Darden Smith Is UT’s Inaugural Songwriter in Residence

Smith photographed in Austin.

It was Darden Smith’s UT English professor who first recognized his talent.

When Smith, BA ’85, turned in an essay for a creative writing class 40 years ago, he handed in a surprise alongside his blue book: a cassette tape containing a song he had written about the contents of the paper.

Michael Adams, MA ’70, PhD ’73, listened to the cassette and told his student, “You can write, and I think I can help you become a better writer.” From then on, he let Smith turn in cassettes, and Adams graded his song lyrics.   

“It was the first time an adult had tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You got a thing. I’m going to help you do this thing if you’re up for it. But I’m going to be super hard on you,’” Smith says. He ended up back in Adams’ classes for several semesters, turning in cassettes. “It changed how I write,” he says. 

In September, Smith was named The University of Texas at Austin’s inaugural songwriter in residence. Housed in the College of Fine Arts, the residency program is part of UT’s efforts to expand live music experiences on the Forty Acres, while also integrating the campus community into Austin’s music scene.  

“He’s the perfect person for this position because he’s somebody that is working on singing and songwriting from an interdisciplinary perspective,” says Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, dean of the College of Fine Arts. “He sees music as something that has a place and utility in many more places than we traditionally ascribe to it.”   

Smith’s love for music began in Brenham, Texas, well before he made it to UT. In the fourth grade, Smith started taking guitar lessons from a high school student, who taught him songs by Neil Young. One day, Smith saw a picture of Young and asked his teacher who it was. She simply told him Young was “the guy who wrote all of the songs.”  

“I had never thought about it—that somebody wrote all the songs,” Smith says. “All the songs in the world had been written by someone.” He asked her how he could write songs, and her response was simple: “It’s poetry put to music.” He was only 10 years old, but he knew then there was something special about lyricism, so Smith started writing.  

Years later, when Smith’s family moved to Houston, songs became his refuge. He went through a cultural whiplash, shifting from life on a farm to the suburbs. At the time, country music was all the rage in Texas—from Willie Nelson to Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, and Guy Clark. Smith started using their songs as templates for expressing his own emotions.  

“I would put my nouns where their nouns were and my verbs where their verbs were,” Smith recalls. “I could tell all my secrets. I could process all of my teenage angst. [Songwriting] became this thing that I could do that nobody else could do.”  

By his junior year, Smith had a powerful catalog. At that young age, he knew music was it for him.   

More than four decades later, Smith has 17 critically acclaimed albums to his name, as well as a book, symphony, and multimedia collection. He has also used his songwriting talents to give back through multiple nonprofits, including one he co-founded—SongwritingWith:Soldiers—that pairs veterans and musicians to write songs together.   

He loves the impact that collaborative songwriting can have. “Songs are about telling people’s stories. That’s why we really listen to songs,” Smith says. “To do that in a way that is not about applause or selling anything, it’s just writing a song to tell someone’s story—you could totally make somebody’s day.”   

As the songwriter in residence at UT, Smith hopes to encourage people to do just that: view music as storytelling. The program includes a nine-month stipend to support the artists as they create workshops, mentor students, and guest-lecture in classes, among other public programs. At the end of the residency, Smith will premiere a song-based project to celebrate the culmination of his time on campus.   

“It’s all born out of this really simple but ambitious argument that music matters to our community, to our university, and to our city,” Rivera-Servera says.  

Smith is honored to be the very first singer-songwriter to hold this position, and he hopes he can not only help students embrace who they are, but also teach them to lean into their artistic sides. In addition to bringing creative thinking to students in science and business majors, he hopes to also bring some business thinking to creative students.   

“I’m very interested in helping kids in creativity-centered majors figure out how to make a living,” Smith says. “Because it is a process. It’s not enough just to be good at what you do.”  

He hopes to be a role model for the next songwriter in residence by showing that it is not enough to just live in a bubble and write songs—it’s important to get out in the community and spread the message about what songs can do.   

Overall, he’s most excited that he gets to accomplish all this through songwriting: “It’s a beautiful thing.”   

Smith recognizes the impact his former mentor had on his life, and he hopes to similarly impact students throughout his time: “It really is in honor of Michael.”  

CREDIT: Jeff Wilson



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