LaTresa Smith On Songwriting, Bluegrass Gospel & Her New Album

LaTresa & The Signal

LaTresa & The Signal have announced the June 7, 2019 release of The Blood and the River, a collection of original Bluegrass Gospel songs on BoonDog Records. The Blood and The River is the 3rd album from LaTresa Smithand her band.

The group, fronted by singer/songwriter, LaTresa Smith, has been playing together since 2004 and boasts musicians with diverse musical backgrounds. 

Q: LaTresa, thank you for doing this interview with us. Let's start with yourself, tell us a little about your journey into bluegrass music?

I'm grateful for the opportunity to talk about the new project. I grew up in a musical family, listening to and singing traditional country, gospel, and bluegrass music in our little family band. Within a short walk from my house in Mississippi was an old storefront, a gathering place for bluegrass musicians on Saturday nights. I was just a small girl, but loved the music so much and dreamed of one day having my own band to play that music!

I had been writing songs since I was a child, and through the years I've written in a broad range of styles; but when I recorded my cd Free Spirit in November 2003, in the words of a songwriter/producer friend in Nashville "I found who I am as an artist." That was my first release of original bluegrass tunes, which also show the influence southern gospel, country, and Delta blues have had on my writing. I've been enjoying writing and singing this music ever since. I put my band The Signal together right after the release of Free Spirit.

Q: Who is the Signal and how did you come up with that name?

The band has been essentially the same 4-piece line up since 2006, Randy Smith (Jackson, TN) on upright bass, Kyle Wood (Nashville, TN) on mandolin, Markus Stadler (Munich, Germany) on banjo and dobro, and myself (Florence, AL) on guitar and lead vocal. Randy and Markus have actually been playing with me since early 2004.

Only one of the original members, Jon Martin, is not playing regularly with us anymore, but he remains a close friend and has even stepped in and played with us on occasion through recent years; I have to say, it's always like time stood still. We have had a fiddle player off and on in the band, too.

We're really more than band mates, we are old friends who have been there for each other through all the triumphs and losses in our individual lives. We've created some incredible and hilarious memories through the years. The guys have awesome and off-the-wall senses of humor! We genuinely enjoy spending time and making music together. Oh, and I guess I should mention that I married the bass player in 2007; Y'know, good bass players are hard to keep...haha

As for the name of the band, when I first came to Nashville several years ago I was doing some co-writing with some established writers. One of my co-writer friends wrote a song about how the WSM signal and listening to the Grand Ole Opry brought people together by the delivery of music into their homes. He entitled the the song "The Signal." So when I decided to put together a band, I asked him if he minded me using that as the band name. I figure the band is one of the more powerful ways I deliver or share my music with people, so that is why I decided on LaTresa and The Signal.

Q:  You have just released a new Gospel bluegrass album.  Why did you decide to do a bluegrass gospel album? 

My father was a Gospel preacher, as was his father. On my second cd Love, Babies, Jesus and Sweet Potato Pie from 2011, I included a song I had written for my dad, "Work For Jesus" and another original gospel tune "Loving Savior." These continue to be popular with our audiences, and I received lots of requests to write and record more gospel music. The Blood and The River is in response to those requests and my own growing desire to share what faith has done for me. I've been praying that everyone who listens will be blessed in some way, uniquely personal to where they are in their lives.   

Q:  You also wrote or co-wrote all the songs here.  What are some of the lessons you have learnt while writing these songs?

Well, a few of these tunes have been sitting around my house for a couple or more years, and I'm usually excited when I write a new song and want to add it to our set list right away; so, we've played a few of these live before I decided to include them on this project. But writing is re-writing, and I've dug in again on many of these tunes to make them better. I'm pretty much relentless when it comes to finishing a song - 'like a dog on a bone', as they say! I just can't quit on a song until I've gotten it where it should be, as good as it can be.

I enjoy co-writing and have had great success with that; for example, a co-write with Randy Kohrs "Can You Give Me a Drink" was recorded by The Blind Boys of Alabama with Vince Gill on their Take the High Road album. That was a huge blessing! Just as cool was when Daryl Hall sang the song when The Blind Boys of Alabama were guests on his show "Live at Daryl's House". But I write mostly solo, and I've solely written all the songs on all three of my albums to date, with the exception of "Sea of Galilee" on this latest project. That is a co-write with Kyle Wood (formerly of Crucial Smith). Kyle brought a great idea and partially written song to me and suggested we work together to finish it. The song is based on Jesus calming the storm to save the lives of his disciples, and we take that principle and apply it to how he can calm our storms, too.

In writing this album I've reconnected with many of the scriptures I can quote from heart, but I wanted to revisit the Biblical texts that inspired the song ideas and lyrics to make sure I was accurately and appropriately representing those scriptures. Bible study has been one of my passions since childhood.

I was raised in a time when Christians were known as "walking and talking Bibles", but I don't mean to imply I've got things figured out. In fact, I guess the greatest lesson I've learned by getting my mind back into The Book is how much understanding I really lack and how often (pretty much most of the time) I fail to live up to God's standard of holiness. I realize more every day how inadequate I am on my own; I rely heavily on God's grace and the reassurance of the Holy Spirit. I do know God loves me unconditionally, and I believe he wants me to reflect that kind of love in how I treat others. There have been times when I felt like I was walking in time and step with Him and other times when I knew in my heart I wasn't walking with Him at all. But even in those times, He never stopped pursuing me and drawing me back to His side. I'm showing my Daddy's preacher genes a little.

But really, everyone is somewhere on a journey to our  Creator; these songs offer a glimpse into mine and maybe encourage someone to think about and be grateful for their own. 

Q:  I notice that quite a few songs deal with the valley.  What does the valley mean for you? Has there been an incident where you felt the Lord's presence with you in the valley? 

I find the concept of the valley in the Bible fascinating! The imagery is really used in multiple ways; like when David writes about the valley as a dark and threatening time and place in the Psalms, in contrast when Solomon used the imagery of a valley as a state of intense and beautiful shared love, when the prophet Joel uses it as a metaphor for a period of isolation from and potential judgement by God, or when it the valley is used to help believers envision the comfort and beauty of Heaven - an existence where living water flows freely, the sun always shines, the fruit of the tree of life is freely accessible, and God wipes away all  sadness.

And yes, I would have to honestly say that I have been in dark periods where hope seemed lost like in a broken relationship, through times when I felt afraid and threatened by bullies, the experience of intense, passionate human love, and occasions where I experienced God's discipline and judgement for my selfish wrongdoing followed by the immense outpouring of His forgiveness and healing. I hope folks can hear this in the songs on The Blood and the River. The ultimate goal is to see the beauty in every valley with God. The prophet Elijah (I Kings) is a wonderful example of how our God is not just present on our 'mountain tops' but is equally present and active in our 'valleys'. Oh, and shout out to my mom, whose favorite song on the album is "In the Valley"!

Q:  Talk to us about the title track and single "The River and the Blood."  What is the story behind this song?

​There's this old black and white photo of my grandfather baptizing people in a creek in Alabama. It portrays a powerful story of commitment to Jesus Christ in his life and in the lives of the people who are going under that water that day! My father spent time as a missionary in India and talked about the power of people hearing the message of Jesus, throwing their idols in the canals and being baptized in the Bay of Bengal. I personally witnessed the power of baptism (in the Caribbean Sea) in the life of a repenting person while working with a medical mission team in Panama.

I was baptized into Jesus Christ (Romans 6:3-7) when I realized that I needed the forgiveness that only comes through his blood. In Acts, the metamorphosis of the murderer Saul into the apostle Paul includes his own account of hearing the Lord's voice, praying about what he should do and then encountering Ananias who said, "What are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name." (Acts 22:6-16) So, in short (really?), the emphasis on baptism throughout the New Testament and the beauty in the cleansing that comes from the blood of Christ as shared in these and other salvation stories is why I wrote "The Blood and the River."

Q:  What are your hopes for this album?  How do you wish these songs would impact the lives of your listeners?   

​I kind of touched on this earlier in some of my answers, I guess, but to reiterate I would have to say that I want people to take from the songs what they need where they are. That's really how God's speaks to us - he shows the truth we need when we need it and as we seek it. (Matthew 7:7-8) The word gospel means good news, so I hope this album of music can offer something good to each person who listens. What good that is specifically will vary depending on why a person is listening. Even if it only provides someone with some uplifting or pleasant driving music, that's good! If it moves someone to seek God and His son more deeply, that's the best! My plan for the official release is for all proceeds from that evening's cd sales to go toward a good cause, a local charity. After all, God is good! Thank you again for highlighting the album.


TWITTER: @LatresaSignal
INSTAGRAM: @ReachLatresa 

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