This is the fourth of Sonny Smith's 10 One Act Plays, a document on the foggy border between folk music and surrealist theater. In the first three acts we encounter Larry and Harry (described only as "two drunks"), a singing donkey who seems determined to turn her life around, and a gunpoint conversation between Henrietta, an obsessive stalker, and Henry, a failed saffron farmer. After the bomb drops on Eddie and Rita, the rest of the stories include a ghetto romance saga, a love triangle among two amateur boxers and a "child bride," and a botched convenience store holdup.
True, these short acts are presented on a record, but it's hard to think of them just as songs. There's too much to them; they're too strange. Likewise, Sonny Smith isn't really a singer/songwriter (and he's definitely not a folk singer). He seems more of a bygone storyteller who spins yarns with music.
"I strum an acoustic guitar," Smith says begrudgingly. "And if you do that you're going to be in that [singer/songwriter] sort of thing. But I've never thought of myself as a musician. I don't even listen to singer/songwriters, and I get billed with them all the time -- 'cause I guess technically I am one. But I don't listen to it. I don't even like it."
We're sitting together in the kitchen of his Mission walk-up. The place is above a workaday Latino dive bar and is cluttered with the kind of stuff that inspires Smith's tales: collections of Norman Mailer and Oscar Wilde piled up on the spinet piano, old photographs, and a dog-eared banjo. The kitchen window looks out on the back of a fire-engine red apartment building and a sun-drenched court. "I've always wanted to be a writer," Smith says. "I have these schemes of writing something that will be a novel or a screenplay or something -- and in the end they always just kind of turn into songs."
His records support the claim. Even with the acoustic-guitar strumming, the nearest comparison to any folkie's work would be the narrative sing-speak and humor of John Prine, and that's kind of a stretch.
Just check out most of the tunes on Smith's self-released debut, Who's the Monster...You or Me?, a set of rambling five-minute novellas on which Smith rhyme-spits the chronicles of dozens of characters ("Willy Wonka, kickin' in Sri Lanka, chokin' on a chimichanga, wishin' he was with Rhonda down in Tijuana," etc). The songs exist a world apart from the cheeseball trappings of nuevo folk, mixing a colorful mess of autobiographical fact and wild fiction.
When you chat with Smith, his life story spins out much the same -- a hazy time line with a number of stranger-than-fiction facts. His mother was a pianist and his dad played the banjo. He was playing guitar as a kid, and at the ripe age of 17 he headed east to a little mountain town in Colorado, where he landed a gig playing piano at a couple of dives. There he employed some borrowed Jimmy Yancey blues licks to ad-lib five- and six-hour sets, and he would occasionally improv lyrics to keep things interesting.
In the mid-'90s he left Colorado with a guitar and did a boho tromp through Central America, eventually ending up on a farm with a bunch of American expats in Costa Rica. It was there that he wrote his first songs. He came back to San Francisco in 1996 and started playing gigs and rubbing elbows with local heavies like Mark Eitzel, Jolie Holland, and Kelly Stoltz (all of whom cameo on One Act Plays). S.F. indie label Jackpine Social Club issued his proper debut, This Is My Story, This Is My Song, in the spring of 2003. In the last three months, he wrote, recorded, and released One Act Plays (issued as a musical supplement to the most recent edition of local lit mag Watchword) and became a father to a cherubic little boy named Oliver.
Somewhere along the line he self-released another record (Sweet Lorraine: Sordid Tales of Love and Woe by Sonny Smith) and wrote, directed, and starred in a film about "this guy who loses a lot of fights." As with the wordy narratives of his first record, when Smith starts in on his personal history it seems like there's almost too much story to tell.
On this sunny afternoon at his kitchen table, Smith drinks a bottle of beer and slowly sorts through the tales of retired Panamanian boxers and busking around Central America. But the conversation inevitably derails into talk of a half-completed side project or a laundry list of half-read books. He seems like a different person than the footloose rambler in his stories. He's settled in as a stay-at-home dad and there's a certain ease to his manner. When the conversation comes back around to his recent One Act Plays, the line between his life and his art seems even fainter.
"Having a kid gives you a different perspective immediately," Smith says, when asked about the record's themes. "I wrote all these songs in the last few months and when it was done I realized that almost all of them take place at the edge of a river, or at a place of departure, or about to cross a border. I didn't mean it to be that way, but I started to realize that halfway through. Every record you make probably has autobiography in it."
This is particularly true of the record's second act, "The Donkey Killed the Crow." It opens with a tender duet of acoustic guitars and Smith's sung stage directions. "The stage is split as if a tree had been hit by a bolt of lightning and had fallen in the middle of a road," he half-speaks over a slow shuffle. "And has a blind donkey and a couple-a crows standing by a river that has overflowed." When the donkey (Peggy Honeywell) and the crows (Jolie Holland and Vetiver's Andy Cabic) come in, they exchange a few mournful words that end with Honeywell promising that "just like a drifter, soon to be delivered, next time you see me I'll have crossed the river."
On the page, the singing donkey and crows might seem a bit ridiculous, but with the soft strum of guitar and the touching delivery, Smith's song resonates as a tenderhearted parable -- the kind of thing that we were told as kids and didn't really understand until much later. It's the story of a strange trip that ends in a determined salvation.
Smith's doorbell rings and dinner guests arrive. We finish talking in the kitchen, and hear the guests through the door to the living room, playing with Oliver and plucking the banjo. When they come in to set the table, the scene has the homeyness of that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting, but set in a Mission apartment and populated with a congregation of San Francisco bohemians -- it has the same slightly off-kilter charm of one of Smith's tunes. This is his story; this is his song.