Soul belter Bette Smith is finally doing what she loves

The onetime receptionist left her former life in the dust to pursue a career as a touring musician, which includes a weekend stop at Natalie’s in Worthington

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Bette Smith and Jeremiah

During the months that COVID-19 shuttered much of the concert industry, soul belter Bette Smith would spend chunks of her day walking her labradoodle, Jeremiah, through Prospect Park, which is located just three blocks from her home in Brooklyn, New York.

“He would walk in the water, and I would bring my notebook and write some lyrics here and there,” said Smith by phone following a weekend spent opening shows for the Drive-By Truckers. (Smith opens for the band in Cincinnati this Thursday before setting off on a solo jaunt that includes a stop at Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza in Worthington on Saturday, Sept. 4). “It was a time for great introspection for me. In an odd sense, I’m almost glad it happened, because it really forced me to deal with myself, and to get to know myself better. … The lockdown could either drive you insane or drive you deeper into yourself, and fortunately I did the latter.”

In that regard, these recent months have continued a journey that Smith started in earnest with her most recent album, The Good, the Bad and the Bette, released in September 2020. On the LP, a stirring series of soul, R&B and rock-drenched jams, the singer explores a handful of personal relationships, including her sometimes-troubled connection with her mother, who died in 2008 and is remembered on the song “Whistle Stop.”

“At one time in my childhood I had been abandoned by my mother, so the whole concept of the album started being very personal,” said Smith, who pulled musical inspiration from artists such as Tina Turner and Betty Davis, among others. “It turned into an expression of my inner feelings, almost like if you took a little glimpse into my diary.”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Rather than bemoaning these situations, though, Smith grits her teeth and plows headlong into them, strutting her way through the snaking, bluesy “I’m a Sinner,” singing away the heartbreak on “Human” and teaming with Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood for a redemptive “Everyone Needs Love,” an anthemic turn that mirrors the feel of the weather breaking, the accumulated clouds giving way by force of will to sunshine.

“Sharing these intimate feelings with my audience, it actually abrades and erases the scar tissue,” Smith said. “People have life experiences, and after the shows they come up to me and share very intimate reflections, maybe on the death of their parents, which brings me to more of a healing place, which is a really great side effect to writing a song.”

Smith received her introduction to music via her father, who was the church choir director, which led to her taking a feature role in the gospel choir most Sundays, and even some Saturdays. Secular tunes, however, were frowned upon within the family home, so Smith said she didn’t consider a career in music until her brother asked her to sing Bill Withers for him while he was on his deathbed. “Your older siblings can have a 3D look at you when you’re not really seeing yourself clearly,” said Smith, who was working as a receptionist at the time. “And after that I started taking every opportunity I could, which is how I got discovered singing in front of a pizzeria in Brooklyn during a festival.”

Smith didn’t follow a linear path, however, admitting that she self-sabotaged an early audition for the stage production of “Rent,” plagued by a sense of guilt instilled by her parents from childhood that a career in popular music wasn’t a viable way forward.

“Many artists struggle with their artistic expression, especially if you’re raised in an environment where you’re not really supposed to be into secular music. And if you’re raised in that environment, and your parents put pressure on you to be a doctor or a lawyer or a nurse — something more traditional — you can feel guilty chasing that inner artist, because you feel like you’re supposed to be doing something to make your family and parents happy,” Smith said. “But it got to a point where I wasn’t happy doing anything else. … If your family is telling you, ‘You need to be a doctor,’ and you really want to sing, or you want to be a fine artist, you have to do your thing and be true to yourself. That’s what I’ve learned. And that’s the most important thing.”