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Sheryl Crow bassist doing what makes him happy

Web posted on:
Monday, January 18, 1999 3:23:31 PM EST

From CNN Interactive Writer Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- When Tim Smith was entering adolescence, he was like many American boys -- he wanted to be the lead singer in a rock 'n' roll band. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana native would get together with his friends and lip sync bands like Kiss, even dressing up like the motley crew, building a stage and charging neighborhood kids a buck to watch them "perform."

But while most boys gave up their dream, Smith took the path that would lead him to the spotlight, attending a performing arts high school that required students to audition before they were accepted. Then, he headed to Atlanta to join the band The Producers and set off on his career to rock stardom.

Now 32, Smith might not be screaming in a microphone in front of his own army of fans, but he is the lead singer in his own band and -- oh yes -- he's also the guy standing next to Sheryl Crow, playing bass and guitar on her latest record, "The Globe Sessions," which racked up an impressive six Grammy nominations this year.

Clips from Shiva Machine:

"No Low"
[170k MPEG-3] or [235k WAV]

"X Marks the Spot"
[220k MPEG-3] or [300k WAV]

(Sound courtesy PKA Management)

Hired gun

Smith is a part of the music industry that receives the least amount of media attention -- the backup musicians, "hired guns" as he calls them, who put the beat and sound behind the star performer. It's not Cloud Nine, but it's a nice way to make a living.

"I'm not starving," says Smith, who still lives in Atlanta with his wife and two kids. "It's a good job. There's not as much security in it. It could all end tomorrow, but it's the risk that you take. It's your love of music that has to drive you."

And working with Sheryl Crow, who sang backup for performers like Michael Jackson and Don Henley before hitting her solo stride with "Tuesday Night Music Club," just might be the best gig for any backup musician.

Not only has she become a perennial top-40 performer with hits like "My Favorite Mistake," "If It Makes You Happy," and her 1994 breakthrough hit "All I Wanna Do," but she's pretty laid back, too.

"She rides on the tour bus with us -- she's not like a separate superstar. She hangs out with us. It feels like a band," says Smith. "It's certainly her career. I won't be blinded into thinking it's not. But she includes us in everything that's going on."

Also, if you're going to be a traveling band, you might as well go first class, says Smith. With Crow, he's been treated to five-star hotels, the chance to play with the Rolling Stones, and his career highlight -- playing the White House with Crow and guitar legend Eric Clapton.

"Sometimes I pinch myself and go, 'OK, hang on a second ... When am I going to do this again?'" Smith says. "You're around a different grouping of people that you just don't get to be around when you're a struggling musician."

If you could play bass guitar, which of the following bands would you rather be a backup musician for?

Sheryl Crow
Widespread Panic
Rolling Stones
Garth Brooks

    View Results

'She was really cool'

For those who are wondering, this isn't the story of a lucky guy who caught a random break to success. Smith has paid his dues; he's a talented guy committed to his craft.

He had the choice of attending Loyola University on a music scholarship, but instead hit the road at the age of 17. After his stint with The Producers, Smith caught on with the early-1990s California quartet Jellyfish. The band made two critically acclaimed records before splitting up, providing an opportunity for Smith to follow his muse.

He worked on his own music projects, leading the acoustic duo Thing One Thing Two -- which transformed into The Umajets -- while hanging out with Johnny Colt, formerly of the Black Crowes.

It happens that Colt also had a connection to Sheryl Crow, and when she said she was looking for a new bassist to help tour her self-titled second release, Colt recommended Smith.

Oddly, Smith was apprehensive when faced with this potential break into the big time.

"I wasn't sure I wanted to go out and be in another band," says Smith. "I wanted to do my own thing. But I went out to L.A. and auditioned, and she was really cool."

Smith has gelled so well with Crow when she plays acoustic gigs, she brings him along to strum guitar and harmonize.

But Smith says he doesn't get caught up with being on the cusp of fame.

"I don't try to profile myself too highly in the band," he says. "When we go out, Sheryl gets her picture taken a lot. I'll move out of the picture because I want to have my own personality. I don't always want to be attached to Sheryl Crow, and have people go, 'Oh, that's the guy that plays with Sheryl Crow.'"

If it makes you happy ...

That's because Smith has higher ambitions. In 1997, he formed another band with Colt called Shiva Machine. While hoping for a record contract, Smith takes on a different persona: In this band, he's the star performer, as can be witnessed on Shiva Machine's self-titled EP.

But Smith's primary gig right now -- behind spending free time with his family -- is playing with Sheryl Crow. It's time-consuming. Crow is touring through February, and will perform at the Grammys. This summer they'll tour again with the Stones and play festivals in Europe.

That leaves little room for promoting personal projects. Or does this doorway to music success provide Smith with an opportunity to push Shiva Machine?

Smith says it does, but he's not the type to take advantage of a decent job.

"The president of A&M Records will be around Sheryl a lot. I've never told the guy about my band. I don't think it's appropriate. If he got to know me and we became friends and he was interested in my life, then I'd be happy to tell him. But I'm not there to push myself any other way than to play in the band and make Sheryl happy."

It's a tease that confronts every successful backup musician: According to the powers-that-be, Smith is good enough to play in a high-profile band, but when it comes to the search for the next Sheryl Crow, he's just the anonymous guy standing in the background.

"I think most musicians would be lying if they said they wanted to be side musicians their whole life," Smith says. "I certainly never wanted to be a hired gun. But I'd rather be playing than working a regular job. Ultimately, I want to have my own voice."

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