Never Too Old to Hustle: Singer Hillary Smith

By Brian D’Ambrosio

Hillary Smith, a mainstay in the Albuquerque soul and blues music scene, is as in demand and hard at work now at age 62 as she has been at any other time in her career.

First, the vocalist and songwriter is crooning all of the standard “big band” and swing arrangements of the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra. Then there are the performances with her own band, ChillHouse, which runs through spicy covers of singer-songwriter greats such as Bill Withers and Etta James, as well as genre staples. She is also in the middle of a farewell tour with Honeyhouse, an all-female quartet known for its choral punch and crisp songwriting.

“Truthfully, I’m anxious to get off the road. I like being with my momma (who is 87 years old), and my grandson is 3. I love the music, the people, all of it, but I don’t want to be in the back of a van all summer or travel 28 hours in the car for one gig.”

This doesn’t mean that she’s sitting down – but rather that Albuquerque residents will have that many more opportunities to see her perform locally.

Smith was born and raised in Hobbs, N.M., which Smith said is responsible for her country-western twang. As a child, she listened to the music that her parents listened to, which was a bit of everything. Artists included trumpeter Herb Alpert, Bert Bacharach, Hal David, Barbara Streisand, Dionne Warwick, and groups like Tijuana Brass. Her grandparents hired a groundskeeper and ranch hand who regularly attended church. Smith would go along with him and absorb and enjoy the music.

Smith’s first solo gig was as an alternate at a high school talent show when she was a junior in 1977: “Seventeen years old and they threw me on the show. I was nervous, but I remember knowing for the first time, that I’ve got to do this. I didn’t know how (music) was going to open for me. I’ve made choices good and bad to make sure that it did.”

Smith attended the University of the Southwest in Hobbs, where she formed a rock band and was a member of the college swing choir. She was also exposed to a heavy funk and blues band called The Fat City Band. When its lead singer needed to leave, she told band members that she was a big fan and knew their repertoire by heart. Fat City hired her to front them.

Since then, Smith has visited and inhabited a number of genres and styles. She moved to Albuquerque more than 20 years ago and said that she wouldn’t trade it – or its music scene – for anything or any place.

“There is an amazing trail of musicians between Santa Fe and Albuquerque and lots of young cats destined, on their way up,” Smith said. “There are some incredible jazz and blues musicians and vocalists in Albuquerque. I hung out in New York for a while and Austin, too. But I like what we got going on. (The Albuquerque music scene) keeps you interested and inspired, and it’s a great place if you want to keep learning.”

Now, Smith said, she’s taking steps to become an even better jazz singer. This includes scat vocalizing (wordless vocal improv that uses the voice as an instrument), taking lessons, and listening to the masters to help develop her range. Hard-charging blues takes a different set of vocal requirements than the lilting melodies of jazz tunes, for instance.

“As a free spirit in jazz, blues or solo, I’m learning to condition my throat,” Smith said. “If my voice is tired, I can still sing a blues song any time, any day, and most gospel music. But I need to pamper my voice and treat my body differently for a jazz gig. Jazz requires a lot more stamina and support and rest.

“I’ve been on a fitness journey. I lost almost 100 pounds and it’s changed the way I feel on stage. I’ve got more energy, strength, and time in my life now for singing.”

Indeed, the 2021 New Mexico Music Hall of Fame inductee said she has plans to play more shows closer to home.

“I’m going to take every single gig,” Smith said. “In five years, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m driven by the idea that it may not be like this forever.”

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