Song Master Russell Smith Passes

Acclaimed Nashville singer-songwriter Russell Smith, 70, died Friday, July 12, due to complications from cancer.

As the leader of The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Smith wrote and sang “Third Rate Romance” and “Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song),” which both became big hits in 1975.

The Aces won a Grammy Award in 1976 with Smith’s “The End Is Not In Sight.” The singer-songwriter re-emerged as a solo artist with five charted country singles in 1984-89.

He also became known on Music Row as a hit songwriter for others. Smith wrote or co-wrote “Big Ole Brew” (No. 1 Mel McDaniel, 1982), “Heartbeat In the Darkness” (No. 1 Don Williams, 1986), “Don’t Go To Strangers” (No. 1 T. Graham Brown, 1987) and “Keep It Between the Lines” (No. 1 Ricky Van Shelton, 1991).

Russell Smith had a fourth incarnation as a member of the 1990s country novelty group Run C&W.

The singer-songwriter was born in Nashville in 1949 and grew up in Lafayette, TN. He graduated from Macon County High School and retained his ties to his alma mater throughout his life.

He formed a group called Fatback in Knoxville in the 1960s. This evolved into The Amazing Rhythm Aces in Memphis in 1972. The group issued Stacked Deck as its debut LP in 1975. “Third Rate Romance” emerged from the collection as the group’s breakthrough single. The song has gone on to become a minor country classic.

Sammy Kershaw revived it as a major hit in 1994, and it has also been recorded by Rosanne Cash, Elvis Costello, The Earl Scruggs Revue, Jesse Winchester, The Starland Vocal Band, The Drifters, The Fabulous Poodles and Roger Chapman, among others.

Too Stuffed To Jump was issued in 1976. This yielded the Grammy Award winning “The End Is Not In Sight.” The group began to acquire a cult following, which increased with 1977’s Toucan Do It Too.

The Amazing Rhythm Aces appeared on Saturday Night Live, Austin City Limits and other national TV shows. The group’s distinctive fusion of soul, rock and country styles plus Smith’s gritty, earthy singing voice gave it widespread appeal beyond country’s borders. The band toured with Jimmy Buffett, The Eagles, and other pop stars.

At the same time, Smith’s songs were recorded by an increasingly wide range of artists. Tanya Tucker brought his “Dancing the Night Away” onto the country hit parade in 1977, and the song has also been covered by Crystal Gayle, Leo Sayer, The Oak Ridge Boys and Johnny Lee, among others.

The Aces switched from recording in Memphis to making its records on Music Row with 1978’s Burning the Ballroom Down. This collection contained “Ashes of Love” as the act’s next country single.

Smith and his group went to Muscle Shoals to record 1979’s Amazing Rhythm Aces, which contained “Lipstick Traces” as its country chart entry. The band moved from ABC Records to Warner Bros. for 1980’s How the Hell Do You Spell Rythum. It contained “I Musta Died and Gone to Texas,” as well as its version of “Big Ole Brew.”

The band broke up in 1981, but Smith’s success as a country songwriter continued. In addition to the hits listed above, he penned 1989’s “Honky Tonk Heart” for Highway 101, 1985’s “Old School” for John Conlee and 1993’s “Do You Know Where Your Man Is” for Pam Tillis.

Others who sang his tunes included John Anderson, Etta James, New Grass Revival, Lee Greenwood, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Shelby Lynne, George Jones, Kenny Rogers, Cleve Francis, Travis Tritt, Kathy Mattea, Ronnie McDowell, Kix Brooks, Barbara Mandrell, Ricochet, Chely Wright, Andy Griggs and The Kendalls.

Smith persevered as a solo recording artist with the albums Russell Smith (1982), The Boy Next Door (1984), This Little Town (1989) and The End Is Not In Sight (2001).

He teamed with Bernie Leadon, Jim Photoglo and Vince Melamed to form the wacky act Run C&W. Signed to MCA, the band issued its Into the Twangy-First Century (1993) and Row Vs. Wade (1995) albums. They showcased its bluegrass-y arrangements of classic r&b songs, plus parodies such as “Itchy Twitchy Spot.”

Despite the legendary group’s hiatus, demand for The Amazing Rhythm Aces continued to grow, particularly in Europe and Australia. The band reconvened for Ride Again (1995), Out of the Blue (1996), Chock Full of Country Goodness (1999) and Nothin’ But the Blues (2003).

Russell Smith died at the Williamson County Medical Center In Franklin, TN on Friday. He is survived by sons Jesse Lee Smith and Matthew Miles Smith, by sister Cathy Smith Kemp, by grandson Hunter Smith and granddaughter Genevieve Smith.

Visitation with the family will take place on Wednesday, July 17, at Alexander Funeral Home in Lafayette, TN from noon to 2 p.m. with the funeral to follow. He will then be interred at the Testament Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial contributions to the Macon County Marching Tigers Band.

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Robert K. Oermann is a longtime contributor to MusicRow. He is a respected music critic, author and historian.

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