How Smokey Hormel Became The Quintessential Session Musician The guitarist has played on records by Tom Waits, Norah Jones and Beck, but at one point, he was sure he wanted to pursue a career in acting.
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How Smokey Hormel Became The Quintessential Session Musician

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How Smokey Hormel Became The Quintessential Session Musician

How Smokey Hormel Became The Quintessential Session Musician

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Adele, Johnny Cash, X, the punk band, Justin Timberlake - that's just a partial roster of the artists that Smokey Hormel has worked with over the years. Born and raised in Los Angeles, the guitarist has carved an unusual path in the music business, as Alex Cohen of member station KPCC reports.

ALEX COHEN, BYLINE: Smokey Hormel's great-grandfather, George Hormel, started the famous meat company bearing the family name. His grandfather invented Spam. But Smokey - and, yes, that's his real name - says he was never much interested in the family business.

SMOKEY HORMEL: I guess I was like 4 or 5 when "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was a big hit on the radio. And from that point on, pop culture was very guitar-centric so of course I wanted to be a hippie and play guitar (laughter).

COHEN: A few years after that, Hormel was at a party trying to work out "Light My Fire" by The Doors.

HORMEL: And then this hippie guy came over and said, hey, kid. You want to learn the blues? And he showed me this really simple blues progression.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPPENWOLF SONG, "THE PUSHER")

HORMEL: And it was Peter Fonda. And the song he showed me was "The Pusherman" (ph) from the film "Easy Rider," which is actually a really great way to start learning the blues because it's a very simple pattern. And I've used that many times since but very inappropriate song to teach a 9-year-old (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE PUSHER")

STEPPENWOLF: (Singing) You know I've smoked a lot of grass. Oh, Lord, I've popped a lot of pills.

COHEN: Much like the character in that song, the young Hormel got intrenched too deeply in Southern California's drug culture.

HORMEL: And in order to survive that, I pretty much removed myself from the whole world of music and drugs. And I ended up studying acting and theater.

COHEN: But acting couldn't pay the bills. So like many out-of-work thespians, he took a job as a dishwasher at a local diner. The owner, Paul Greenstein, was also a musician, one obsessed with Western swing. He asked Hormel to join his band.

HORMEL: We became, suddenly, very popular. Paul, also, was connected to the whole punk rock scene. He booked the Hong Kong Cafe downtown. He was friends with X, The Blasters, The Circle Jerks, all those people would come into the diner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARIE MARIE")

THE BLASTERS: (Singing) Marie, Marie.

COHEN: The Blaster's eventually recruited Hormel. And he made enough money with the band that he decided to ditch his acting aspirations. But the guitarist is quick to add, playing music fulfilled many of the same dreams.

HORMEL: If you're an actor doing scenes, you learn to sort of break it down. You know what you're going for in a scene. There's certain moments you're trying to achieve. The same thing happens in a song in performance. They're both storytelling, in a way. A rock concert can be just as dynamic as a play without all the shouting (laughter).

COHEN: Much like an actor, Hormel found himself working with different casts from project to project. You can hear him on albums by Tom Waits, Norah Jones and Beck.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING IT AGAIN")

BECK: (Singing) The misers wind their minds like clocks that grind their gears on and on.

COHEN: Over the years, Hormel has developed a singular reputation.

JOHN DOE: There are a lot of musicians in LA. And Smokey has a certain quality that is what he doesn't play. He doesn't play all the time.

COHEN: Fellow guitarist, John Doe of the seminal punk band X, says you can hear how well Smokey Hormel embodies the notion of less being more on this song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE KNOWS")

X: (Singing) Love knows what you never told me. You said you never lie.

DOE: I don't think he plays one actual note. That's just sort of running his hand up and down the fretboard. And then it feeding back, and then - it's like a soundscape where other people would just be (imitating guitar), wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah and note, note, note, note, note. And Smokey just lets it breathe and lets it become some kind of a beast rather than trying to show off how well he plays.

(SOUNDBITE OF X SONG, "LOVE KNOWS")

COHEN: In the early 2000s, Smokey Hormel was called to play on what would turn out to be Johnny Cash's final albums. One day, the legendary singer was too sick to make it into the studio. Hormel was tasked with recording a vocal track as a guidepost. So he channeled some of those acting lessons from years ago.

HORMEL: I had to think of how would Mr. Cash sing it. You know, in his current condition he wasn't that strong. He didn't have a lot of breath. So I tried to sing it as best I could the way I thought he would sing it. And then he took the tape home, and the next day he came back and he just nailed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURT")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I hurt myself today to see if I still feel...

COHEN: These days, Smokey Hormel lives in New York where he still gets called up to play sessions. But lately, he's more focused on his own band, Smokey's Round-Up, playing western swing much like what he performed back in the days as a diner dishwasher.

HORMEL: We're not trying to get a record deal. We're not trying to please anybody else. We're just trying to keep people dancing and have fun playing these songs. So it's very freeing.

COHEN: Smokey Hormel says it's been a nice change of pace from the pressure of working with big-name celebrities. For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.

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