by Jeff Sykes

Photo by Rebecca Harrelson Rob Roane, Gaslight Photography

|| @jeffreysykes

It’s easy to spot natural talent when it’s on display in the narrow, acoustically untreated confines of a Downtown Greensboro bottle shop.

That’s where Burlington’s Carri Smithey leaned in and belted out the lyrics to her recent song “No More” a few Sundays back.

Her rich voice dominated the inside of the Beer Co. on McGee Street, drowning out the acoustic bass and guitar “” not to mention the hum of half a dozen coolers and compressors “” that accompanied Smithey as her band practiced for what may be their moment in the spotlight.

Smithey teamed up with the musicians from The Ends, a rock trio made up of Keith Ingalls, Josh Coe and Ryan “Bunk” Burgess, to record two songs in January that were submitted to the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest. The group was joined by Greensboro’s Josh King, a guitarist known for his work with House of Fools and Roseland.

Smithey submitted two songs, and the judges selected the track “No More” as one of three finalists invited to perform at MerleFest on Friday. The Carri Smithey Band, as the collaboration is known, will also kick off the Rock the Rails series at The Railyard in Downtown Greensboro on Thursday.

The collaboration grew from a familiarity the musicians had with each other. The Ends invited Smithey to sing on the track “Memphis” on their last album, Guilty Sunrise, released in May of 2013.

“The song definitely called for a female voice, almost like a gospel backup harmony,” said Josh Coe, bassist for The Ends and The Carri Smithey Band. “Carri was the first person we thought of who could do it.”

Smithey had been a fan of The Ends, and after singing on their album, the idea came about for the group to return the favor, this time backing up Smithey and her bluesy, almost effortless delivery of traditional country vocals.

Toward the end of January the musicians headed into Dark Pines Studio in Graham to record two songs. Smithey wanted to enter them into the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest. Austin was from Boone and became known for his songwriting skill and musicianship. He had a three-year job as sideman for Ricky Skaggs, and released several popular songs during that time. Austin was killed in a plane crash near San Diego in March 1991.

The Carri Smithey Band laid down tracks for “No More” and “Greatest Love” and Smithey entered them into the contest that evening. She was happy for the collaboration, but had no real expectations to advance in the contest. She still felt the $60 entry fee was money well spent.

“I didn’t have any expectations,” Smithey said. “I just told them ‘well, you’ll have to go with me if it gets picked.’ That’s pretty much how we left it.”

The band continued to practice in February and March, planning for their first gigs together in April. Coe said that entering the contest was mostly a motivation for the band to get together with Smithey.

“We were talking about doing this before,” Coe said. “The contest gave us the motivation to go ahead and get in the studio and lay something down. It sped everything up. We didn’t really think anything would come of it.”

Expectations changed, though, on April 1 when Smithey got a phone call that she first thought was a friend playing a joke. She was at work when the phone rang.

“She said her name was Laurie from the Chris Austin songwriters contest and that my song had been selected as a finalist,” Smithey said. “I freaked out for a second. I said ‘this is April Fool’s Day, so do not be pulling my leg.’ But she just chuckled and said it wasn’t a joke, that she needed my email to send the instructions.”

She immediately called Coe with the news.

“I think I was shaking pretty hard,” Smithey said. “I told him this is not a joke, please call me back as soon as you get this.”

The band will compete against two other finalists in the country category. Each contestant has the chance to play one song for the judges, which include Peter Rowan. The contest performances will be on the Austin Stage, with the winners invited to play that night at MerleFest on the Cabin Stage.

Smithey’s song, “No More”, is an upbeat, bluesy tune. She wrote the song last year during a girl’s night with a best friend who was having relationship issues.

The lyrics describe a strong woman who’s ready to make a break from a guy who has taken her for granted.

Smithey’s sweet delivery of the opening lines “I can’t wait for you any longer” is attention grabbing, as guitarist Ingalls holds a I-IV chord progression in B with a honky tonk lick in between lines. By the time Smithey wails “I can’t hurt no more” the song is in full swing.

Contest winners will have the opportunity to record a four-song disc and get a decent bit of national exposure in trade publications. It’s a golden opportunity for these working musicians, one they are busy preparing for. The group’s set list is up to about 30 songs, including eight original tunes.

“We’ve recovered from the emotional part of it,” Coe said. “We were all just blown away. We’re working now to put together this acoustic set for it.”

Smithey is a veteran of the regional music scene, but when asked if she’s played for crowds the size of MerleFest the answer is quick and short.

“Lord no,” she said. Coe said The Ends have played in front of some large crowds, but none as big as the MerleFest opportunity. Ingalls, like many no-nonsense guitarists, played it cool when asked about the crowd. It’s his first time to attend MerleFest, Ingalls said, so he’s excited to play.

“It’s just another gig to get nervous about,” he said. “I’m pretty nervous, I guess. It’s just one song though, right?” !