27 May Smith & Yarn’s New Album Mixes Reggae, Country, and More
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
Blending distinct, seemingly opposite musical genres doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s pure serendipity to the ear. Take the recent reggae-country record from Portland, Ore.-area family musicians Aaron Nigil Smith and Red Yarn (Andy Furgeson). While Smith can belt out super-soulful, upbeat reggae-and-pop tunes, singer and puppeteer Red Yarn approaches his tunes with an earnest, folksy, country-infused Texan vibe.
But when they came together during the pandemic, the result was pure musical harmony.
“We shared a studio space during the initial phase of the shutdown where we would livestream events and classes for kids and families,” recalls Smith. “During one of our studio hangs, I pitched him on a country reggae album and BOOM! We got to work!”
Their debut record is uplifting in spirit, and grounded in songs centered on human connection.
The catchy opener, “Brothers and Sisters” is a standout — Smith’s powerful soulful vocals are buoyed by Yarn’s distinct, more nasal harmonies, atop a blending of banjo and guitars. It’s also easy to sing along with and sets the tone for the rest of the record.
Unexpected collaborations with artists like our favorite country mama Rissi Palmer on “Never Be Alone,” are a welcome addition. “Truth,” featuring Kelli Welli, Mo Philips, Saul Paul, and Cathy & Marcy, takes me back to singalongs at camp in the Shenandoah Mountains, but with an important message on the risk of misinformation. And the kids will love the upbeat, modern square-dance ditty, “Swing Your Partner,” featuring Karen K.
We recently caught up with Smith & Yarn to talk more about the record, performing this summer, and family time.
Rockmommy: How did you two meet, and more important, realize that you’d like to record an album together?
Aaron Nigil Smith: I believe Andy and I first connected at the Rox in Sox Children’s Music & Book Festival. It’s a festival that I used to produce for families in the Portland area. We shared a studio space during the initial phase of the shutdown where we would livestream events and classes for kids and families. We had discussed a few potential collaborations over the years. During one of our studio hangs, I pitched him on a country reggae album and BOOM! we got to work!
Rockmommy: This record is so fun and cute — it’s not one specific genre, which is fun. Do you think artists are more open to blending genres these days? How do you do this in an authentic way?
Red Yarn (Andy Furgeson): Thank you for your kind words! I do think that there’s more genre-blending going on these days, in family music, in folk music, and beyond. First, we’re seeing lots of collaborations between diverse artists in the spirit of unity, which leads to exciting combinations of sounds.
There’s also a growing awareness of the deep African roots of American folk music, which helps break down barriers between genres like country and reggae, or bluegrass and hip-hop. For this collaboration, Aaron and I tried to write songs that felt honest to both of us, that we could each sing and play comfortably. By recording with amazing musicians from a variety of genres, the sounds all seemed to blend together naturally.
Rockmommy: Who is your biggest musical inspiration?
Aaron Nigil Smith: In my early years Bach was probably my biggest musical influence. After performing the St. Matthew’s Passion, B Minor Mass, and St. John’s Passion at Carnegie Hall in honor of the composer’s 300th birthday I knew that I wanted to be a musician as a profession.
In my later years Bob Marley has been the biggest inspiration. I taught myself to play guitar to his music. His messages of cultural pride, love and unity have helped to become the man that I am today.
Rockmommy: What’s your favorite part about writing music that listeners of all ages can connect to?
Red Yarn: I love hearing from families who have found meaning, joy, and connection in my music. Aaron and I both try to write music that is accessible and appealing for kids and grown-ups alike. When a family tells me that my music was the soundtrack to a joyful living room dance party, a memorable road trip, or a major milestone, then I know I’m doing something right. Of course, I also love to see those moments of intergenerational joy and connection happen right in front of me during live performances!
Rockmommy: Any plans on touring together to support the record?
Aaron Nigil Smith: YES!! We have shows at Wolf Trap, Levitt Pavilion CT, Portland Parks & Recreation, & Pickathon so far! We are super excited to perform songs from Smith Yarn live for families on both coasts this summer. We’ll be posting details soon on Smithandyarn.com.
Rockmommy: What’s the best thing a fan’s ever said to you?
Red Yarn: It’s not so much what children say, but what they do after they get home from the show. My favorite is seeing videos of kids putting on their own shows at home, imitating my songs and routines, or better yet, coming up with their own creative performances. I love knowing that the work we do is inspiring young people in real time and encouraging them to express themselves in new, exciting ways.
Rockmommy: How are you balancing this project with family time?
Aaron Nigil Smith: Incredibly, both my kids are grown, which makes family time a little tricky these days. This is one of the first albums that they haven’t contributed to in some way. My oldest son Zion has taken on some of my teaching load, so we’ve been able to hang out while I’m training him. My younger son Eden and I fit in a couple fishing trips over the past few months which inspired “The River Song” on Smith & Yarn.
My wife Diedre and I have been on a DIY home renovation kick for the past 6 months, so that has helped to keep us connected. We’ve found creative ways to squeeze in some quality family time in the midst of the album production and drop.
Red Yarn: I have an eight-year-old and a five-year-old, so there’s never a dull moment around here! I squeeze in work and creative time when they’re at school or after they go to bed. My wife is a high school teacher, so I take on more dad duties during the week, then usually fill one weekend day with performances.
When Aaron and I started this project during the pandemic, performance work was slower so I had more time to focus on new creative projects. I feel so lucky to have found a career that’s so family friendly — both in the flexibility of my time, and in that my kids can engage with what I’m creating. They love Aaron and our Smith & Yarn songs!