Palo Alto, California, has generated more than its fair share of fingerstyle guitar players. In the 1970s, three friends, drunk on a combination of Fahey, Kottke, and Sandy Bull, began a fierce personal competition to see who could outplay the rest. Michael Hedges obviously triumphed in terms of popularity, but his two compatriots, Tuck Andress and Tom Smith, made serious showings, both a fantastic guitar player in his own right. Hedges’ success is well documented, and Andress would go on to become the Steve Vai of jazz-folk, but Smith’s path, though marked by plenty of milestones, remained less well mapped.
At age 19 and compelled by Sandy Bull’s Fantasias For Guitar And Banjo, Tom Smith picked up a guitar and did his best to imitate the sounds squeaking out. Failing inevitably, Smith set his sites on Dylan, Baez, and Paxton but quickly discovered that he was a singer-songwriter who could not sing. Fingerstyle became a logical next step. A decade later he was laying down tracks for his first album, 1977’s Still Lifes, at a friend’s studio in San Francisco. Tommy Heath of Tommy Tutone was bribed with quality marijuana into engineering the sessions, though no traces of “867-5309/Jenny” snuck onto the tapes. The recording process was extraordinarily stressful, as was the mastering, taking several months. Smith’s vicinity to the Windham Hill office unfortunately wasn’t enough for William Ackerman to sing him, forcing Smith to self-release the album on his Lone Oak imprint. As he still didn’t have a stable residence, he put a friend’s address on the album to handle mail order and correspondence and set out on the road armed with a few hundred records, moving copies hand-to-hand or trading them with other musicians. Smith managed to move the entire pressing over the next few years, attracting the attention of Rounder Records who intended to issue his next LP, but left it at that.
Smith settled down in Los Angeles in 1984, his touring schedule slowed, and his focus shifted to an arts and literacy program. He relocated to Nashville and pursued a living repairing stringed instruments. Five albums have followed Still Lifes on Lone Oak, though Smith puts his own address on the back cover these days.