Performing entirely covers, the group of four make it their business to specialize in dance music, making them a must-snag for parties and special events. Each member of Smackwater has extensive experience playing with a slew of professional musicians.
article by VANELIS RIVERA | photography by ANDREW BAILEY
“As a band, I would say that we are a classic rock, R&B band,” carefully delineates Steve Cagle, keyboardist, trombonist, vocalist, and guitarist of Smackwater band. Performing entirely covers, the group of four make it their business to specialize in dance music, making them a must-snag for parties and special events. Known for keeping their “downtime” short between songs, they pride themselves in making sure folks get their money’s worth. Each member of the band, having had extensive experience playing with a slew of professional musicians, has accumulated distinct musical know-how lending to multifaceted interests and approaches to the covers on their setlist. Whether it’s a touch of country, funk, soul, or classic rock (where their heart lies), this seasoned troupe has found their “sweet spot,” which they vigorously display in every performance.
“Gosh, music has been a part of me for as long as I can remember,” says Cagle. “Folks of my generation, we grew up listening to music on the radio, then in church, and everywhere, TV, everything like that.” Eagerly soaking it all up, Cagle started by participating in the school band program in the fifth grade playing trombone, which he still occasionally adds to the mix of some songs. Horns led to piano lessons, which led to electronic keyboards, then around the age of 15, he picked up the electric bass. Faced with a surplus of bass players, Cagle was coaxed by those around him to focus on the keyboard, which led to a consistent stream of playing throughout high school and college. “I started making money when I was 16, you know, playing gigs.” Moving around when he was younger probably helped his music acumen, especially his stint in New Orleans when he was around 19 years old. “Coffeehouse scenes were really big back in the mid-70s,” he says, recalling his piano playing gigs in the jazz capital of the world. “I’ve been playing music ever since.”
Playing in different organizations allowed Cagle to meet kindred spirits. When acting as orchestra director at a local church, writing their charts for instruments, he met current Smackwater guitarist Michael Weathersby. “He’s been kind of known as the legend around here,” he says. An Arkansas native, Weathersby played for several years in Memphis, Tennessee. In Louisiana, he fronted his own variety band called Spice, but his real claim to fame came when he was recruited as a guitarist to tour nationally with Percy Tyrone Sledge, American R&B, soul, and gospel singer best known for the song “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
Around 2014, Cagle and close buddy Frankie B. began performing as a duo when the band Cagle had been playing keyboard in for about eight years dissolved, as most of the band members were ready to retire. At the time, they called themselves Frankensteve. “I had a little logo of Frankenstein playing the guitar for our promos,” says Cagle. The monstrous duo was doing so well, they decided to add a drummer, changing their name to Smackwater in order to accommodate the new member. As the trio accumulated gigs, Weathersby joined the fray, along with Mark Smith, who settled in as their drummer. Mark has been drumming professionally since the age of 15 and toured internationally with many recording artists such as GG Shinn, Johnny Cash, Charly McClain, Margo Smith, Pam Tillis, Randy Travis, Bobby Vinton, and the list goes on. At one point, Weathersby, Smith, and Cagle were all in GG Shinn’s band together. “People in this state loved GG.”
Then the group got word that Richard McClain was in town to do some playing. Originally from Mississippi, McClain has music history in Nashville, backing up many top recording artists. He has been on the road with Joe Nichols, Suzy Bogguss, Donna Fargo, and Percy Sledge. “His hair is perfect,” exclaims Cagle. Within two years, the band was playing festivals in at least four states, they opened up for Uncle Kracker in Mississippi, and they were also doing a lot of casinos, private events, weddings, conventions, and reunions.
hen suddenly, three years into the band’s run, in December 2018, Frankie B. passed away, blindsiding everyone. Suffering the blow of such a sudden loss alongside having to consider what to do with six months booked ahead, the group was at a standstill. Cagle contacted friend Billy Morris to help them fill some dates. He ended up staying with them for two and a half years. When Morris resigned this past summer, the remaining players had to decide whether they needed to find another frontman or take the lead themselves. “We looked at ourselves and said, ‘Well, we’re all singers. We’ll just go with it.”
“We do a lot of variety in our band,” informs Cagle, listing the band’s musical influences as predominantly classic rock, “so Motown, gospel, country, all that jazz,” predominantly danceable hits. “We’re the band that people will hire when they want to have a good party and have a good time and fill the dance floor. And that’s what we do.” With a slew of musical experience and background, each member works their own taste into the covers selected for each performance, particularly now that each band member can take the lead vocals on any given song. When Smith is “up there,” expect Doobie Brothers, Van Morrison, Rolling Stones, “stuff like that.” They also play Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eric Clapton, Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Spirit. Cagle is going to lean toward more ballads. “Richard does just some of everything,” which includes some country and possibly even R.E.M. Songs are selected based on their popularity and must be dance-floor worthy, whether they be fast-paced boogies, line-dance medleys, stomping, or slow-dancing. “It’s got to fall in those categories,” explains Cagle. Another part of the process is giving a song a shot a few times. Sometimes it makes the cut; sometimes it inevitably falls off the setlist. “You want to get it under your wings and get it going,” he says. “I don’t know if you know how old we are. We’re all in our 60s and so we know a ton of material. I tell people we could probably play for seven or eight hours straight and never repeat a song.” Even when they are not familiar with a song, playing together for such an extensive amount of time has fostered an intuition akin to telepathy. “Somebody requested a song that we’d never done as a band before and we played it and it was like we’ve been doing it together for years you know and that’s pretty much our process.”
Given the amount of playtime certain songs get, personal favorites tend to fluctuate, careening in and out of their setlist. Recently, they added a few Eagles songs after they were requested at a gig in Madison, Mississippi. Wilson Pickett songs and “some old standard Stax Records out of Memphis stuff” like “634-5789,” are considered regulars. Also, a few people may recognize “Tupelo Honey” by Van Morrison in a majority of their performances. Recently they added “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone. Obligatory Beatles hits are prevalent, like “I Saw Her Standing There.” They’ll do about three Dwight Yoakam tunes, including “Little Sister.” They even do a little “swamp pop” and “a lot” of Creedence Clearwater Revival. They close a lot of their shows with the song “All Right Now” by the 1970s band Free. “It’s a great rock song; kind of brings the house down,” he emphasizes.
Though the group plays at least three times a year at Enoch’s Pub & Grill, most of their work is out of state: Vicksburg, Jackson, the casino circuit near Memphis, Greenville, Greenwood, Meridian, Natchez, Hot Springs, Magnolia, El Dorado, and down the east coast of Texas. Though Smackwater is the kind of band you expect to hear at events with large gatherings, Cagle is particularly fond of small venues where the crowd is close. Festivals are also a compelling experience due to the short playing time and backline (the gear being pre-set on stage). Not to mention, “They’re fun!”
“We love playing here, you know,” says Steve, adding, “we look forward to playing more in our area.” The tight-knit group of musicians in the Northeast Louisiana community has always offered an environment of comradery. “We all think highly of one another.” Smackwater remains hopeful that things will continue to improve in our region regarding social restrictions loosening up, hopefully with a continued decrease of COVID-19 numbers. Last year, during the heat of the pandemic, the band lost about 50 jobs due to venue closures. “This year has been much better…things seem to be kind of picking back up,” he enthuses.
This group of veteran musicians, with their deep well of performance experience and a continuous torrent of music knowledge, are the ticket to a smacking good time by way of songs we all know and love. Like any great party band, Smackwater knows how to get a crowd out on the dance floor. But they also know how to keep them there.
Follow Smackwater on Facebook or visit their website (http://www.smackwaterband.com) to learn more about their availability and booking.