Smokey Hormel was born and raised in Los Angeles. As a teenager he studied jazz guitar with the great Bob Wills guitarist Jimmy Wyble, and hung around his uncle's famed '70s superstar rock recording studio the Village Recorders. He studied acting in New York with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse, then returned to LA and established himself in the local punk and roots music scene. He was guitarist in Western Swing band The Radio Ranch Straight Shooters before moving on to rockabilly purists the Blasters, where he played alongside his mentor New Orleans tenor sax legend Lee Allen. Upon leaving the Blasters he and harp player Lester Butler launched the underground Los Angeles blues phenomenon the Blue Shadows (later the Red Devils) playing many legendary shows at L.A.'s King King Club.
Smokey joined Beck for the breakthrough 1996 Odelay tour and has been an active part of Beck’s musical world ever since. Smokey’s graceful slide guitar and samba skills helped form the Tropicalia-inspired Mutations album, the first of six Beck albums he has played on. Others include the melancholy Sea Change in 2001, the grammy award-winning “best album” of 2014 Morning Phase, and 2019’s Hyperspace.
Smokey was an integral part of Tom Waits' much-lauded Get Behind The Mule tour of 1999-2000, bringing performing verve to the stage with guitar, banjo and mandolin. He was featured on the accompanying Mule Variations album, playing guitar, dobro, and a pickup truck full of African instruments.
Smokey has been a key player on many Rick Rubin produced recordings, including the Adele hit album 21 and Johnny Cash's haunting version of Nine Inch Nails' Hurt. Smokey is featured on five Johnny Cash albums, as well as recordings by Neil Diamond, Justin Timberlake, the Dixie Chicks, Josh Groban, Kid Rock, and Jennifer Nettles. Smokey and Clash frontman Joe Strummer worked together on Johnny Cash's When the Man Comes Around sessions, their co-written The Long Shadow later appeared on Strummer's Streetcore album.
Other Smokey studio work has included Norah Jones, Rufus Wainwright, Bernie Worrell, John Doe, David Lynch, RL Burnside, kd Lang, Marianne Faithfull, and Beth Orton, among many others. Smokey can be heard on the cartoon TV series The Backyardigans. Film score work includes David Lynch's The Straight Story, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind, and Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves, and Certain Women.
Smokey relocated to New York City in 1999. His long-time love of Brazilian music led to him forming Bossa Nova combo Smokey & Miho with Cibo Matto's Miho Hatori. Smokey & Miho's live shows garnered a strong New York following and they released two EPs celebrating the music of Brazilian songwriter and guitar prodigy Baden Powell. Smokey's African-flavored baritone guitar was an essential part of Forro In the Dark, a New York band whose late-night Forro parties captivated crowds of downtown dancers. Dedicated to the raucous Bahian cowboy music of Luis Gonzaga, Forro in the Dark released two albums with guest vocalists Bebel Gilberto, Seu Jorge, and David Byrne, as well as backing Steve Earle on his Grammy-winning Washington Square Serenade album.
Smokey's interest in African guitar and Brazilian percussion continues with Smokey’s Secret Family. Since 2006 Smokey and a varying lineup of top-shelf New York horn players and percussionists have performed joyous interpretations of 1950's Congolese music in clubs across Brooklyn. Afro-Cuban styled rumba rythms and Smokey's free flowing, deftly melodic guitar get audiences up and dancing. The self-titled nine-song Smokey's Secret Family album was released in 2009.
New York’s best kept secret Smokey's Round-Up has been in weekly residence at Sunny’s bar in Brooklyn since 2008 – a holdout on the Red Hook waterfront. The Round-Up is Smokey’s return to his early love of 1930s Western Swing music - country music for dancers. The tight four-piece band wows Sunny's crowds with virtuoso guitar and a vast repertoire of great, long lost American songs, a bountiful treasure for music lovers.
Since 2017 Smokey has worked with Sengalese musicians living in New York City. His collaboration with Senegalese songwriter and guitarist Oumar Ndiyae is the new album Soutoura – produced by Smokey and released in 2021.
Smokey talks about the Blasters, Lee Allen, Beck, Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash, his love of Brazilian music, and his early days in Los Angeles.