Gary James' Interview With Russell Smith Of
The Amazing Rhythm Aces
They are probably best known for the song "Third Rate Romance". They've released something like 18 albums since the 1970s. They are The Amazing Rhythm Aces. Lead singer / songwriter Russell Smith spoke with us about his group.
Q - Russell, given today's economy, how are The Amazing Rhythm Aces fairing in the entertainment world? How are your bookings?
A - A lot of places we used to play are going under or have already gone under. A lot of places that used to be for our kind of music, American type music, Country-Rock, they seem to have gone to like Disco night, local talent night, to keep the doors open. They're trying to keep their big ticket items down. And a lot of 'em have just sunk beneath the waves. They're just not there anymore. So, there is that for sure. We've been doing pretty well with large, private parties, birthdays. But hell, I'm 61 years old. In Pop music, that's like I should be embalmed or something.
Q - Maybe that was the thinking once, but The Rolling Stones are still out there.
A - Oh, I know that. But since no one can afford to be embalmed or die anymore, we just have to keep working. (laughs) I'll tell you something else, another response of ours to the economic situation: I have gone back to the old Country music model, the old Nashville model of not putting out an album until you got like a whole bunch of singles instead of putting out an album. That way, I'm still luckily very prolific. So, I've got output. I've got product. Thanks to CD Baby and iTunes, I've got an outlet on the web for people to download my newer music as well as the older stuff. I'm just trying to move forward into the past. (laughs)
Q - Well, now that makes sense.
A - When you think about the cost of production, I got a studio in my house. I can do things here. To do the whole thing and the manufacturing part and the mixing part, it's a pretty big ticket. And then you're sitting on product. This way you're not sitting on product, it's just electronics. So I have high hopes for that.
Q - Are all the original members still in the band?
A - No. A couple of the guys have already passed away. A couple of the other guys are just not in the band anymore. One of 'em is in Spain and the other one I think is in Scotland. Billy Earhart, the original Hammond organ player and myself are the original members. Then we've got a great bunch of guys playing with us. We're really lucky and happy with that. We got a really wonderful guitarist named Kevin Holly. He worked with Little Richard's band for years and years. We've had some real good players and we still do. I get real good people to play with me. That is a compliment.
Q - According to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock 'n' Roll, you learned how to sing Country Blues while working as a teenage disc jockey on station WEEN in Lafayette, Tennessee. Is that true?
A - We'll, those two half sentences are true, but they're not true together. I didn't learn to sing anything by being a DJ. It was a strange kind of education because that radio station was one of those thousand watt radio stations. It was located behind a pig farm. So I got to play a lot of different kinds of music. I played old-time Gospel music. I played straight old Country music, and I got to play Rock 'n' Roll from 3 to 5. (laughs) So it was a very varied and fun experience. That was my first recording and studio experience. Hometown bands would come in and set up. We had a 30 minute show, kind of like Hank Williams used to do.
Q - What kind of a place was Knoxville, Tennessee for a Rock band to be playing in the late 1960s?
A - Oh, I'm telling you man, we were right in the middle of Love.
Q - Summer Of Love was in '67. By '69 it had started to go a little sour.
A - You let something sit on the shelf long enough, it gets sour. But it was wonderful because at that point, the population of that school was ten times the population that my home country was. So for me it was like going to Star Base Four somewhere. There were these wonderful little coffee house type clubs. There were a lot of gigs around. We would tell people we were from Atlanta so we could get a gig in Knoxville. That's the way it was. (laughs)
Q - And it worked!
A - Oh, sure.
Q - So where did this name, The Amazing Rhythm Aces come from?
A - Well, we had a bunch of different band names before that, but nothing really nice. I was just thinking about it. I was just thinking every time somebody was asking us what kind of music we play, it was very hard to tell them. So I just thought that that name was appropriate. At that point we had two keyboards, mandolin, steel guitar. We had a fairly deep band.
Q - Your band name is sort of mysterious to me. From the name, I wouldn't understand what kind of music you play, but of course I know better.
A - Hmmm. Well, maybe we should have called it The Mysterians.
Q - That name was already taken. ? And The Mysterians.
A - That's true. I could've called it ? And The Amazing Rhythm Aces.
Q - Did you write "Third Rate Romance"?
A - Oh, sure.
Q - So, how did life change for you and the band when it became a hit?
A - Well, it didn't change immediately 'cause the first recording of it was Jesse Winchester's recording, which certainly gave me a big charge of self-confidence. The first song I ever had recorded was by Jesse Winchester. So I thought I was doing pretty good. But then a friend of ours who was not in the band at the time, Barry Burton, the guitarist, the original guy Barry "Byrd" Burton was in Memphis working with Knox Phillips, one of Sam's sons...Sam Phillips. Knox said "Do you have any idea on somebody we might produce?" He brought us down a couple of times. We did some stuff and it looked like it was gonna work out. We just kind of moved. We already we're playing mostly original music. So our Holiday Inn gigs and frat gigs were kind of sucking wind. We figured we might just as well be unemployed in Memphis as employed in Knoxville. So we moved on over. Started playing, met a whole bunch of wonderful musicians at that point. At that point, that was a wonderful playing town. At that point it was a whole lot better partyin' town than Nashville was.
Q - Did you have some kind of management problems?
A - Yeah. I really don't want to go into that. I never have. It's just water under the bridge now. Believe me, I did have quite a bit of trouble with it, but it's a long time ago. You gotta forgive.
Q - Was there a follow-up to "Third Rate Romance"?
A - We had "The End Is Not In Sight", which won a Country Grammy. We had "Amazing Grace (Used To Be Her Favorite Song)". We had "Dance The Night Away". We had quite a few singles. We did The Eagles' Long Run Tour, except for L.A. and New York. We used to open for Jimmy Buffet all the time.
Q - Did those tours take you mainly through the U.S. or did you go overseas?
A - Mostly just in the States. We did one (tour) in Australia with Leon. We opened for Leon Russell. That really opened up Australia for us. They really liked us over there. We've done quite a few things in Canada early on. We've been in Italy a little bit.
Q - How big of a hit was "Third Rate Romance" for Jesse Winchester?
A - I don't think he had a hit with it. They didn't promote it as a single. It was just a popular song in his show. I think it was just what it was, you know? That was the "Learn To Love It" record. I think it was. He had a lot of great other songs on there, so I wasn't surprised. I was just surprised that he cut it. ("Third Rate Romance") I called my mama when I first wrote that song and I played a little of it on the telephone to her. I called her and said "Mama, I think I've written a hit song." She listened to it and said "You might oughta think about goin' back to school next year." (laughs)
Q - Your own mother didn't believe in you!
A - She believed in me. She just didn't believe in the song.
Q - You've recorded 18 albums in 30 years? Is that accurate or are there more?