Resplendent in his jeans, boots, black sport coat, his head shaved on the sides with a tufty palm tree of hair on top, wide-eyed and expressive, Stuffy Shmitt has consorted with known felons and worn-out trollops on the mean side of the street. A Milwaukee native with poetic alcoholic disasters for parents, Shmitt grew up seeing the world not so much as a place for good souls but as a backwater county fair full of damaged human exhibits smelling like hay and cow shit. He’s a heck of a good time, in other words.
His latest musical offering, Stuff Happens, is a rocking, bluesy, angry, funny, howling, cooing, heartbreaking party where all the crazy chickens come to roost. It takes a special artist to write a song called “Sleeping on the Wet Spot” and it not be a novelty song — or go from the gorgeous ode to his parents, “Mommy & Daddy” (featuring strings from Austin Hoke and Derek Pell) to the ‘turn it up to eleven’ Velvet Underground-ish madness that is “Scratchin’ at the Cat.” “Mommy & Daddy” birthed an equally poignant video, produced by Irakli Gabriel and Anana Kaye.
The ‘Deluxe” version of the LP, with four bonus tracks, including a couple of remixes and a live track, drops Friday on all the usual digital platforms. Sadly, there will be no live performance celebration, given the contagious nature of things these days.
Imagine a singular voice that recalls Warren Zevon’s growl, and an ensemble that sounds like Tom Petty and Tom Waits had a baby. There’s some Americana to it all, but there’s also Muddy Waters and Lou Reed. The album’s closer, the clamorous rock-out “Sweet Krazy” borrows the guitar lick from the Stones’ “Route 66”, and swings like early ZZ Top. Stuff Happens features a who’s-who of East Nashville’s finest. Shmitt holds court on his acoustic guitar while singing, Chris Tench plays any number of instruments from electric guitar to glockenspiel, Parker Hawkins plays bass, and Dave Colella keeps everyone in time. Cameos include Dave Coleman, Anana Kaye, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Brian Wright, and Jellyroll Johnson, who blows mean blues harp on the rollicking National guitar-banging “The Good Land.” The recording experience left him moved, as have the gigs and Nashville’s patented art of the hang. “I was never a big believer in the concept of ‘community’ until I moved to Nashville. The bigger cities don’t have what I’ve found here,” said Shmitt.
Last mentioned but first among equals would be his keyboard-playing mate, engineer, and co-producer, Brett Ryan Stewart, at least halfway responsible for the Daniel Lanois-type boldly textured sounds. Shmitt recalls how they met: “I walked into The 5 Spot one night and I approached this fellow I didn’t know, but who’s hat intrigued me. I went up and said, ‘Excuse me. Are you the guy who pushed me off a Ferris wheel once?’ He looked at me and said, ‘That was you?’ It was love at first sight.”
In the autumn of 2020, Shmitt pulled his face out of a bottle and got help for the host of bad habits he’d stained his soul with over his post-Wisconsin travails — a life in the fast lane spent in NYC, LA, back to NYC, and now, here. He dealt not only with substance abuse issues but his struggles with mania and bipolarity. He lugged his tender sober ass back from treatment to Nashville on Christmas Eve, just in time for the panel truck explosion on Second Avenue. Most people wouldn’t take such an event as a metaphor for anything, but for Shmitt, the past had been detonated and, as he sings, “Something big burned down last night.”
There were other bridges to cross when he got out of treatment — namely the pandemic, given how isolation, early sobriety, and manic depression are a toxic blend. “I’m holding out hope for when we can all get back out there and just go wild,” he said. Something inside him indeed went wild lately when he played a solo acoustic set at Manuel Delgado’s house. “It was the first time I’d ever played sober, it was the first time I’d played live in a year, AND it was the first time I’d ever played solo acoustic.” The experience left him exulted. Walls came down just a little further. Persevering through the pandemic, being a good husband, working on a book, and rejoicing in this town’s community — even if it’s via Zoom these days, Stuffy Shmitt might just be one of the sanest people in town. Theirs is a hard lot, those sane village idiots, but we’re all the better for the crazy light they shine.
Stuff Happens is available now via Stuffy’s website