Lawrence native collaborates with country star

Friday, November 26, 2004

After Darran Smith left the Lawrence area in 1983, he played steady gigs in Nashville and worked days as a warehouse manager and delivery courier. Then, in 1989, an up-and-coming singer named Tim asked him to go to Delaware for a two-week job at Sheryl's Sky Lounge in New Castle.

"We had a real good time and he told me he was working on getting this deal with Curb Records," Smith says. "He said, 'If I get it, I want you to be my bandleader.' I'm thinking, 'Yeah right. I'd heard that before.'

"Three months later, I'll be damned if he didn't call me up."

Last week, after more than 20 years in Nashville and over a decade with country megastar Tim McGraw, Smith accepted a Country Music Association Award for Single of the Year for co-producing McGraw's smash hit "Live Like You Were Dying."

"Winning this year was unbelievable," Smith says. "I really, truly though Gretchen Wilson would win for 'Redneck Woman.'

"Last year we lost to Johnny Cash. But if you got to get beat by somebody, it might as well be him."

Bologna and trailers

Smith was 8 years old when his mother, Delores Holladay, bought him an old JC Penney guitar. She managed a bar in North Lawrence back then (and still lives in town), and Smith started playing there in his teens. He and a friend performed country, '50s rock 'n' roll, southern rock -- a little bit of everything.

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Curb Records Photo

Lawrence-area musician Darran Smith, fifth from left, co-produced "Live Like You Were Dying," recently named the Country Music Association Award for Single of the Year. Smith is shown above with the Dancehall Doctors, including country megastar Tim McGraw, third from right.

He went on the road during high school, playing proms and bars in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Then a drummer he met at Johnny's Tavern told him he'd do real well in Nashville.

"I went down there four or five times just to check things out," Smith says. "I felt like that was where I needed to be, so I packed up everything and moved to Nashville. For awhile, it was pretty lean, but I've been out here ever since."

He played at The Upstairs Lounge in Nashville for more than three years before moving on to split time between Spiffy's and Skull's Rainbow Room in Printers Alley. Long before any of the No. 1 hits or even an actual record deal, McGraw would come into Spiffy's and sing. After McGraw landed the deal with Curb Records in 1989, Smith joined him as a bandleader. They called the band Dancehall Doctors, a name one of the old drummers got from a line in a Conway Twitty song.

"We were driving a van and a trailer back then," Smith recalls. "We were sharing bologna sandwiches, playing every honky-tonk you can think of in Texas. We'd play anywhere.

"Everyone kept asking me why I was sticking with this guy. Out of the original band, I'm the only one left. I'm the only one who really stuck with it."

The first record, "Tim McGraw," didn't do much for the act when it came out in 1993. So he and the group took to the road again. The second album, "Not a Moment Too Soon," hit paydirt in 1994 with "Indian Outlaw," a crowd-pleaser at their live shows. Smith started to notice that the lines outside where getting longer, and the crowd actually knew the songs well enough to sing along.

"We were playing 'Don't Take the Girl' right after it came out, and the whole crowd was singing along," Smith remembers. "You get so inside it, you don't understand how successful you're getting. All of the sudden, you're on a new bus, making more money, and you're going 'The album's been at No. 1 for how long?'"

Straight to No. 1

McGraw's next album, 1995's "All I Want," went multiplatinum, "Everywhere" earned the CMA Album of the Year honors in 1998, and "A Place in the Sun" debuted at No. 1 on both the Billboard country and pop albums charts in 1999. After McGraw's "Set this Circus Down" in 2001, he and Smith retreated to upstate New York to record "Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors," which Smith co-produced. It was the first studio album that the touring band had recorded with McGraw.

Smith was nominated for a CMA Award as a co-producer for that album but lost to Cash. But the title track of the latest disc, "Live Like You Were Dying," won both Single of the Year and Song of the Year at the 2004 CMA Awards on Nov. 9. The single, a song about living life to the fullest, spent eight weeks at No. 1 last summer.

"We just keep getting better and better," Smith says. "It's just perpetually better all the time. It wasn't like all the sudden we hit the big time. I've been with Tim now for about 15 years, and it's been a great ride."