With a deep soulfulness rooted in the Gospel-driven churches of her youth, a classically trained vocal instrument that’s a natural wonder, and a God-given instinct for swinging a lyric, vocalist Hillary Smith has been electrifying audiences across the United States for more than 30 years.
A native of Hobbs, New Mexico, Hill first made her mark in the ’80s with gutsy performances of rockin’ blues and funk, and she’s fronted a number of popular bands in the Albuquerque/Santa Fe area over the years. Chief among the early groups was the multi-award-winning Strictly Taboo, whose debut album, Playing with Fire, got heavy rotation on local and international radio. In recent years, Hill has been digging deeper into the blues with guitarist Chris Dracup and bassist Marcus Casman in the Soul Kitchen trio—yet another award-winning, crowd-pleasing venture.
As comfortable with swinging jazz as she is with funky blues, Hill is featured on pianist/vocalist/composer Kevin Hayes’ 2007 recording The Dreamer, and she appeared with Kevin at the 2007 Gathering of the Vibes, along with Joshua Redman, Nicholas Payton, Peter Bernstein, and Bill Stewart.
Her 2008 release, No Easy Way, showcases her full repertoire—jazzy blues, big-band funk, Gospel-inflected R&B, and neosoul. The album carried off an armful of New Mexico Music Awards, including “Best of the Year,” and Hill gratefully acknowledges that a little help from her friends, including Grammy-nominated trumpeter Bobby Shew and legendary “funky drummer” Clyde Stubblefield, contributed to its success.
- Some singers just float on top of the groove that the band is putting down. But Hillary has the beautiful ability to really groove WITH the band. She feels the groove deep inside, shares that groove with her fellow musicians and with the audience.Glenn Kostur
- It's not just lead vocals that set her apart. Hillary's ear for harmonies and the ability to execute various vocal layers right there in the moment proves to me time and again how incredible her gift is. She was born to do what she does.John Wall
- Hillary Smith is blessed with truly exceptional musical gifts. She really belongs in new york, los angeles, london, etc. She is world-class in every way.... But HAH, we have her in New Mexico. Eat your hearts out, NY, LA!Bobby Shew
- Whether stirring things up with a rousing rendition of a cover or delivering one of her class-act originals, Hillary always owns the stage and the audience with world-class talent and completely irresistible warmth. For any performance by Hillary Smith: put on your dancin' shoes and prepare to fall in love!Mary Oishi
- When Hillary sings, it's like you feel a whole family tree wrapping you up in its branches. It’s a big beautiful Amen.Patty Stephens
- Hillary approaches her music without fear and with a whole hearted love of performing. This translates into performances that inspire audiences and that demonstrate a very high level of musicianship. Hillary is in a class by herself!Maud Beenhouwer
In 2010, a chance encounter with singer/songwriters Mandy Buchanan and Yvonne Perea opened an exciting new chapter in Hill’s career that recast her as not just a vocalist, but as a singer/songwriter. The three ladies found a sweet spot in their acoustic trio hONEyhoUSe, whose 2011 debut album, Sun, found its way to the podium as “Best of the Year” at the New Mexico Music Awards.
Hill credits Mandy and Yvonne with helping her discover her writing talent. Though she loves interpreting others’ tunes—from American songbook standards to the low-downest blues—she’s discovered that singing material that comes directly from her own heart offers a deeper satisfaction.
Medicine Lodge, hONEyhoUSe’s stunning 2012 release, found the trio making even more beautiful music. The album grabbed more hardware at the New Mexico Music Awards and caught the ear of Avokado Records head Tom Frouge, who inked a deal with the trio, setting them on a path that will reach potentially millions of ears.
For Hill, that’s a gratifying affirmation of a life dedicated to music. Still, she says, it’s not so much the number of ears that she reaches, but how deeply she reaches into those ears that matters most.
Photo Credits: Kim Buchanan