The Allman Brothers Band. I’ve been very blessed to grow up around those guys. Derek and I would be standing on side stage and Carlos would just wave for us to come up on stage in front of 20,000 people. I always loved it because nothing was rehearsed. Jump up on stage and he says, do you know “Exodus” by Bob Marley? and you’re off to the races.
I still say to myself; “Did that really happen?” I’m fortunate to have many experiences like that thanks to Derek Trucks and the band.
Andy – I’m incredibly passionate about music and it’s been a life long journey, but it does not define “me”, it’s just something I really love to do. I have other interests, hobbies, goals and a family life away from music, it gives me a wonderful balance that keeps me loving playing. Do have a similar take on it all? What does Todd like to do besides play music?
Todd – I have a very similar take on your views as well. I’ve always been a backpacker and skier while I’m off the road. I like staring at mountains and then climbing them. I’m very blessed to have a beautiful family and we vacation at every National Park that we can. It’s one of the main reasons that we moved to Colorado. We love living close to the mountains and enjoy all the hiking and skiing that we get to do in the off time together. Besides playing music, I still travel like mad when I get home. I’m really the tour manager of the Smallie family in my off time!!
Photo credit – Al Stuart
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