Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene True Confessions

Songwriter delivers personal work.

By Michael McCall

FEBRUARY 2, 1998:  When the Bluebird Cafe first hosted "writers-in-the-round" shows in the mid-1980s, it seized on an inspired way to showcase live performances by songwriters. Putting the pros onstage together added a dimension to acoustic shows that wouldn't have been present if the writers had been playing back-to-back solo sets. The format proved wildly popular with both fans and performers, and it spread across Nashville's nightclubs; by the end of the '80s, this all-together-now approach had become a Music City staple, with dozens of such shows occurring each week across town.

But what started as a charming idea quickly devolved into a tedious clich. As multiple-artist writers' nights flooded the city's stages, the consistency of the shows sagged because of uneven performances and a preponderance of lame, contrived songs. Even so, the format still occasionally provides a one-of-a-kind evening. Case in point the memorable lineup that played at Wolfy's during last year's Tin Pan South music convention. The show seemed to risk disaster by inviting four willful, highly individual songwriters to share the stage with each other--despite the fact that their music shared few connecting threads.

Noteworthy among this stellar lineup was Pat Dinizio, a New Jersey resident and lead singer of The Smithereens. He was joined by Don Dixon, a North Carolina performer and record producer who has worked with R.E.M. and The Smithereens; by Jeff Black, a moody, poetic songwriter whose work has generated a few country hits (most notably BlackHawk's "Just About Right"); and by Lucinda Williams, whose carefully wrought songs have made her one of the most respected songwriters in America.

"That was a fucking great show," Dinizio says with a slow, dramatic deliberateness meant to emphasize his sincerity. "It's one of the most memorable gigs of all time for me." At the time, the rock singer and songwriter, who returns to town Friday at the Ace of Clubs, was in the middle of recording his first solo album, Songs and Sounds, which came out on VelVel Records in late 1997. Produced by Dixon, the collection serves as a vivid reminder of Dinizio's unusual ability to pack weighty emotions into catchy guitar-pop tunes--a talent that gave The Smithereens a string of memorable radio hits in the 1980s.

But the album does much more than that: It allows Dinizio to display a newfound artistic breadth. From the soul-baring melancholy of the album's moody opener, "Where I Am Going," to the jazz-tinged, cabaret pop of the closing "I'd Rather Have the Blues (Than What I've Got)," Dinizio proves he's capable of creating distinctly personal songs in a wide variety of musical settings.

Dinizio premiered several of his new compositions during the Tin Pan South performance, and his presence was one of the reasons why the evening turned out to be such a treat. But it was the way the four divergent songwriters played off each other that truly elevated the evening. Dinizio had never seen Williams perform, and he evidently wasn't aware of just how effective her best work can be. Each time she took a turn at the mic, his admiration for her became more animated and obvious. The order of the lineup put Dinizio after Williams; both inspired and challenged by her presence, the singer poured himself into his songs with pointed passion, emphasizing the complex tangle of emotions that runs through both his well-known hits and his newer, more personal tunes.

"There was a nice little sexual dynamic going on there," Dinizio recalls, chuckling. For her part, Williams was equally unrestrained in exhibiting her appreciation for Dinizio. The intimate setting highlighted the full-bodied persuasiveness of his masculine vocal style, which combines a deep tone with subtly dramatic phrasing. By turns passionate, belligerent, and self-pitying, his emotionally vivid lyrics cut through the taut, propulsive melodies with particular potency that night.

Solo excursion Pat Dinizio, right, with supporting players J.J. Burnel, center, and Tony Smith; after his current tour, he'll revive The Smithereens once more.

As Dinizio's songs connected with the audience, Williams echoed the crowd's admiration. At first, she earnestly applauded after each song and injected a few words of praise. As selection after selection of Dinizio's proved equally powerful, Williams confessed that she hadn't realized how many memorable hits The Smithereens had scored over the years. (The list includes "Only a Memory," "Blues Before and After," "Drown in My Own Tears," "House We Used to Live In," "Yesterday Girl," "Strangers When We Meet," and "Beauty and Sadness," the last song a concise summation of Dinizio's romantic obsessions.)

"We did have a lot of hits, but people don't realize it," Dinizio says, quickly pointing out that The Smithereens remain together after 17 years. The band is also signed to VelVel Records, and later this year will release its eighth album (not counting 1995's greatest-hits compilation, Blown to Smithereens). "People know the songs," he adds. "We got a lot of radio play when they came out, [and] they're still getting played a lot now. But people don't always associate the songs with the band. A diehard fan will bring someone to a show for the first time, and they'll end up saying, 'Hey, I know these songs. I like these songs.' For some reason, we never seemed to develop the kind of profile that usually goes with having all the hits we've had. It's frustrating, but what do you do?"

In Dinizio's case, he took a break from the group. "In a short period of time, I was forced to deal with the loss of a marriage and the near demise of the band," he says. "We lost our record deal and our publishing deal. It's a hard thing to go through, but a lot of working people go through stuff like that." The experiences provided grist for Songs and Sounds, which ranks among Dinizio's most richly textured work; it may even be the most consistent collection he's ever released. At the very least, it stands alongside such Smithereens high points as 1988's Green Thoughts and 1986's Especially for You.

"One thing for certain is that it's the most personal album I've ever done," the singer contends. For proof, he singles out the song "Liza," which is about "the quandary of being separated from your child by divorce," he says. "It's real close to the bone; I almost didn't put it on the album. It's a painful song, and I thought maybe it was too personal to put on there. But it's become a favorite of a lot of people, because it's real." In the meantime, Dinizio has become newly committed to bringing The Smithereens back to the top of the pops. "How many bands have been together as long as we have, without any [personnel] changes?" he says of the quartet, which includes childhood friends Jim Babjak on guitar, Mike Mesaros on bass, and Dennis Diken on drums. "We've survived longer than 98 percent of the bands from the same era. I think it's due to having a blue-collar, New Jersey work ethic. That ethic was instilled in us when we were young. We're from a refinery town; I've worked as a garbage man. We've always believed in ourselves and had the tenacity to do what it took. It's still in us, or we wouldn't be here."

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