For the first few decades of its existence, relatively few female vocalists were able to achieve a high profile and visibility in the world of bluegrass music, a field viewed by many as being male-dominated over the years in much the same way as the wider country music business as a whole. The appearance and success during the '80s of headliners like Laurie Lewis, Alison Krauss, and Lynn Morris began a trend of wider acceptance of women fronting their own bands, and as bluegrass moved on toward the end of the century, more and more bright, new talents like Valerie Smith began to emerge. Although jazz and pop fans may be familiar with another woman of the same name who sang and recorded with the likes of Natalie Cole, this Missouri native who exploded onto the bluegrass scene in the late '90s won a devoted following among even the most die-hard fans of Bill Monroe's music.
Located in the heartland of western Missouri some 25 miles northeast of Kansas City, the small farming community of Holt was hometown to Valerie, daughter of musical parents David and Jean Stevens. A natural performer, she was about five when she began singing in church and developing a passion for music, particularly the country music on the radio that ranged from the classic sounds of the Carter Family to the contemporary fare of artists like Emmylou Harris. As a teenager, she suffered a severe allergy attack that robbed her of her voice for a time, so she took up the fiddle as an added outlet for her talents, but she was eventually able to sing again. After graduating from high school, she was dead set on trying her luck right away in the Nashville career grinder, but was convinced by her parents that college would be a wiser course. She enrolled at the Conservatory of Music at the Kansas City campus of the University of Missouri and experienced a widening of her musical horizons beyond country and bluegrass, into the realms of jazz, opera, Broadway, and other genres, and she later credited her college years as being a much more instructive life experience than taking on Nashville as a wide-eyed 18-year-old.
Following graduation, she returned to Holt and settled into what she expected would be a career using her musical talents as an elementary school teacher. Fate and irony intervened when she met and married Kraig Smith, whose job soon took the young couple to Nashville. Once in Music City, she became a regular at the various "writers' nights" and honed her talents as a songwriter (teaming with her husband) as well as a performer. While spending the day at a local bluegrass festival, Valerie met Junior & Betty Parker, hosts of a weekly radio program in Bell Buckle, TN, and she soon became a featured performer on the show, which gave her a valuable opportunity to work on her singing and fiddling under "stage" conditions. Radio exposure led to a regular gig for her and her band at the local Bell Buckle Café, and the formation of Bell Buckle Records with the café's owner, J. Gregory Heinike. For her debut recording, Patchwork Heart, she enlisted banjo player (and experienced bluegrass producer) Alan O'Bryant of the Nashville Bluegrass Band to produce the album, as well as an impressive cast of session players and vocalists that included Ronnie McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Roland White, Charlie Louvin, and fellow "new wave" female bluegrass stars Claire Lynch and Kathy Chiavola. Released in 1997, Patchwork Heart met with immediate critical acclaim as a well-rounded album by an exciting new talent, but it was Smith's breezy, wistful treatment of Gillian Welch's "Red Clay Halo" that accumulated airplay on bluegrass radio shows in the U.S. and as far away as Estonia and Australia. The album was later picked up and given wider distribution on Virginia-based Rebel Records, and well into 1999, "Red Clay Halo" remained a fixture on the monthly Top 30 survey published by Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. After renaming her band Liberty Pike and releasing Turtle Wings in 2000, she steadily began to book more concerts and festivals throughout the country. In 2002, she followed with No Summer Storm. ~ John Lupton