Sperryville column for Aug. 25

The Smiggy enigma

Rappahannock is chock full of fascinating folks, from families who share stories of ancestors who colored the gentle hillsides with crops and livestock and ran profitable businesses, to skilled craftsmen, musicians, artists, present-day business folks, politicos and cattle farmers. Adding to the rich Rappahannock palette of talent are folks whose stories and lifestyle are the stuff of pop legends, and the stories they sing are ballads of a different sort.

Robert "Smiggy" Smith performs during a recent gig at Tula's Restaurant.By John McCaslin
Robert “Smiggy” Smith performs during a recent gig at Tula’s Restaurant.

Robert “Smiggy” Smith is one such living ballad. He and his beautiful wife Kathryn Walker, a local businesswoman and highly skilled masseuse, share their lives quietly in magical Swindler Hollow. Smiggy, however, is not the quiet sort by nature. In fact he’s a well-known local musician and wood craftsman, a Scot who has traversed the world and played with renowned bands, a child of the ’60s who makes vintage images of Woodstock spring back to life.

His eyes were filled with merriment as he recently regaled an impromptu and intimate audience at Tula’s with stories of famous musicians, of the old days, his charming brogue and bawdy humor a killer combo. He’s a man of substance, a lifetime of experience etched in his always-ready-to-smile, white-bearded face.

He tells me he was beguiled by music at a young age, especially the music of the blues and the sound of the guitar. His first guitar was no less than a plastic Elvis Presley stringed instrument given to him by his folks. Smiggy was born in Germany to a German mother and a Scottish father, after whom he was named. His parents met in Germany during World War II; his dad was a soldier.

At a young age Smiggy moved to Scotland, but speaks the “Deutsch” to this day, a fact that established between us an immediate rapport. Smiggy came from a family of musicians; his dad was an accomplished pianist, his grandfather possessed a gift for the four-stringed banjo and the fiddle and had a formidable tenor voice. Smiggy, not surprisingly, started a band in high school, the first of several during his career. He initially played weddings and clubs, married young, had a child and quit music to support his family. As he’d studied chemistry in school, the natural career path found him at a lab.

After a time, and a broken first marriage, music called to him once again, heralding the beginning of his worldwide travels spanning continents from Europe to Australia, Canada and the States. He’s worked as a guitarist and recording engineer with the likes of Journey, Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead, John Lee Hooker, the English band Blue and the Aussie band Dingoes. He’s collaborated with folks involved with Neil Young, been signed to A&M Records and worked with Buffy Saint Marie, David Soul, Writing on the Wall, Robin Trower and others.

His roots in Rappahannock run deep. He initially came to Front Royal, where he played at gigs like the Hideaway but eventually migrated to Rappahannock and played for many a year during the ’70s and ’80s with a popular band called the Okays.

He’s a man about town still, playing with Wendi Sirat and Lorraine Duisit’s folk band Mandalele, and with the Dubious Brothers, a stage he shares with Josh Lowe, the lead vocalist. He teams up with other musicians as well at venues including Tula’s, Headmaster’s, the Griffin, local wineries and more.

While music is his passion, his artistry carries over into the world of wood craftsmanship as well. A visit to Pen Druid Brewery showcases his magnificent, totally unique bar. It is made of old floor joists from the apple packing shed, with broad planks that ooze character and age. The tables within the brewery, the smooth wooden picnic-style tables and benches, are made with extraordinary skill as well.

Indeed, the home of a friend, nestled in the Rappahannock woods, is a showcase of country classic, breathtakingly simple rural architecture that complements its surroundings — and Smiggy’s masterful woodwork is apparent throughout.

I’m told by a Tula’s patron, one who has known Smiggy a good while, that “there isn’t anyone I know that doesn’t like the guy.” And Smiggy says: “ I love living in Rappahannock with a community of wonderful friends.”

Good luck, Smiggy, in your continuing adventures, and thanks for your gift of song and music, and most especially, your trademark Scottish humor.

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