By Michelle Trauring
When LeRoy Bell first played his song, “America,” for anyone but himself, it was to an immediately enthused audience of one: G.E. Smith.
And neither of them knew how timely their future single would be.
Sitting in his Amagansett living room, Smith rocked to the steady blues groove as Bell strummed his guitar and achingly sang candid lyrics about a country he no longer recognizes, one dominated by deception, manipulation and the destruction of American democracy.
The words had come pouring out of him just a couple months before flying out from his home in Seattle to meet Smith. He couldn’t stand to be a silent witness to injustice anymore. He was ready to truly use his voice and, ultimately, shine a light on bubbling unrest across the country.
When the two musicians hit the recording studio a couple days after their living room jam session, it was January 2019 — more than a full year before the murder of George Floyd that sparked a resurgence of the civil rights movement, all against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The beginnings were there. It’s not like I had a crystal ball,” Bell said of writing the protest song lyrics. “I could just feel that already happening. I was turning on the TV and seeing crazy images of people being separated from their children and put into cages, and all this crazy stuff going on. I was just like, ‘Is this the country that I remember that’s supposed to stand for this and that?’
“I’m not saying this country is perfect,” he continued. “It’s always a work in progress and at least you want to keep going forward and progressing and evolving, and then all of a sudden we’re going downhill. It’s depressing.”
The song would anchor and inspire their upcoming collaborative album, “Stony Hill,” out Friday, August 28, in conjunction with an outdoor concert at Guild Hall in East Hampton to commemorate the occasion, explained Taylor Barton, executive producer of the record and Smith’s wife.
“There is a huge democracy of people who have been alienated, and this is giving them a voice,” she said. “These are the people who are not choosing sides, who are not choosing to be divisive, who are not going along with what has become the America today. These are people who are living, breathing, pioneering through this to come to a higher place. These people are screaming for this.”
And so was Smith, without necessarily knowing it. The former lead guitarist of Hall & Oates — who went on to become the leader of the “Saturday Night Live” house band — has made a career of backing music legends, including Bob Dylan, Roger Waters, Tina Turner and David Bowie, and he was looking for new inspiration.
It came when he overheard his wife listening to Bell on Spotify.
“I’ve been looking for a singer for a long time — 30 years — for the right voice, you know?” Smith said. “Most of the people with the great voices, they’re kinda already taken, they’re in bands and stuff. I heard some song of LeRoy’s that Taylor was listening to, and I’m like, ‘That guy is great, that’s the voice. Who is that?”
After making waves as a finalist in the music competition, “The X Factor,” Bell had already carved out a career as a hit songwriter for the likes of Elton John, Jennifer Lopez, Teddy Pendergrass and The Three Degrees, while also releasing records with duo Bell and James, a string of solo albums, and leading his own band, LeRoy Bell and His Only Friends.
Coming out to Amagansett, he didn’t know what to expect from Smith, he said.
“I knew he was a great musician. I knew of G.E., of course, but you never know how you’re gonna hit it off with people,” he said. “I knew he had a great background and played with a lot of great people. We had a lot in common as far as music, because we both liked a lot of the same artists and played a lot of the same music growing up, and we were close in age. It was just kind of seamless. It just kind of came together. It just took off. It was almost like we knew each other before.”
“Yeah, it was real easy for us to play together,” Smith added. “We had grown up listening to the same music, whether it was Cream, or the Stones, or Rush, or R&B stuff. We both knew a lot of songs, so it was very easy for us to play. And LeRoy writes great songs.”
With “America” as a starting point, Bell, Smith and Barton fell into an organic collaboration. The eleven-song collection chronicles an in-depth look at the United States today, without prejudice or presumption, the artists said.
Songs like “Change is Coming” and “Take Cover” eerily set the tone of the divided, while projecting an ominous warning. “Under These Skies” continues a theme of strong insight into the nation’s hopes and fears. Smith’s cover of “Codine” speaks to the opioid epidemic and “Art’s Sick” is an observant song on contemporary artists.
“I can play, but I can’t sing that great. I’m a shouter,” Smith said. “LeRoy can really sing. So it really worked out nice.”
Setting the tone for the album release was Barton’s music video for “America,” which showcases a black-and-white montage of scenes from the country’s past and present, including Mt. Rushmore, D-Day troops landing in France, the moon landing and mushroom clouds, juxtaposed against Smith and Bell singing in wide open Amagansett fields.
“I used LeRoy’s jumping-off point and really zeroed in on that, and then used the black and white — that LeRoy and G.E. are black and white — and bringing equality to the people who are falling through the cracks, who are neither Trumpsters nor radical democrats,” she said. “There’s a pull of people who are like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ I was trying to say, ‘There is a nation under God, which was supposed to be America, and this is us.’ And that is what this video is.”
Decades from now, there will be no question as to when “America” was written and why, the musicians agreed.
“I always think that music and art, in general, is always a little bit ahead. And it always reflects what society is, or isn’t, or what it’s doing. You look back and say, ‘This is what was going on,’” Bell said. “When John Lennon wrote, ‘Imagine,’ we know what was going on at that time. We know what was going on when people were writing certain songs because they’re reflecting the times. I think it’s only natural. It’s just an emotional response to your surroundings.”
“I think any artist of any kind, we all have to live in the time that we live in,” Smith added. “As much as I might want to live in the 19th century, I can’t, I have to live now. So I think that a good writer writes in that timely fashion and speaks to the people that are living now and paying attention now.”
They both got quiet for a moment.
“I love talking about what’s going on, but at the same time, I’m always quick to add that there’s still hope,” Bell said. “I believe in people and I believe that we can do this.”
“He’s such a positive guy!” Smith said. “I love it, I love it.”
“You’ve gotta balance it because if you’re just gonna be pessimist, then it’s just shit, there’s nothing to look forward to,” Bell said. “The reason why I even say those things is just to bring it out, to get it out there. There’s always an underlying positiveness, meaning that we can push through this. I think we can.”
G.E. Smith and LeRoy Bell will play two shows on Friday, August 28, at 7 and 9 p.m. on the lawn at Guild Hall,158 Main Street, East Hampton, as part of the “Portraits” series. Tickets are $200 per lawn circle, which seats one to two people, or $250 for a lawn circle plus access to a virtual concert, also featuring Joseph Arthur, on Thursday, August 27, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 per household for the virtual event only. For more information, call 631-324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.