When Lawrence songwriter Sky Smeed starts his new album lamenting that he’s leaving yet again, he sounds sad, like we're about to hear a story of one more time when things just didn’t work out.
In reality, it's just the opposite.
"I'm the happiest I've ever been right now in my life, which is pretty amazing for me," Smeed says. "I got married in May of last year, and everything's just really clicking."
A native of Chanute, Kansas, Smeed has toured the Midwest, including an annual circuit of small Kansas towns, for almost fifteen years. On his previous six albums, he’s written about the loneliness of the road from many different angles. But the songs on his new record, "Leaving Again," are about coming home.
There's “Miss You,” a rocking, funny lament about what he hears the couple in the next room doing all night through thin motel walls, and the virtues of “oolong and Adderall” as travel aids while he’s racking up all that mileage on his way back home.
Settling into a comfortable domestic life, though, did not insulate Smeed from the world's current harsh realities.
"I bought a place in North Lawrence, Kansas, and sure enough, on Inauguration Day, my neighbor put up a Confederate flag," he says. "It really bothered me. It still does."
Smeed works out those feelings in "If You’re Taught You Learn to Be Mean," where the chorus offers advice to children, including his neighbor's kids: Be careful of the moment you open your eyes, he sings. If you're taught then you learn to be mean.
"When I say 'Be careful of the moment you open your eyes,' I mean when you actually wake up and are born, be careful because you can be taught to be anything," he explains. But, he adds, "You can also choose what you want to be. Always."
Almost every song on the record offers some version of hope, even if Smeed has to sweat to find it, as he does on "North Shore Trail," an homage to trail running.
"I discovered running quite a few years ago now. It really turned my life around. It made my brain cells just kind of fire better," he says. "I get out in the woods wherever I am, if I'm on tour, if I'm at home."
He even promotes the new record with a bumper sticker that reads "Positivity Will Prevail," a phrase borrowed from a fellow runner.
And he borrowed the one of the record's other love songs, "Sally" — which is one of his best — from someone close.
"My biological father passed away when I was five," Smeed explains. "When I turned 18, my mom gave me a stack of some stuff that he’d written and some cassettes of him singing and just kind of rough sketches. I found that poem, 'Sally,' and I put music to it."
It builds to his father’s request: Let me tell you that I love you/As if you didn’t know.
Smeed's father had written the poem for his mother in 1976, when they bought the land where Smeed grew up. He's performed it at shows for years and finally decided to record it.
"That's kind of how I keep him close to me," Smeed says of his father. "At least one of the ways."
He closes the record with another kind of love song — one to music itself — inspired by a new father figure.
"When my wife and I got married, after the ceremony, people were giving speeches, and my father-in-law got up said, 'Well, when my daughter came and told me that she'd found someone, I said, does he have a job? And she said, well, he's a musician.’ And you can imagine how many jokes happened."
But then his father-in-law stopped the story.
"(He) said, ‘Well, I would like you all to just sit here and close your eyes and imagine a world without music,'" Smeed remembers. "He said, 'That's not a world I want to live in, so Sky's all right by me.' It really melted my heart."
It's a good thing his father-in-law approves. Because as Smeed puts it on "Without Music," he's been doing it for way too long to quit.
KCUR contributor Mike Warren has written for a variety of local and national music publications, including No Depression. Follow him @MikeWarrenKC.