Steuart Smith of the Eagles Interview 2020

April 17, 2020

Note from Zac: This is the un-edited, and un-cut version of my Steuart Smith interview from 2019. The edited version appeared in the February 2020 issue of Vintage Guitar Magazine.
Steuart Smith with his trusty EMG equipped 1966 Stratocaster - Photo by Charley Cohen

Tell us a bit about Rodney Crowell’s significance‍ in your career

Obviously Rodney had a big influence on my career. I met him in New York in 1986 through Sony Records producer, Rick Chertoff who had seen me in a showcase a few years previous and thought Rodney and I would get along. An important thing about our relationship was that, from the beginning, Rodney allowed and encouraged my participation not just as a guitar player but as an arranger and co-producer as well. Through him I met and began working with producer and MCA Records executive, Tony Brown who, in addition to using me for session work, also wanted to groom me as a producer. I was, however, reluctant because, just as with my guitar playing, I didn’t ‘identify’ as a ‘country’ musician. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the reason Nashville kept flying me in for sessions was that my playing was atypical in that genre. At that time Rodney was married to Rosanne Cash with whom, it turned out, I shared a similar musical sensibility. Consequently we wound up recording and touring together for several years until she moved to New York and began a relationship with producer John Leventhal.

And Shawn Colvin‍?

I think I first met Shawn when she sat in on a Rosanne Cash show at the Bottom Line in New York. Shortly thereafter, when she was working on her second record with bassist and producer, Larry Klein (with whom I had worked when he produced some songs for Rodney), she invited me out to LA to play on several tracks. To promote her Fat City album we began touring in several different configurations, but the trio of her, Larry and me was by far the most fun and musically satisfying live ensemble I’ve ever worked in.

Don Henley‍?

Chronologically speaking this dovetails nicely as I first met Don while touring with Shawn’s Trio in Los Angeles. We met briefly backstage and then I got a call from him to work on an in-progress solo record eventually released as Inside Job. Almost nothing we worked on made the final cut but we wrote a song together and recorded a demo of it which led to an invitation to tour which I couldn’t accept at the time as I was immersed in a couple of recording projects. But as things worked out I got another call some time later to come out and take over the guitar ‘chair’ next to Joe (Walsh) in the Eagles.‍

How did you begin working with Vince Gill?‍

Being a guitar player, of course I knew who Vince was. Just before his career exploded he ‘opened’ briefly for Rodney while we were touring behind Rodney’s Diamonds and Dirt record and he was very solicitous about my playing with remarks like, “Hey man, I really like a lot of what you’re tryin’ to do up there.” When he and Tony Brown got together his career took off and the two of them invited me to play on a bunch of Vince’s records which were serious fun. It’s heart warming to be working with him again.‍

Is that you on the opening riff to Gill's "What the Cowgirls Do."‍

Yes, that’s a 1956 Fender Esquire (sold to me by the wonderful Sam Bush) with pick-ups from Jerry Reed’s 1955 Telecaster, courtesy of Joe Glaser. It’s tuned in standard guitar intervals but down two steps – C to C. That’s also my little guitar melody on the intro to “I Still Believe in You” on an early Ernie Ball Music Man Silhouette.

Did you ever ponder a move to Nashville?‍

No, it was never a consideration. I was also working in New York and L.A. and I didn’t mind the commute. Nashville taught me a number of things though, one of which was that I didn’t really want to be a full time session player. I’m generally much happier getting my hands deep into arranging and production – but I do still love doing sessions – just not the endless ‘tens,’ ‘twos’ and ‘sixes.’‍

In the past, you have tended to use a single guitar, handful of pedals, and an amp. Are you a gear minimalist?

I suppose I know what you mean but I’m not sure I’m a dedicated minimalist when it comes to gear. When you’re making records you have to do what’s necessary to make sure that multiple guitar tracks don’t all sound alike and sometimes that means relying on effects. But in a ‘live’ context it’s fun to do as much orchestration as possible through a variety of techniques and one guitar.‍

Tell us about your use of unusual chord voicings

Certainly for me chord voicings are critical. The key to meaning, emotion and character lies in where the bass note is in relation to the rest of the chord and how a particularly arranged stack of notes affect the way one feels. For me, in pop music Harmony equals Meaning. It’s where the information lies. A beautiful chord substitution tastefully placed is worth a thousand words.‍

And your use of artificial harmonics

You had referenced, in an e-mail to me, a live version of Rodney’s song, ‘Stars on the Water,’ the outro of which was a sort of cascading waterfall of alternating ’false’ harmonics and natural notes. I think that was me channeling Lenny Breau’s technique. What’s probably most pertinent about my technique in this regard is that I use a thumb pick almost exclusively which makes artificial harmonics more accessible – as well as those double-octave high squealers.

How do you differentiate studio vs live playing?

In the studio you need to keep in mind all of the other instrumental parts (and vocal parts) that are either playing with you simultaneously or that will be played later as overdubs. If I’m producing then I probably know what most of those other parts will be. If I’m there only as a player then I need to offer up enough musical information to make my track worth while and little else (unless requested), leaving room for the other parts to step forward and make their contribution.In a ‘live’ circumstance, particularly in a small ensemble (my favorite) I try to orchestrate the song from beginning to end using different sounds and techniques to give the audience an experience as diverse and dynamic as listening to a record – such that the second and third verse don’t sound like the first and the whole song has a shape.

What gear are you using on the current Eagles tour?

The amp is simple – Peavey Classic 50 4x10”The pedals – BOSS – CH1 Super Chorus; TR2 Tremolo;CS3 Compressor; DD3 and DD5 Digital Echo units. Menatone Red Snapper (overdrive), RAT (distortion) Cry Baby Wah-Wah and Ernie Ball Volume Pedal. The Eagles show demands that I have a fairly deep guitar stable but my main three guitars are a ’66 Strat with EMG pick-ups in it, an Ernie Ball Music Man (EBMM) Silhouette that functions as a Les Paul and an EBMM Axis Sport that functions as a Tele. The other guitars are what they are: an SG Junior and an SG Special (both mid ‘60’s), a 2002 Gibson 335, a Collings I-35, a ’67 Esquire and the EBMM double-neck for Hotel California.

What are some of your personal production/sideman favorites?

In terms of entire albums I would site Rodney Crowell’s The Houston Kid and Tarpaper Sky. Also, a virtually unheard record by a virtually unknown artist, Matt Duke’s Winter Child.In terms of cherry-picked favorite tracks, a partial list would include:

Beth Nielsen Chapman – ‘Sand and Water’

Shawn Colvin – ‘Round of Blues’

Joni Mitchell – ‘How Do You Stop?’

The Eagles – ‘Waiting in the Weeds’

Rosanne Cash – ‘The Wheel’ and ‘Sleeping in Paris’

Wynonna – ‘No One Else on Earth’ and ‘Tell Me Why’

Is it difficult playing all the Eagles original parts note-for-note, when you have been a producer/session guy?

Yes, it was an odd thing to find myself doing. When Don first asked if I would be interested I had to think long and hard about it. Not only would I have to sit and learn guitar parts, note for note, off a record for the first time in 30 years, but it would be the first time in my life that I would have not only one boss but four. As it turned out, going back-to-school and learning other people’s guitar parts was actually a good re-education; and it was also a revelation to see, from the inside, how well written and beautifully arranged those songs are. I have found ways to tinker gently with a note here and there and there are a few songs that I was encouraged to find my way into but, with songs like ‘One ofThese Nights’ and ‘New Kid in Town’ you need to stick to the script. I liken it to a long running Broadway show in which you have to find subtle ways to keep things fresh – to find some wiggle room in the straight-jacket.

Below is my very first Ask Zac episode on Youtube, focusing on Steuart

This is a Spotify Playlist based on Steuart's own list above, with some of my own additions to fill it out.