Behind The Song: Wet Willie, “Keep on Smilin’”
“If you smile at me I will understand/’Cause that is something/Everybody, everywhere does in the same language,” sang Crosby, Stills and Nash on “Wooden Ships” in 1969. That concept of smiling, while obvious, is the key to what made Wet Willie’s far friskier “Keep on Smilin’” such a popular and infectious song at the time of its 1974 release (it reached #10 on the Billboard chart, and was #66 for the year), and one that has continued to resonate throughout the decades.
But the current pandemic climate seems to make it connect even more strongly. After all, we can’t do much about our situation, but smiling—even behind a mask– surely helps the frustration. Or as the lyrics go, “Keep on smilin’ through the rain/ laughin’ at the pain /Rollin’ with the changes til the sun comes out again.”
The tune, from Willie’s third studio album which was titled after it, is credited to the entire band. But according to Jimmy Hall, frontman and co-founder of Wet Willie, legendary producer Tom Dowd (The Allman Brothers Band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton) provided some crucial advice on the recording, in particular its structure, that helped push it to iconic status.
“He listens really intently and stands in the room while you’re rehearsing, closes his eyes, absorbs all the sound and thinks about ideas,” Hall remembers about Dowd. The song’s genesis was from Willie guitarist Ricky Hirsch. “Ricky came to me with a guitar riff. He said ‘Listen to this riff, it’s pretty catchy, what do you think?’” Hall then hums the opening reggae styled lick. “Being raised in the Gulf Coast down in Mobile, we loved the beaches, it felt like a sunny breeze on a beach.”
Hall, who had just finished a set of lyrics, started singing along to Hirsch’s riff and “it fit like a glove. Within a day we had it pretty well formed.” Then Dowd got involved. “Tom came to us and said it needs one idea. ‘You have a solo, but you don’t have a bridge, he said. ‘Let’s take that fourth verse and do this. Just give me a downbeat hit into the bass drum.’ And the band hit it ‘Just hanging out –boom—At the local bar—boom—Are you a farmer—boom—Are you a star—boom.” Dowd told the band “after that line, give me the full chorus and we’re going to ride it home with a vamp to the end.” Hall says, “We tried it and it was just perfect.”
Dowd stayed with Wet Willie on the band’s follow-up album Dixie Rock, another solid release, although it didn’t land a song as powerful as “Keep on Smilin’.”
As a testament to its durability, Southern rockers Blackberry Smoke earlier this year invited Hall, pre-pandemic, to front their version of the track as they covered it in the newly refurbished Capricorn Studios in Macon, GA, the site of the original recording. The performance, caught live in the studio below, shows how timeless it is. Just look at all the grins in the room as Hall, who has sung “Keep on Smilin’” thousands of times, injects fresh life into it with the help of a great band. It’s the sign of a true classic;one that will sound as fresh 50 years from now as it did in 1974.