I just came home to count the memories that I’ve been countin’ in my mind
I just come home to count the memories from a better day and time
“I Just Came Home To Count The Memories” (written by Glen Ray, 1974)
When the recently closed Florida Sunshine Opry (Eustis, FL) booked its first “name” (non-local) act back in 1999, the act they chose was Cal Smith. No wonder, since Cal is an excellent singer, musician, storyteller and showman.
Born Calvin Grant Shofner on April 7, 1932, in Gans, Oklahoma (but raised in Oakland California), Smith began his music career performing in San Francisco at the age of fifteen, but was not able to sustain himself professionally as a singer. Accordingly, he continued working at various day jobs–which included stints driving trucks and bronco busting – all the while working on and off as a musician.
After his discharge from the military in the mid 1950s, Smith played in a San Francisco area band while awaiting his opportunity. His big break came in 1961, when the legendary Ernest Tubb heard Smith perform and hired him to join Tubb’s equally legendary Texas Troubadours. It was during this period that “Shofner” started using the stage name “Cal Smith”, although the name did not become firmly affixed until Tubb helped the singer get his own record deal with Kapp in 1966.
The Texas Troubadours of the 1960s may have been the greatest small country band ever assembled. Consisting of Bud Charlton on steel guitar, Jack Greene on drums, Jack Drake (brother of legendary steel guitarist Pete Drake) on bass, Leon Rhodes on lead guitar and Smith on rhythm guitar, the Texas Troubadours could play fast or slow, hot or romantic, and could swing with the best of them. In Jack Greene and Cal Smith, the band boasted two superior vocalists, both of whom would have successful solo careers.
The Texas Troubadours cut three LPs of their own from 1964 to 1966, which exposed both Greene and Smith to wider audiences, with each taking care of two or more vocals per album.
While still a Texas Troubadour, Smith starting issuing records on Kapp, having chart success immediately, although the big hits were slow arriving. The first single released, “I’ll Just Go Home,” didn’t chart but made some impact on the public. The next single, “The Only Thing I Want”, hit #58 on Billboard and #41 on Cash Box, and When “Drinking Champagne” cracked the Billboard Top 40 in 1968, Smith left Tubb to start a solo career.
During his several years with Kapp he had eight more moderate hits, including “Heaven Is Just a Touch Away” which hit #47 on Billboard and “It Takes Me All Night Long” which reached #12 on Cash Box, although it only peaked at #51 on Billboard.
Upon completion of his Kapp contract, Smith signed with his former boss’s label, Decca, in 1971. The first single, “That’s What It’s Like To Be Lonesome,” only reached #58 on Billboard (#29 on Cash Box), but after that, things started happening quickly for Smith with a three year period of top twenty hits starting with “I’ve Found Someone Of My Own” (#4) in summer of 1972. After a misfire with “For My Baby,” Smith then hit the top spot with “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” a Bill Anderson-penned song that rings as true today as it did back then.
After another misfire came Smith’s most famous song, “Country Bumpkin,” a #1 record and the CMA Song of the Year for 1974. The follow-up to that smash hit was “Between Lust and Watching TV,” which stalled out at #11, followed by Smith’s last Billboard top ten, “It’s Time To Pay The Fiddler,” which reached the top of the pile. After that, Smith continued to chart regularly for the next four years, logging increasingly lower chart positions with his hard country sound, as only “Jason’s Farm,” “She Talked A Lot About Texas,” and “I Just Came Home To Count The Memories,” cracked the Billboard top twenty – although “Jason’s Farm” clocked in at #7 for two weeks on Cash Box.
After 1979 the hits stopped for Cal Smith, with the exception of a pair of lower singles on independent labels in 1982 and 1986, neither getting anywhere close to the top fifty.
Cal Smith was 36 years old by the time he achieved solo status as a recording artist, and already 40 years old by the time he had a top ten hit, so he figured to have a fairly short shelf life as a top-charting artist in the increasingly youth–oriented market. By way of comparison, Bobby Bare’s first top ten recording came in 1963. By 1972 Bare had already charted 29 times–and he was still three years younger than Cal Smith.
Until recently , there simply wasn’t much available by Cal Smith on CD. Neither his Kapp nor his Decca (later MCA) hits were available except “Country Bumpkin” and “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” which both occasionally show up on multi-artist anthologies.
Stories Of Life on Step One Records, which includes a remake of “Country Bumpkin” and his last chart record from 1986, “King Lear”, which deserved a better fate than stalling out at #75.
Cal Smith on First Generation Records includes remakes of “Country Bumpkin,” “It’s Time To Pay The Fiddler,” “I’ve Found Someone of My Own,” “The Lord Knows I’m Drinking,” and “Drinking Champaign,” along with five other songs. This album was produced by legendary steel guitarist Pete Drake.
Both of the above CDs are decent, though neither is as good as Smith’s Decca material.
Finally in late 2009, the good folks at Hux (the British label that issued those wonderful Gene Watson sets), released The Best Of Cal Smith. This album collects fifteen of Cal’s MCA/Decca singles, plus a 1975 re-recording of his biggest Kapp hit “Drinking Champagne”. While I would have liked the collection to be longer (and possibly include some of the Kapp singles) this collection does include every essential single, with terrific re-mastered sound.
Shorly thereafter, Hux issued a two-fer comprised of the MCA albums My Kind Of Country and I Just Came Home To Count The Memories. No bonus tracks, just the twenty-one tracks found on the original two albums. This collection finds Smith just slightly past his peak as a hitmaker, although it’s good stuff.
An available oddity is Ernest Tubb & Cal Smith Together. These are the First Generation tracks recorded during the late 1970s of Ernest Tubb, this time with Cal Smith added to the mix to create duets. They are not bad, but you’ve probably heard the basic Tubb vocal and instrumental tracks before. They were issued as solo Tubb tracks, as a duet album with son Justin Tubb and as a tribute album(s) with various duet partners added.
Also available is the Bear Family collection Almost To Tulsa. This album chronicles the instrumental recordings of the 1960s Texas Troubadours. If you want to hear Smith’s work as a rhythm guitarist, however, this is the place to turn.
Smith issued seven original albums while on the Kapp label. After his departure, Kapp issued a Best Of Cal Smith album rounding up his chart singles for the label. This is the only vinyl hits collection ever issued on Cal Smith, even though it includes none of his biggest hits, all of which were on Decca/MCA. (As an aside, Decca/MCA and Kapp are now owned by the same parent company, so there is no excuse for not putting out a decent CD hits collection covering both labels). For Decca/MCA, Smith issued seven original albums.
Those folks who still own turntables will find that all of Smith’s Kapp and Decca/MCA albums are well worth owning. They all follow the usual formula (one or two hits, some covers of other people’s hits and some filler) but Cal’s distinctive voice makes them worth a spin.