He was writing music North of the Arctic Circle. She was strumming old Hank
Williams songs at the kitchen table in Alberta. Somehow they ended up at the
same backyard jam in Calgary. Next thing you know he got down on one knee and
offered up a cherry sunburst guitar instead of a wedding ring.
Ever since, Mel and Marti Smith have been making music together, writing songs and
singing in their living room and on stages in Calgary. He’s a little more
folky, she’s a little bit country. The two are known for their harmonies that
fit like a glove over a hand, flinty and sweet as honey, as if they had twin souls.
Clear as mountain water, like the moon shimmering over rivers, the stories twist and turn like the branches of a milkwood tree.
Mel Smith grew up with parents who rambled all over the Canadian West, usually in a tent trailer. His adventures include run-ins with bears, ducking stray bullets, and living in haunted houses in the Yukon. Mel’s songwriting roots draw a line through Paul Simon, Gordon Lightfoot and Jackson Browne. He’s made a few of his own records (Hwy 63, Deep Field South and One Tribe) and has played various folk clubs with a number of great musicians (The Moles, Dave McCann, and The Fates, to name a few). He’s also toured the west coast and played for nearly a decade with local talent, Jenny Allen, and has performed at the Calgary and Edmonton Folk festival, the Islands Folk Festival, Filburg Festival, South and North Country Fairs.
Meanwhile, Marti Smith cut her teeth on guitar and sang like a bird at the Last Chance Saloon near East Coulee, mostly to drunk people, who were (of course) encouraging. It was enough to propel her into the Calgary folk scene with Bufflehead, followed by gospel/folk trio the Fallen Angel Band, and more recently, all-girl quartet Magnolia Buckskin who released a self-titled CD in 2009. She’s won praise for her iridescent, pearly tones that speak of parched but beautiful landscapes.
The Milkwood Dreamers’ debut album, Hellfire and Bone, comprises 11 songs
featuring duets and euphonic harmonies. It includes a cover of the 1980s hit by
Bruce Springsteen, “I’m on Fire,” with haunting pedal steel swells by Charlie
Haze. The album nods to bluegrass in up-tempo fiddle tune “Briar Hill,” then
quiets down for old country style ballads like “When the Money’s Gone” and
“Stars on my Pillow,” which features Natasha Platt on piano. Clawhammer player Ivan
Rosenberg from Portland, Oregon, plays banjo on the album including
title track “Hellfire and Bone,” named for the hard times between
life’s happy moments. The musicians stretch their legs on “Devil Train”, a quick
little number with flatpicking guitar, dobro and banjo. Songs like “Rooftops”
are a window into the couple’s life – one they dusted off in the middle of the
night when their son Sam was just a month old and they were rocking him to
sleep. Mel would whisper in Marti’s ear, ‘what do you think of this phrase’?
The band name, Milkwood Dreamers, was inspired by the 1954 radiodrama by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood and also by the African Milkwood
tree, a gnarled, sprawling tree with a crooked trunk.