Michael McElrath with the late Mary Ellen Smith on the cover of his tribute album to her.
By Britt Robson
It is tricky business to pay tribute to a deceased loved one in a manner that honors them individually yet strikes a universal chord. Singer-songwriter Michael McElrath has pulled it off on “One of a Kind,” in large part because his longtime soul mate, Mary Ellen Smith, was a singular personality with widely beloved attributes.
Smith was an unsung hero of the Twin Cities music scene, an in-demand calendar coordinator for the Twin Cities Reader, City Pages and the Star Tribune who was known as the Queen of Clubs. She had a smoky voice, an infectious, penetrating laugh and an approach to life that was both no-nonsense and open-hearted. She twice pulled McElrath through successful cancer treatments before succumbing to the disease herself in 2011.
McElrath wrote all but two of the 15 love songs, about half of them while Mary Ellen was still alive. The two met in 1978 and helped raise each other’s children in a blended family that never felt the need for a marriage sanction. Their emotional wedding comes through in the lyrics to “I Recognize You,” the blues, “Oh, Mama,” the superbly crafted “You’ll Get Through Somehow” and “Back Home To You.”
A legitimate labor of love, “One of a Kind” was recorded in Minneapolis over a three-year span beginning in the fall of 2012, when McElrath would come up from his relocated homes in Iowa and southern Minnesota for follow-up oncology exams. It was produced by Lonnie Knight, who adds his liquid electric-guitar licks to a handful of tunes. A dozen other musicians — all friends of Mary Ellen’s — chipped in on various tracks, while McElrath is all over the disc on piano, acoustic and 12-string guitar, bass and vocals.
“Mary Ellen performed an amazing service for the music community here,” he says. “She used to get notices for gigs written on napkins in felt-tipped pen. She’d take the time to track these people down and say, ‘Is this really happening?’ Because a lot of the time it wasn’t. Then she’d lead them through it — ‘What time? Is there a cover? All ages?’”
“One of a Kind” has that same kind of painstaking passion and conviviality. “I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out,” McElrath enthused. “After five years cancer-free, I am now a survivor. For a while after Mary Ellen died, I asked myself, ‘What am I still doing here—why me and not her?’ I had to get over that. I am so lucky to have been with her. And I felt like I owed her at least this album.”
A CD release for “One of a Kind” will happen Sunday at the Aster Café along St. Anthony Main across the river from downtown Minneapolis on Sunday (8-10 p.m. Sun., $10). Along with McElrath and Knight will be vocalists Jane and Kyrl Henderson, who appear on the record and occasionally perform with McElrath as the Boulder Roll Trio.