Hymns to Hard Times

If you'

If you've heard her radio single "Come to Jesus" or her cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," you know everything you need to about Mindy Smith: This woman can sing. Outside these two hits, which alone are worth the price of the CD, One Moment More aspires to be a folk album, delivering mostly gentle ballads with simple acoustic arrangements.

One Moment More reveals a songwriter with one eye on the afterlife ("Come to Jesus," "Fighting For It All") and one still in the schoolyard ("Raggedy Ann," "It's Amazing"). Smith was adopted at birth by a minister and a choir director, and she grew up hearing her mother sing at home and at church. The maternal mood of "Come to Jesus" is Smith at her most mature; it seems to summarize her signature technique of conjuring her late mother's words to cheer herself through song (Smith lost her mother to cancer when she was 19): "Oh my baby, when you're prayin'/ Leave your burden by my door/ You have Jesus standing at your bedside/ To keep you calm, keep you safe away from harm."

When the songs are not channeling motherly love, Sharron Patricia McMahon Smith seems to affect her daughter's songwriting in another way: Smith's lyrics reflect a fear of losing the one she loves. "Is my sweet man coming back?" Smith asks in the country ballad "Train Song." In the title track, Smith pleads, "Please don't go, let me have you just one moment more." Perhaps the life experience that spawned these songs is what prepared Smith to revive "Jolene," a "hidden track" in this CD; in it she voices her deepest need for human companionship in a vocal volley with Parton that nearly left me in tears.

THIS NEED FOR communion is real not only for Smith the motherless daughter, but also for Smith the songwriter, who is trying to leverage her depth of hopeful sadness into a career. As great as Smith's voice sounds, it can only carry her so far. One Moment More is at its best when Smith is surrounded by capable musicians who lift her voice to a peak of power, strength, and confidence as they do on "Come to Jesus," "Jolene," and "Hard to Know," a driving rock anthem that starts with Viktor Krauss' slow heartbeat of a bass line, grows with Will Kimbrough's echoing guitar effects, and climaxes with the band almost literally trying to "rattle the cage" in the pit of hell and take back the singer's soul from "the likes of the devil."

If Smith is going to sing of conquering hell and driving out demons, she'd better not go it alone. "Come to Jesus" succeeds because Lex Price's mandolin and Daniel Tashian's harmony vocals hearken to classic bluegrass, while Kenny Vaughan's electric guitar and Dan Dugmore's lap steel, à la Ben Harper, give the song a rocky ledge for Smith to make her vocal leap. Her voice climbs, clear and true, a trumpet blast to close out a verse in "Fighting For It All," but finally fades, giving way to an electric guitar solo every bit as important to the song as her vocals. Soaring vocal harmonies on "It's Amazing" and "Jolene" provide some of the most beautiful musical moments of the CD. In the simpler acoustic tracks, where Smith tries to rely on only her voice for the musical vibrancy, her weak writing is exposed. Lyrical banalities such as "falling apart at the seams," "it's amazing," and "life's so hard" clutter Smith's timeless themes, yet she is able to intonate even the most prosaic lines with a melodic hook that has me singing along.

Mindy Smith's celestial voice is a priceless gift. If the world is going to continue to hear it at its best, she needs as many gifted collaborators as she can find. Since she managed to recruit Dolly Parton as a backup singer on the living legend's own song, however, I'm sure Smith will find a way.

J. James DeConto is a 2004-05 Phillips Journalism Fellow and has worked as a newspaper writer and editor in New Hampshire and Ohio.

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