The Return of James Coberly Smith

Exiled in `Idaho,’ he creates ‘Wild About You,” the perfect antidote for modern times

Wild About You
James Coberly Smith
With LeAnne Town and Deborah Day

All Song Lyrics by JC Smith
Except “Perfect Mistake” by JC Smith & Bill Coffey

And “I’ve Heard It All Before” by JC Smith & Steve Allen

Videos by American Songwriter

Hey, it’s good to see you again
It’s been a long, empty highway
Yeah, it’s good to see you again
And it’s good to be out of the rain

And just when it seemed time to give up all hope that great songwriting from the heart still mattered, along he comes with this, maybe his most powerful, poignant and exultant song cycle ever. And faith is restored.

Love is not an accident.

Leonard Cohen said if he knew where the great songs came from, he’d go there more often. After hearing this new song cycle from beloved songwriter and former Angeleno James Coberly Smith, sung in glorious harmony with LeAnne and Deborah, it seems we might finally have an answer:


Idaho, you ask?  Good question. Idaho because it’s the answer he offers anytime one of his old L.A. pals, noticing his overt and ongoing absence, wonders aloud: “Hey – where did you go?”

“Idaho,” we’re told. Does anyone even know where this “Idaho” is? Or even if it is? Perhaps, as some believe, it’s more metaphor than actuality, a fanciful fictional diversion on the part of Mr. Smith, but no more real than, say Eden, Oz, Camelot or Monrovia. But regardless of its reality, there is no disputing the fact that this “Idaho” has been a creative goldmine for our pal James, the real source of this remarkable bounty of songs. It’s also where he teamed up with two glorious singers, LeAnne Town and Deborah Day, who grace these tracks with the luminous, inspirational sound of humans in perfect harmony.

Perfection! Harmony! Rarely are these words even spoken these days, much less achieved. Yet here’s irrefutable proof that human harmony can still flourish, even in these days of dissonance.  And there are precious few sounds which can calm the chaos in our hearts better than the sound of human harmony.

There’s a poet in your heart.
Why is that so difficult to see?

Sure, the guy was already great. Whether solo or teamed up with the great Severin Browne, he always brought the joy. Long one of our most serious and funny songwriters, his work has always encompassed the full, unbroken rainbow of the human journey: Always there’s much merriment, romance and laughter, but also some sorrow at how fleetly our lives fly by, and how much gets lost in the cavalcade.

Take the beautiful “Birdy Street,” for example, with its wistful yearning for all that once was, and is gone. Yet the message comes through: It’s what remains, ultimately that matters most: the gravity of love that holds us here.

When I think of you
I never feel alone

In “Helena” is the voice of a man out of time, and one who speaks for all of us who feel often like pieces which don’t fit. Born in the previous century, and flung so abruptly into this virtual, digital world of now, we long for something true:

Helena, we are probably in the wrong century
Helena, no one dreams like we do around here

Yet hope persists, because, like the old soul of Birdy Street, the singer is not alone: he has his heart, his Helena. The tender spirit of hope blossoms:  in the harmonies, the generous craft, the laughter, the false takes, the romance and the whimsy.

Only you can really know
What is real and what is show.

It’s also there in the affirmation that, even now, when songwriting artistry is sometimes considered as arcane as knowing how to make thatched roofs, he brings us these lovingly crafted songs, and reminds us why it matters. All these ancient elements – melody, harmony, meter, metaphor, rhyme and the rest – are the things that hold songs together. They are the unseen architecture, the solid core which keeps songs solid and timeless, so that they never fall apart like cheap watches on the street.

His songs are built to last. Take “Perfect Mistake,” an artful analysis of human heartbreak propelled by a melody that pulls on the heartstrings and doesn’t stop. It’s also got a perfect chorus, and one which, like life, is funny, sad and real:

My heart’s in so many pieces
There’s nothing left you can break
I cannot sleep or wake up 
This is the Perfect Mistake

Or “I’ve Heard It All Before,” which resounds like a standard with good reason; the melody was composed by the late great Steve Allen, composer of many standards. Mr. Smith wrote these lyrics to a timeless tune sent by Steverino and crafted a lyric even Cole Porter would have loved: sophisticated, urbane, and funny.

How can I believe you when you lie
How can I believe you when you twist
Listening to you is such a chore
You know I’ve heard it all before

So, as he asks, where do we go from here? Are there some things still worth defending? The answer is to keep hope alive. To hold onto what remains. Love. Human harmony again. And it’s that understanding which shines like sunlight through all these songs:

Love is not an accident.

As always, Mr. Smith flagrantly and delightfully ignores all the rules about making music in modern times. For example: no drums! Or even digital drum samples! Instead there’s ripe melodies and three-part harmonies of heart and soul, rendered on acoustic instruments and recorded in real time. Not only do we get these three voices united, there’s also LeAnne’s joyous accordion and slide-playing shimmering through these tracks, locked in tight with the happy soul emanating from James’ guitars. The result is a delectable musical gumbo; a full meal of music made by people in love with music.

But this defiance of norms is no big surprise, as he’s long been a guy who has been breaking the rules. The evidence abounds: While most people have two names, he’s got three. When others played six-string guitars, he played ones with twice that, if not more. When others sang songs of woe, he’d sing funny ones. When others would rock, he’d often roll.

And while many have become hopelessly dour, invested in the notion that mankind is doomed and our only hope is to escape to the moon or Mars, he not only happily embraces our earthbound existence, he celebrates it.

He knows there’s no need to leave this planet, or even this moment, to witness a miracle. Just look around. And if you don’t see one, get busy.

Work a little miracle
No one sees

So, do yourself a favor. Take a moment to listen. Take many. Really. Put the phone down for a moment. Maybe even turn it off. It’s okay. Trust me on this. Turn off all devices of any kinds, from televisions to lawnmowers. Be still. Breathe. Listen to this music. Listen to the harmony. Feel the joy. They’re singing to you. 

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