Dean Smith has a way of chuckling that makes me laugh. His chuckle conveys a little blast of glee combined with a hint of mischief. It starts out nasally, then caps off in a higher and lighter pitch. It’s a chortle that turns into a giggle and it’s contagious. The sound doesn’t jive with his appearance, though. At six foot one, mustachioed, and sporting a tiny earring that looks more biker than bling, Dean is equally comfortable whether driving a tractor or strumming a guitar, one of more than a dozen string instruments he has played over 50 years as a musician, songwriter and music instructor.
Dean, who will perform with musician Russ Rentler on April 18 at both library branches, is full of other surprises, too. He’s more than a stereotypically right-brained, “It’s-all-about-the-music, Man” artist. Chatting at the Whole Bean last week, Dean told me that he spent 26 years as a technician in a chemical research lab, often working 80-plus hours a week at a job that required a lot of left-brain thinking. Over the course of his career in chemistry and his transition to a full-time musician, Dean has approached music in equal parts technical and creative.
Dean began pursuing music full-time 13 years ago when he and his wife Deb moved from Pennsylvania to Franklin County. Initially drawn to the beauty of Philpott Lake, Dean and Deb now live in Ferrum in a log cabin he built. They grow hay and vegetables and have recently forayed into beekeeping. Whatever his professional or personal pursuits, Dean is driven by both experimentation and creation. “Building a cabin is like music—both are about building a piece of art,” said Dean. “Whether it’s music or something new like beekeeping, the way I learn and teach is like lab work. I’ll experiment and try different angles until getting it right.”
Even at an early age Dean leaned toward the experimental. The first musical instrument he tried was the trumpet. He was 10 years old. He laughed, “I played it for six weeks and didn’t get any push back from my parents when I told them I didn’t think it was my instrument. I was pretty bad. I took up the guitar instead.”
Dean played in a jazz band through high school after which he attended the Jon Miller School for the Recording Arts & Sciences near Nazareth, Pa., the town where the Martin guitar factory is headquartered. Said Dean, “I learned how to record, install sound systems and cut records—literally. Cutting records was the truest way to maintain sound fidelity. Today’s digitized music can’t come close to that.”
Today Dean continues to write songs, record (he has released three original CDs) and perform. In addition to teaching private lessons, he instructs a youth string ensemble at the Blue Ridge Performing Arts Academy in Rocky Mount and another one at his studio in Collinsville. “The studio is for my students,” said Dean. “It’s a learning lab for them to practice and play live. I also bring in professional musicians to perform in an intimate setting that provides access for the students to learn about performance or writing and ask questions about the reality of the music industry.”
One of the musicians Dean has invited to his studio is Russ Rentler, a stringed instrumentalist, singer and songwriter who performed at the Main library a year ago. (I interviewed Russ last year for this column. It is archived on thefranklinnewspost.com.) Russ is a retired physician who has played music since age five and recently took home two awards at this year’s Deep South Dulcimer Championship. Russ has a lot in common with Dean. Both men hail from scientific oriented careers during which they dreamt of playing full-time. Both play a range of string instruments from the banjo to the ukulele and neither is confined to any one style of music. And both deeply believe that playing music live is as much about the music as engaging the listener. At the library concerts, they will play their original songs, tell stories about what has inspired them, and lead sing-alongs. They will also take questions from the audience about their music. With his trademark chuckle, Dean said, “Having that kind of interaction is an option that other venues don’t provide unless you pay extra for VIP tickets.”
Russ Rentler and Dean Smith will perform on April 18 at both library branches as part of Franklin County Moonshine Heritage Month. Twin Creeks Distillery will serve free mocktails and Henry Law of Law’s Choice Distillery will sign copies of his book, “100 Proof,” which will be available for sale. The same concert will be offered at both library branches.
At Westlake, mocktails will be served at 2:00 p.m. with music at 2:30 p.m. At the Main branch, mocktails will be served at 6:30 p.m. with music at 7 p.m. Reservations are required. For Westlake, call 483-3098 option 2. For Main, select option 0. The music is sponsored by Friends of Westlake Library and Friends of Main Library.