June 22, 2018
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Musician Putnam plays his roots

By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

In medieval times, aristocrats hired local musicians to perform in a room of their home. That was the beginning of classical “chamber music.” There is another, folksier descendant of chamber music that I recently discovered — the house concert.

A house concert is a wonderful, intimate way to experience live music, right in the living room. Don’t be fooled by the casual setting. Many artists of significant renown like to perform house concerts in between big shows on the road. Its unique atmosphere allows artists a warmer interaction with their audience.

Putnam Smith is a talented singer-songwriter with two CDs and a third soon to be released. I had the privilege to meet this thoroughly down-to-earth musician before he performed in a Bangor home last month.

At age 39, Smith easily could pass for 20-something. Maybe it is the vibrant glow about him; that youthful glow of someone who finally has found his calling after a long journey of exploration.

When Smith was 7 years old, he started composing songs at the piano. He picked up the guitar at age 12, and began playing the banjo and mandolin in college. Music was always his passion.

His father counseled him against playing music as a career, so Smith pursued other directions in school. He went to Bowdoin College and became a philosophy major, which led to playwriting.

After college, Smith worked on his writing in New York City, then in Bangor, where he became involved in theater. Over time, he found himself repeatedly cast in acting roles where he played music onstage.

“I had this revelation,” said Smith. “Theater and writing aren’t any more practical than music!” A friend encouraged him to play more, “and I began to make the transition [to music]. I decided to go with my first love.”

Music is in Smith’s heart and soul, but it is also in his blood. When his grandfather died, Smith was left with about 10 instruments, including a 1924 Martin guitar, a Martin mandolin and several banjos. One banjo originated with his great-grandfather, and that one has become Smith’s primary instrument.

The music scene led Smith back to New York City for a while, but “I found living in the city harder than I thought … I needed trees and solitude.” Another essential part of Smith’s nature is his love of the land and simple living.

“When I was literally having dreams about compost, I moved back to Maine,” he said. Smith settled into a log cabin north of Portland, established some raised garden beds, and made that his home base.

Smith’s musical style, a mixture of folk, bluegrass and old-time traditional, dovetails perfectly with his lifestyle. The fact that he plays the same banjo that his grandfather and great-grandfather played adds an even greater sense of home-grown, personal warmth to his music.

That personal touch is in everything Smith does. He writes his own music and lyrics, produces his own CDs through his company, Itchy Sabot Records, and even printed his CD covers on an old, pedal-powered, handset printing press that he found in an Uncle Henry’s catalog.

Smith’s fan base is enthusiastic and growing. His second CD, “Goldrush,” reached No. 5 on folk DJ charts, and he is booking festivals and concerts large and small across the United States and in Canada. Perhaps the happy glow I saw in Smith can be attributed to the increasingly warm reception he receives from audiences all over the country.

Though winter road tours take him away from Maine for a couple of months, Smith is sustained by the knowledge that he will spend his summers back in Maine, working his own gardens and playing his banjo on Maine’s front porches. Even on the road, he is always happy to land in someone’s home for a concert. There is no better setting for Putnam Smith’s music — home-grown from the roots of his heart.

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