Abraham Smith is the poet laureate of Ogden, Utah, and he’s one fourth of The Snarlin’ Yarns. His poetry collections have been published by Action Books and Third Man Books. With his band, he inserts a unique freestyle that complements the songwriting of fiddler Mara Brown, guitarist William Pollett and string specialist Jason Barrett-Fox.
Smith honed those skills—among other places—at The Chukker in Tuscaloosa. Now, he and his band are set to release their debut, Break Your Heart. It was recorded in Water Valley, Mississippi at Dial Back Sound, the studio owned by Drive-By Truckers bassist and Jasper, Alabama native Matt Patton. Patton’s studio is fast becoming a destination for a diverse collection of independent artists that all find themselves pumped into “Americana.”
Today, Smith brings me the debut for the band’s video for “DWI” ahead of the album’s release on September 18. We spoke about his connection to Tuscaloosa and working with Patton.
You’ve spent a good bit of time in Alabama. Tell me about your days in Tuscaloosa, specifically, at The Chukker.
Why Tuscaloosa, Alabama? Why the University of Alabama, as an outsider to the area?
I am from Texas and rural northern Wisconsin mainly. Sort of somewhat a Houstonian via my Dad but mainly a hick from the northwoods sticks. When you sit down to apply for a grad degree in poetry writing Alabama is a place that catches your eye. Has a long and vibrant reputation for the MFA. And I was attracted by the four years to write. That’s a rarity. Most MFA degrees you are talkin 2 or 3 years. And there’s a lot, a lot, a lot that’s the same between say Alabam and outside of Ladysmith, Wisconsin where I am from.
There’s a hinterland vibe that kind of percolates thru all so-called out-of-the-way places. In Wisconsin, you’ve got Packers’ fever and fourwheelin and bowhuntin love and such; in Alabama you’ve got Tide fever and fourwheelin and bowhuntin love and such.
How did the Snarlin’ Yarns come to be?
I struck a real quick palship up with the Space Captain (aka the Lil Bird, aka our guitarist, William Pollett). One of our first hangs he brought his guitar. We sipped. And then he played. And the guy has the biggest lungs
and the biggest heart in the west.
I know a lot of players but not a ton who’ll welcome a termite into their songs. Which is what I do. Spiral around in the furniture of the songs with madeup cool or calamity bad improvised lyric inside the lyric. Ya never know what you’ll get next from me.
Anyhow most folks won’t cotton to that kind of funhouse mirroring of their work. But he was right away receptive generous to let me in to what he’d already built songwise.
And I struck up a similarly quick soul sense with Mara Brown, our fiddler. I think she’d been yearning for a long time to get back deep into music. And we tuned together real quick on first meeting over an arts fellowship in Massachusetts that I had, as she spent a lot of her life in Provincetown where I was for that year. So we kinda chimed over the sea. I’ve never met a more glowingly hopeful soul than Mara.
And then there was a Thanksgiving where a faculty member I really didn’t know much invited me by. The place was stuffed with instruments. A Mormon neighbor of his backed into my car while we chowed down. It was a momentous day.
When I and my dented in fender pulled away I said to my colleague host who was fast becoming my pal Jason, I said he oughta come by some day and haul an instrument along. I think Jason’s writing some of the finer songs right now in North America.
So one fateful winter night a few years back over several million sips, we all four got together and let the sound swirl around. At one point I leaned on a green yarn crocheted pillow and one caterpillar of yarn fell free from
the pillow. Picking it up I said: “We are the Snarlin’ Yarns.” And the name stuck. Or stunk. Or rocks.
How did y’all hook up with Matt Patton for this record?
Matt I had an instant reverence and admiration for upon arriving in T-Town in the summer of 2000 via his badassery in Model Citizen and the Dexateens. Our circles sort of circled each other, so we were at some of the same parties. I always felt this loud quiet when he walked into a room. In short he was, and is, a star. Over the years he moved and I moved closer in my cosmic fam to Sweet Dog, T-Town’s drumlegend and the Mayor of Midnight.
As the Dog and Patton are-were close, I sort of felt by proxy that I was keepin’ up with Matt’s goins on. And one thing about Matt among his many stalwart and stellar qualities is his generosity towards all of us beside whom he came of artistic age in T-Town. So through the years when the Truckers would come thru Minneapolis in summers, I and my brother-in-law, Eddy, would head to the city from the farm and Matt inevitably hooked us up with tickets, though I can say I hardly knew him too much since those early T-Town days and then only mainly at admiration’s distance. Though he did come by those vaunted Chukker poetry nights and I felt validated in what we were doing there by his presence there.
Anyhow longest tail short, after about a year of practicin and playin brunches and bar gigs and the like around northern Utah, we Yarns looked at each other and knew we had a strong record’s worth locked. It didn’t feel too fledgling to feel that as I’d been doing poetry hollering for decades and Lil Bird had been in bands for decades and Mara and JBF had both been in a bit of banding through the years and were pros of composure in their own right. I saw on Instagram that Matt was wanting to book more folks at Dial Back around then. So off we went. And the rest is a history we can’t wait to make current on September 18.
It was life changing down there at Dial Back. As the great Greg Brown once sang, “Sometimes you have to go look for your life.” And we did just that. Breezing onto the Delta thru hurricane aftermath deluges. The kind of gullywashers and thunders that brought fish to the streets and up to the knees. Crayfish in the dreams. We drank with the greatest human I know in Memphis, interior designer Warner Moore. We stayed in the leaky as a cracked teapot transcendent Shack Up Inn.
We hopped on the Shack Up stage for a hot minute with local talent Alanna Mosley. And then we pretty well stayed up casino-style for a lot of the next couple nights working with the nimble sound magician Bronson Tew.
Matt dropped in and out. We all kind of held our breath when songs got played back with him around. After one of ’em there was a big hush and then he said, “Proceed.” That knocked our socks clear off. And on a couple of William Lil Bird’s songs, Matt breached the recording areas and leavened with lightness a kind of heaviness that had taken hold after a few takes on a song with his classic Matt jedi wisdoms and grin. So yeah we say as a band never the same snarl twice due to my making up different little moments in the songs each and every time.
But I can say having been there to record that; having gone to look for our lives, we came back not the same band. That experience reminted us. For sure.