Features, Print November 12, 2018

Saved By The Nerve: Gary Dean Smith’s Voice Returns

by Jay Wallace

For Gary Dean Smith it’s been a transformative year. The 55-year-old singer-songwriter signed a deal with The Symbols’ vocalist Mer Sal and Grammy winning Jazz musician Jeff Lorber, tracking together in July at Mighty Fine Productions. Titled Awakening, Smith calls the project “the one I have imagined doing for years,” slating it for a 2019 release via a distribution deal with Manta Ray Records – a division of Sony. But one year ago, Smith was bouncing back from a botched surgery that destroyed his vocal chords, leaving him uncertain of his musical future.

A music veteran, Smith was in “a stupid metal band” from ’89 to ’92 and spent time in the Kari Gaffney Band in LA in the 90’s. At the encouragement of Greg Gaffney, he attempted a singer-songwriter path, putting together the Americana No Liquor in 2007. He eventually moved to Colorado where it seems his musical path might have permanently changed.

In December of 2018, Smith had surgery on a herniated disk in his neck – a procedure done through the throat. His doctor reassured him it wouldn’t affect his voice but two weeks after the surgery he knew something was wrong.

“He said, ‘(It’s) nothing. You’ll be okay after three days. You’ll be hoarse. It’s very rare anything ever happens,’” Smith recounts. “Well, after a couple weeks I had no voice back and realized they screwed me up!” In January, his throat doctor told him the nerves were dead, stating “if I had known you were a singer I would have been more careful.”

“It was horrible,” Smith said. “I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t call my dog. Nobody could hear anything I was saying. It was just frustrating. There was nothing moving there at all for four months.”

Figuring he wouldn’t be able to sing anymore, Smith picked up his guitar and practiced 12 hours a day. Then in February, something miraculous happened.

“I was in California with my wife,” Smith said. “We stopped at a Mexican place and I ate some salsa which was really hot. I knew I was going to choke, so I got up and started towards the restroom so I wouldn’t choke in front of people. I took two steps. My throat just slammed shut.”

After a hospital trip, Smith visited his Colorado throat doctor who scoped his chords again – this time with a smile. “He goes, ‘Dude, it’s moving!’ I had no [vocal] projection because [my vocal chords] weren’t touching. I always had a hole between them. He said there was enough life in the nerve that when it sensed the intense heat in the peppers, it snapped shut to protect anything going into my lungs.”

Smith’s recovery was hopeful from this point on. His speech-language pathologist Allison Lekich “really did wonders for my recovery,” he says. “She would grab me by the throat and literally shake it around,” he laughs. Dr. Lekich encouraged Smith to start singing again, but has still yet to sing in a live performance, focusing instead on the Awakening deal he’s made with Jeff Lorber for who won a Grammy earlier this year for his album Prototype.

“I met [Lorber] by working with Jimmy Haslip, who I met through Steve Fitzgerald. Working with Jimmy and Jeff is pretty much a dream come true,” Smith said. “I’ve been a fan of Jimmy for 20 years, listening to his composition “Evensong,” at least once a month – drawn to it because of Robben Ford’s performance. But the production is flawless. The opportunity to have Jimmy produce my project is a real ‘pinch me’ thing.” 

Haslip sent Smith a rough cut of the tune in January, which included Lorber, Haslip and drummer Gary Novak. He asked Smith if he’d like to play guitar on it, though they still had no vocalist.

“Jeff and Jimmy intended the tune to be an instrumental,” he said. “I played scratch guitar parts on it and realized the potential in it being a vocal jazz pop tune. I called Mer (Sal, The Symbols) because she’s the right singer.”

Sal elevates the recording, dotting the multi-instrumental 6-song EP with vocal-hook flair on the title track “Awakening” and most excitedly on “Lucky” – a Steely Dan meets Curtis Mayfield jazzy dancer and our clear choice for the record’s single.

Sal said of Smith’s rebound: “Gary was depressed about losing his voice – this recording was a way to keep his musical dreams alive.”

In fact, these musical dreams have become a proper comeback. Smith has announced that he’ll sing a vocal duet with Mer Sal at the Awakening pre-release party on November 15th at The Walnut Room, marking his first vocal performance since he lost his voice a year ago.

“I got a second chance and I’m going to use it this time,” Smith says. “I’m gonna take it as far as possible.”