Bobby Smalley

Bobby Smalley performs at the Method Cycles and Craft House on Feb. 17, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

It’s music artists who have already made names for themselves who catch the public’s attention. Even local guys and gals can find themselves on some track to fame, starting their journeys with small tours and slowly finagling bigger and better gigs. Those artists find ways to move past square one, and that’s usually when their fans step in.

But local artist Bobby Smalley, 38, knows all about square one, and not many fans have found him there yet. He’s a bartender at Screamers Dining and Cabaret in Lincoln, but he performs in as many open mic shows as he can find. Just last week, he stumbled upon three shows in Omaha before driving back to Lincoln in the ice storm. It was the first time he’d ever played in Omaha.

“I try to hit up as many as I can,” Smalley said. “I always get really nervous, but I know that if I have prepared myself, then I know that I can relax a little bit.”

He also plays in various open mic shows in Lincoln. On Wednesday, he played at Crescent Moon Coffee, and last Saturday he played his first solo show at Method Cycles and Craft House. He enjoys playing at other shops as well, like the Night Owl Pub, because he is comfortable with the people, he said.

According to Smalley, he didn’t start really playing guitar until he was 20 years old, but that was just the right time for him. Someone had tried teaching him to play tabs when he was little, but he couldn’t get past the frustration that his fingers just couldn’t make the shapes they were supposed to.

“I got really mad and frustrated, so I was done with it,” Smalley said.

When he got older and his hands became more agile, he was reintroduced to the instrument by his cousin at a graduation party. He said he just kept playing and trying to figure out the instrument, and he found that he really liked it. He bought himself a guitar as soon as he got home.

“I found it on my own without someone trying to teach me,” Smalley said.

A self-proclaimed superfan of Black Sabbath, Smalley said the band had a big influence on his decision to start his musical pursuit on the electric guitar. He said that it was a lot easier to play than acoustic, but he knew that acoustic styles would serve him better since he wanted to sing his own songs.

He said he started writing his own lyrics right away, because playing other people’s songs never felt right to him, and he always felt like he was screwing it up.

“I didn’t learn a bunch of cover songs,” Smalley said. “I was never satisfied with doing that, so I would just make up my own stuff.”

Even with that desire, it took Smalley a while before he was coming up with lyrics that really made sense to him. When he first started out, he said his lyrics were just too busy; he tried to fit too many words in too many places, and none of them made any sense.

He didn't stop working, though. In fact, that’s the piece of advice he gives to anyone else trying to find their passion: don’t stop practicing.

He likens the experience to an athlete who starts their training with a surge of energy and success, but hits a plateau sooner or later. According to Smalley, you just have to keep going and you’ll start gaining again.

“You have to practice and you have to work,” Smalley said. “Some people are naturally talented, but you still have to work with that. If you want to go out and perform, then go do it.”

He said once a person actually starts doing something with that passion, he or she will find that opportunities begin to increase exponentially.

“If you keep going, you’ll find that next eureka moment,” Smalley said.

Smalley’s song lyrics match his folk, alternative-country style with their existential themes and questioning of social constructs.

“I’m an analytical person,” Smalley said. “I’ve always analyzed my surroundings; that part comes naturally to me. I just question everything.”

He said his inspiration and fascination with social constructs comes largely from his family, which he mentioned was slightly dysfunctional.

He also loves to watch the National Public Radio show “Tiny Desk” on YouTube, drawing inspiration from artists such as Margaret Glaspy, Courtney Barnett and Father John Misty.

His own method of writing those lyrics comes from long hours of playing at home, where he usually just stumbles on a phrase or rhythm he really likes. He said he just starts mumbling along until he feels like it’s something presentable.

“A lot of times it will be a phrase that comes out of nowhere, so then I just try to build around that phrase,” Smalley said. “I think, ‘What does that mean? What can I attach to it?’”

Smalley has been working on recording an album with the help of his friend Dylan Parker, which was originally intended to be an extended playlist, but has since turned into a budding album featuring 11 songs.

Parker runs his own recording studio called Exposed Audio in a space at The Grid Studio in Lincoln, where he works with a variety of artists to take their ideas and turn them into products.

“I’m their middle man, almost like a filter,” Parker said. “They put their input through me and I kind of rearrange things and figure an output.”

That’s what he’s been doing with Smalley, who meets with Parker several times a week to work on his album. The two have been friends for over four years, so Parker has been open to spending more time on Smalley’s project. He said he wants it to be something they both can take pride in.

“I want to make sure he’s happy with it,” Parker said. “I want to get him a product he can be proud of.”

Smalley said Parker is the one who pushes Smalley to do more with his music, where Smalley would be content with handing out his product for free and seeing what people think of it. He said he’d like to do some sort of touring in the future, but right now the most important thing is building a repertoire of songs.

“I’m most excited to hear the finished product, and then potentially just give it to friends and see what happens and see if people like it,” Smalley said.