East Lansing Duo Keeps Pump House Concerts Flowing

Thursday, January 25, 2018, 9:20 am
Christopher A. Wardell

Dudley “Smitty” Smith and partner Kristin McCool have an intense love for singer-songwriters, Nashville, Austin, Texas, and Americana roots music, and it shows. Together, the couple book shows at the East Lansing Pump House in the Bailey Neighborhood. They bring artists to East Lansing for two shows: one at the Pump House, and another earlier in the day at the Eli Broad Museum as a part of the Acoustic Lunch series. Smith and McCool even go so far as to occasionally house and feed the musicians passing through town.

Smith is from the state of New York, but came to school at Michigan State University in 1979 and never really left. Well, except for a brief stint in Nashville for a year, where Smith soaked in everything the “Music City” had to offer. Smitty drew inspiration from the city, falling in love with the singer-songwriter genre, Americana, and alternative country. Think artists like Uncle Tupelo, Richard Bucker, Wayne “The Train” Hancock, and early-90’s Wilco, and you’re sort of in the ball park. Artists who touch the country genre, but remain on the fringes. Artists who choose to parlay through the backroads of America, playing for peanuts, while often times, living in their vehicles.

This is the music Smith loves.

After moving back to East Lansing in November 2008, Smith joined the Pump House Board of Directors, where the group was trying to come up with ideas to properly utilize the space. This is when the idea to hold concerts was hatched. Together with his late wife Gerry, the two started to brainstorm ways to bring the music they loved together to East Lansing.

"We looked around in East Lansing for the kind of music we experienced in Nashville, but it wasn’t there,” Smith said. “We looked around and couldn’t really find anything, and the Pump House was sitting right there. We had been on the board of the Pump House before we left, and got involved when we came back. First board meeting we had, everyone was worried because the Pump House wasn’t being used. There was a Yoga class, and an Aikido class. We had to brainstorm ways to use it.”

Someone had mentioned the idea of hosting music, and Smith ran with the idea after he had spent some time learning about hosting concerts in houses.

“I went, oh, Pump House. House concerts. Pump House concerts - ok!” Smith said. “I said don’t worry about this, we got this, and we started booking shows. We held our first concert in May of 2009.”

The first show Smitty booked was Grand Rapids singer-songwriter Drew Nelson. Nelson is signed to the prestigious Americana, folk-roots label, Red House Records, and has toured the United States and United Kingdom.

“We run the shows like a house concert” Smith said. “Shows at the Pump House are donation based, and all the money goes to the musicians. They spend the night, and we feed them dinner.”

Smith’s second show was the Waymores, which features Tom Kimmel, Sally Barris and Don Henry, three of Nashville's finest singer-songwriters, best known for their compositions and as writers for Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Trisha Yearwood, Miranda Lambert, Linda Ronstadt and dozens of others.

Henry helped to start the Bluebird Café in Nashville where Smitty initially saw the artist perform. Henry is a Grammy award winner, and best known for his song “Where’ve You Been,” which was once recorded by country music artist Kathy Mattea.

After seeing some tour dates Henry had posted, including a show at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Smitty took a shot at booking Henry and The Waymores at the Pump House. With nothing to lose, Smith invited Henry to play, and he accepted.

"I thought, ‘this guy has won a Grammy. He’s not going to come play at the Pump House.’” Smith said. “Gerry encouraged me to contact him. I thought, well, all he can do is say no. He said, "Smitty! Of course, I remember you!" And that was our second show. Three of the top singer-songwriters from Nashville here in our little neighborhood in East Lansing.

With the “nothing to lose” attitude, and a little help from a website called “Concerts In Your Home,” Smitty slowly started to build a network of musicians who would come and perform at the Pump House. This lead to other behind-the-scenes roles for Smith, including President of the Folk Alliance Region Midwest and Treasurer of the Capital Area Blues Society.

Sadly, after 25 years of marriage, Gerry passed away in 2014 from complications related to auto immune blood diseases.

Years later, Smith and his current partner McCool hatched the idea to feature two shows from artists visiting the Pump House for a show: one earlier in the day at the Broad Museum, with another performance later at the Pump House. McCool’s professional title is Gallery Educator, University and Adult Programs at the Broad Museum, and she helps out with the Acoustic Lunch series.

Aaron Earl Short

The next show at the Pump House is Saturday, January 27, and features the Blues inspired singer-songwriter Aaron Earl Short.

“Kristin and I 'found' Aaron at the Folk Alliance Region Midwest conference in Iowa City last October.” Smith said. “What attracted us to him is his guitar playing. Complex, not just strumming. He's very skilled, and plays a variety of guitars plus harmonica - he's almost a one man band. His songwriting, which includes some dark themes - the sort of thing we like. No boring kumbaya stuff.”

Although most of the artists that play the Pump House are national touring artists, local musicians such as Jen Sygit and The Springtails both performed there last year.

Smith and McCool plan to keep the concerts flowing with the ever popular “Pumpstock” on the horizon this summer. You can expect more great musicians thanks to Smith and McCool’s devotion to bringing great music to the area.

“It’s unfortunate they don’t really have music on campus anymore,” Smith said. “Ten Pound Fiddle has music. Sometimes concerts at the Ann Street Plaza. I don’t think there’s a lack of bands that want to play. I just think there’s a lack of venues willing to host original music.”

For more information on concerts at the Pump House, visit: https://www.facebook.com/PumpHouseConcerts

Pump House Concerts presents a special performance by Aaron Earl Short at The Orchard Street Pump House on January 27th. The Pump House is located at 368 Orchard Street. Doors at 6:30, Music at 7pm, and there’s a suggested donation $15, with all money going to the artist

Short will also appear at The MSU Broad's Acoustic Lunch on January 27th at 12:30. Admission is free.