Americana artist Stuffy Shmitt is an old NYC rock & roller, singer/songwriter and guitarist who has performed and recorded with everyone from The Band’s Levon Helm to David Johansen of the New York Dolls. About eight years ago, Stuffy went off the rails, consumed by bipolar disorder. Finally, he got himself properly medicated, moved to Nashville and was able to sort out everything he’d created during his bouts of depression & mania. The resulting album, Stuff Happens—featuring guest spots by Aaron Lee Tasjan & Brian Wright—is his finest yet.
Forthcoming single “Mommy and Daddy”—the centerpiece of the record—is a raw, heart-crushing, gorgeously written and produced rumination on returning home to find your once-vibrant parents closing in on the end of their lives. An aching slow-burn that erupts into a memorable chorus, the song deals in stark vignettes that etch themselves into your mind.
Stuffy has been featured recently at American Songwriter, Cowboys & Indians magazine, Punk News, Ditty TV, The Big Takeover, The New York Post & more.
Stuff Happens is Stuffy Shmitt’s first record in eight years because, well, he went crazy. “I was living in New York and my brain was on fire. I got that bipolar thing. I was bouncing between full-blown depression and a jailbreak manic buzz rush. After nearly a decade of getting 86’d from bars in the West Village, I made it to Nashville six years ago and finally got my head screwed on tight enough to make a new record.”
This album finds Shmitt not quite exorcising his demons, but exercising them—wrestling with them until they’ve been knocked around enough to be manageable. “I didn’t realize until the record was finished and my wife, Donna, pointed it out,” Stuffy says, “but this album is all about trauma. Disasters big and small. It was an accident, though. It was all subconscious. I guess, eventually, that shit’s gotta come out.”
A madcap tour through the folds of Shmitt’s charmingly off-kilter brain, Stuff Happens runs the full spectrum of manic depression in glorious stereophonic sound. There are bizzaro blues rockers and exhausted, desolate Americana ballads—some bleak to the bone, and others begrudgingly grasping at hope; never so naive as to look for a silver lining, but dogged enough to skim the horizon for the dull glimmer of aluminum. And when you need a jolt, there’s plenty of naked, unapologetic, torn-and-frayed American rock & roll to carry you kicking and screaming through all that beautiful sad-bastard music; the full-tilt end of the spectrum best represented by “Sweet Krazy,” a revved-up ode to mania that features fellow Nashville songsmith guitar shredders Aaron Lee Tasjan & Brian Wright.
The story of the album begins with a chance encounter Shmitt had in an East Nashville dive. “I walked into The Five Spot, and there was this tall, skinny guy with a beat-up hat at the bar,” Stuffy says. “I didn’t know him, but I walked up to him and said, ‘Didn’t you push me off a ferris wheel once?’ Which actually is a Steven Wright line—I stole it, I admit it—but it’s a great line. So I said that to him, and he looked at me and shot back, ‘Oh, that was you?’” Yes, it was love at first sight for Shmitt and Nashville singer-songwriter and producer Brett Ryan Stewart.
Meanwhile, that same night, as Shmitt was performing at The Five Spot, his wife sat down at the bar next to a long-haired character who was throwing back Jameson and talking in word pictures about the lyrics he was hearing. That guy was Chris Tench, who would become the guitar player in Shmitt’s band and ultimately the producer of Stuff Happens. “So here’s where it gets really freaky,” Stuffy says. “come to find out, Chris and Brett not only knew each other, they had partnered on music projects for years, owned a killer studio together and were both razor-sharp rockin’ madmen.”
Brett wound up engineering and co-producing the record with Stuffy and Chris. “I’ve always produced all my own stuff,” Shmitt says. “Don’t get in the way, don’t tell me what to play, don’t say what goes where because I’m the boss. But this time I did a trust fall. It was the first time I gave up the reins, and I’m glad I did because they’re brilliant. It was magic how we fell in together.”
Stuffy took his band out to Stewart and Tench’s studio, 20 miles south of Nashville in Franklin, Tenn., where they could clear their heads and work without distraction. The measured pace and attention to detail and mood helped ease Stuffy out of his comfort zone. “Chris and I did two months of pre-production, sitting in my living room with acoustic guitars breaking down the songs. It was a new thing for me. I hate to admit it because I like to do stuff on the fly, but it made a big difference. The pre-production work gave us a roadmap and freed us up to get lost in scenic detours. Working with Chris and Brett was all about groove and flow. They connected with the stories I was telling, and so did the rest of the band, which was Dave Colella on drums, and Parker Hawkins on bass. By then I’d worked with the band for a couple of years, so they got me, no learning curve, they knew the groove and the flow, too. We’re all brothers and everything clicked in a big way.”
The lush sonics of Stuff Happens make a compelling backdrop for Shmitt’s austere, blunt-force poetry and gutter-of-consciousness lyrics. His songs are disarmingly direct and personal, built with words you might find scrawled on a crumpled napkin in some sawdust jukebox bar with chicken wire on the window and a pig foot in the jar. These are not your garden variety genericana tunes. He’s weird. And honest, too. When he opens his mouth to sing, Shmitt can’t help but tell the truth, consequences be damned. Even when he’s doing his best to lie his scoundrel ass off, he falls face first into the truth. His stories are our stories. He makes us feel stuff.
“They were looking at their photograph / Black and white of a catered night / In Madison Wisconsin / Tuxedo and ball gown / The future dead ahead / Bright and shiny like the long smooth silver car / Now they don’t know where they are,” Shmitt sings on “Mommy and Daddy,” a heart-crushing rumination on his folks’ final years.
Shmitt grew up in Milwaukee in a family every bit as wild and unhinged as he is. “I don’t come from a family with a culture of tradition. I had a drunk drummer mother who wrote poetry in her sleep, and a dad who played guitar and had a thing for fast cars. We read a lot of books, listened to a lot of music and protested social injustices. Our home was loud and nasty and violent. We didn’t spend a lot of time hugging or talking about feelings. We didn’t have religion. I didn’t understand spirituality until I dropped acid as a teenager, and when I nearly died of pneumonia a while back. And then I got manic, which comes with superpowers and parties with angels.”
Stuffy ventured to New York, then L.A. then back to New York, playing in an endless parade of rock & roll bands. It was a gas. Loud, fun, kickass shit. He was in Actual Size, X-Lovers, Petting Zoo and a whole bunch of other projects. He snorted coke with Johnny Rotten at The Cat and the Fiddle in Laurel Canyon, and he made his bones pumping through blown-out speaker cones on both coasts, stalking the stage with his gang of musicians, and recording with greats including Willy De Ville, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, The Band’s Levon Helm, Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, and Jayotis Washington and The Persuasions. But after a while all the drummers in his life kept blowing up like it was This Is Spinal Tap, so Stuffy decided maybe he’d better start playing solo acoustic gigs instead. Half a life and a half-dozen albums later, with Stuff Happens he’s managed to synthesize the disparate sounds of his past into his finest, most impactful record yet. And what better time to release your lighting-rod masterpiece than in the midst of a global pandemic?
“Staying inside all the time makes me absolutely nuts—I start crawling the walls,” Shmitt confesses. “But what are you gonna do? God, I miss just walking down the street and feeling my boots on the pavement, going into a club and saying, ‘Ok, this band sucks, let’s go to another other club.’ I feel caged. Rock & roll is supposed to be live. You’re supposed to turn up the bass and listen to a person’s guts. If you play the new record loud enough you’ll definitely get some of that, but I’m holding out hope for when we can all get back out there in the flesh, pile into a club, order two shots of Jack, a pint of Kahlua with a side of Pop Rocks, and just go wild. Let the bass echo in our chests.”