Austin singer/songwriter Darden Smith wants to win the race, but 'Marathon' proves he's in for the long haul 

Darden Smith
8 p.m. Thursday
the Blue Door
2805 N. McKinley

Darden Smith is an artist. Indeed, he believes we all are at heart.

But losing your way is a part of being human, and around the millennium, after almost 15 years as a professional musician, he began to question his chosen profession. This crisis of faith and purpose ultimately led to one of his finest albums, the jazzy, adult-pop "Sunflower."

The 2002 disc was part of a trilogy of low-key, albums that culminated with 2005's "Field of Crows." It would be five years before his next album of originals, the ambitious "Marathon," which he turned into a theater piece.

Released last week, "Marathon" is a powerful meditation on the nature of life and the struggle to live it to its fullest. It's a record Smith said he couldn't have written at any other time in his 25-year career.

"I had to go up and down a little bit, getting older and looking back. Just sort of being able to look deep inside myself and write about it and learn how to pull away from the results, dig down and write something that is hard to say to yourself," he said. "It was like I had to get a little older before I could write these songs. Get seasoned a little bit. Get beat up."

At the time of "Sunflower," Smith had considered chucking the whole business " a powerful feeling for someone who had begun writing songs when he was 10 years old. By 16, he was playing local clubs.

"I'm not a studied musician, so the ability to translate what I was thinking into a three-, four-minute song was just magic," he said. "When I realized that I could actually make a living at it, that struck me as the most amazing thing, and I was good to go."

Smith's first album came in 1986. In Austin then, it was a special time to be a Texas country songwriter, coming up alongside peers such as Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith (both of whom sing on his debut, "Native Soil").

Beginning in 1988, he released four albums on major labels, including a collaboration with The Bible's Boo Hewerdine that produced a couple of college-radio hits, and "Little Victories," which boasted his first top-10 hit, "Loving Arms."

Dropped from Columbia Records, Smith slipped into a funk as he watched his albums go out-of-print.

"I was letting the business part of it overrule the music, and that's when I got sideways," Smith said. "I'd been chewed up, spit out and embraced again, and all this stuff, after a while it gets hard. It wears on you."

A friend told him not to give up without making one more album. So he shut everything else out and made the kind of record he wanted to make. The result was "Sunflowers," and the tremendous critical " and, to a lesser extent, commercial " response re-energized him.

The songs for "Marathon" came even as Smith was recording his next two discs, but he could tell they were part of a whole that was just taking shape, so he pushed them aside.

After working on a piece with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in 1999, he chose to turn these songs into a theatrical show with spoken-word interludes. "Marathon" was developed at his alma mater, the University of Texas' Performing Arts Center.

Meanwhile, Smith stays busy with his "Be an Artist" program, which he'll be showcasing all week in Piedmont. Far from convincing people to take up a guitar, it seeks to teach all ages to listen to their inner muse and find creativity in whatever they do.

"Music is just the foil for it: It's the way I communicate the message; it's not about the music. There's a lot of different ways to be creative, and a lot of different ways to be an artist. You can be an artist at driving a truck," Smith said. "We all need to be reminded that our creative juice down inside is what makes us happy. We forget that as adults. It's always a struggle, but that's not always a bad thing." "Chris Parker

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