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Russell Smith was the lead singer/songwriter for the Amazing Rhythm Aces; he penned the group's "Third Rate Romance," which has since become a contemporary country classic. It brought the group some success, too, helping the group's 1975 debut, Stacked Deck, reach the country Top 15 and spin off another hit in "Amazing Grace (Used to Be Her Favorite Song)," and after a couple of moderate country hits, the group slowly became consigned to cult status, a favorite of fellow musicians and songwriters as well as discerning country-rock fans.

These are the same people who followed Smith's solo career in the late '70s, '80s, and '90s, but it took even more dedication to be a fan of Russell Smith, since his solo records received little or no distribution in the U.S., with his second album, The Boy Next Door, never being released in the States. In fact, Raven's 2001 collection Sunday Best: The Cream of the Solo Albums presents the first time most of these 23 tracks have shown up on disc, and its release is something to be celebrated, since it offers a persuasive argument that Smith is one of the finest overlooked roots-oriented songwriters of his time.

Smith's gifts are so subtle and easy that they can be easy to overlook. His music is rooted in country, but it slyly works in blues and soul influences, wrapped in a sleek, polished production that places it firmly within the '80s soft rock tradition (surely the synthesizers and big, open rhythm sections are hallmarks of '80s radio). That concession toward the commercial may not have wound up getting the records heard, and it does mean that some fans of the Rhythm Aces may think that his solo work is a little too slick, but unlike so many of the hits on the radio, there's a real mellow warmth to Smith's recordings, partially derived from his voice, but also derived from the feeling in the playing.

And then there are the songs – simple on the surface and delivered easily, they're appealing upon the first listen and then keep getting stronger with repeated spins, as the hooks really catch hold (listen to the chorus to "Night Flight" for proof) and the exceptional craft, as well as emotional depth, is revealed. Even if these 23 songs come from different albums, they all fit together seamlessly and function as a singular piece (although the one complaint about the packaging is that there is no track listing that lists the source of each track; it's possible to find them in Keith Glass' excellent liner notes, but it would have been better to be able to scan the tracks and figure out which track came from where).

This may be laid-back, mellow music, without some of the twang of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, and it's also probably just a little too mature to be a serious contender for chart action, but these are all attributes – this is exceptionally crafted country-tinged soft rock, and all those who discover it will surely find it hard to resist. Thankfully, Raven finally put this superb music out so it's much easier for the curious to find.

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