Published by BBC NEWS - 28th June 2023
  • Published
A recent photo of Samuel Smith sitting with a guitar in his handImage source, Family handout

When Samuel Smith was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 44, he thought it would stop him from doing what he loved the most, making music.

Three years on from that diagnosis, he has recorded an album with some of the world’s top musicians.

He said he recalls the moment he was told he had the disease was “like a bomb dropping”.

“I remember the neurologist looking up from his computer and saying, ‘you’ve got Parkinson’s’.

“I felt like I was being pulled down the rapids, with no idea what the end-point would be.”

He says he was terrified about the impact on both his young family and his successful public relations career, but he also feared the end of his life as an amateur folk and country musician.

“I’ve played the guitar since I was a kid – it was like breathing to me – but suddenly I was looking at my hand and it just wouldn’t move,” he said.

“I just went into panic. I felt like it was all over.”

A young Samuel Smith with a small guitar in his hand

Image source, Family handout

However, his story has become one of determination and positivity.

When his body started to respond to medication, he was slowly able to regain enough control of his hand-movements to play the guitar.

“It was like being pulled out from underwater,” he said.

“I resolved in that moment that I was never going to take this for granted again.”

He said his creativity went into overdrive and he would stay up all night at his Weston-super-Mare home, writing songs and recording them on his phone.

“I wanted my kids to know what their dad sounded like when he was at his peak, so I decided to capture that.

“Leaving a legacy and giving them something they will always be able to listen to with their kids and grandkids was super important to me, because I don’t know how long I’ve got.

“That’s the bottom line.”

Cara Dillon, Samuel Smith, Sam Lakeman

Image source, Family handout

Friends and family told the former BBC journalist the songs were the best he had ever written and encouraged him to record them in a proper studio.

“The trouble was I’ve got no connections in the music industry,” he said.

“I don’t know anyone, so I just cold-called and I tapped people up on Twitter, on Instagram and Facebook saying ‘Hey, I’m making a record. Here’s a link to my songs. Any chance?’.”

To his amazement, award-winning music producer Sam Lakeman responded and invited him to his recording studio in Frome, Somerset.

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Lakeman said he gets asked “all the time to help people to make record for people and usually I have to say no, but there was something about Samuel’s email that really struck a chord with me.”

He said his own grandfather also had Parkinson’s and as soon as he spoke to Samuel and heard his music, he was “in hook, line and sinker”.

Lakeman’s wife, folk singer Cara Dillon, also got involved, offering to sing backing vocals after hearing Samuel recording in the studio.

“I just wanted to support him,” she said.

“It’s been incredible to hear the music he’s written.

“Now it has to be heard.”

Stuart Duncan playing the fiddle

Image source, Family handout

Samuel said he was buoyed by the success of the sessions and decided to think even bigger.

“I made a hero-list of all my favourite artists and session players around the world,” he said.

“I didn’t know any of them personally, I just sent a link to my music and asked if they would consider recording an audio file and pinging it back to me.”

His inbox soon started filling up as he assembled a virtual backing band of some of the most influential names in folk and country music.

“They all said yes,” he said.

“I just couldn’t believe it.

“Stuart Duncan, the best fiddle player in the world, replied and said ‘I’m in’.

“I mean, the guy’s a genius. A bluegrass legend. He’s played for Dolly Parton, Mark Knopfler – for everyone who’s anyone in Nashville.”

Sierra Hull playing the mandolin

Image source, Family Handout

The emails kept coming.

“Sierra Hull, the hottest mandolin player in the world, recorded a track for me,” he said.

“Banjo player Ron Block, who’s been in Alison Krauss’s band for two decades. Guitarists Cody Kilby and Chartlie T Smith. And then legendary pianist Matt Rollings agreed to play.

“He’s recorded with the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett.

“It’s just insane”

Between them, the artists who agreed to help Samuel have won 27 Grammy awards.

Rollings said he was “honoured to be a small part” of the project, adding: “Samuel is an inspiration.”

“He embodies what it means to be an artist.

“Here is a man who, under the most difficult circumstances, leans into the process with all of his being.

“And, out of this, appears a most beautiful piece of art.”

The resulting album, In The Springtime, was mixed in Nashville by engineer Brandon Bell, who recently won a Grammy for his work with Brandi Carlile.

It will be released on 28 June, with all proceeds going to the charity Parkinson’s UK.

A photo of Samuel Smith

Image source, Family handout

Samuel has dedicated it to his late uncle, George Smith, who was also a keen amateur musician and who recorded some backing vocals shortly before he died.

He hopes it will prompt a wider debate about the power of the arts and creativity.

“Doing this has helped me so much,” he said.

“And I hope it inspires other people to pick up a pen, go on a walk or sing in the shower.

“It’s not easy. It can be very, very hard. But it’s possible.

“And I hope my story sends a really powerful message.”

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