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Tech. Sgt. Clay Smith sings a song from his upcoming album, due out in January.
Tech. Sgt. Clay Smith sings a song from his upcoming album, due out in January. (Ben Murray / S&S)

RAF MILDENHALL — The tale of a musician’s big break often can be traced to one small event, some action or unforeseen circumstance that gets the rock rolling.

For Tech. Sgt. Clay Smith from Mildenhall’s Air Terminal Operations Center, that event may have been a nine-minute phone call on Nov. 22.

On the other end of the line were conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh and 20 million of his listeners. Smith had phoned during Limbaugh’s live call-in show, and the two talked about a range of topics, including a pair of music videos Smith had sent the host.

Within a week, the two patriotic-themed videos were on Limbaugh’s Web site, and obscurity, it seemed, had abandoned him.

“That opened just a floodgate of response,” Smith said.

It was a bit of providential timing for Smith, a 40-year-old duty officer who has been singing and writing songs since he was a teen. The call came less than two months before Smith’s second album, “Whispering Secrets,” is due to be released.

That album and the celebrity he’s received are a high point for a chameleon of a military musician.

A former Army satellite communications noncommissioned officer, Smith is a father of three who cuts a straight-edge profile in an Air Force uniform, but who often talks a little like a bona fide rock star. He calls you “brother” or “man” when you talk to him, and refers to some people as “cats.”

Also a prolific songwriter who has penned more than 300 original songs, he doesn’t even know how to read music and just picked up the guitar without lessons, he said.

And even though Smith’s music mostly sounds like country, he is reticent to categorize it that way, especially the songs on the new album.

“It’s kind of country-folk-rock,” he said. “I don’t listen to country music. I don’t think I own a country album.”

But one theme some of his music does have, he said, is an openly patriotic message. Indeed, the two songs he’s best known for are “Wings of Freedom” and “These are the Ones,” from his first album, “Music from the Heart.”

They are the two songs that made it onto Limbaugh’s Web site, and the ones that have generated interest in the music business.

“We won’t say which major label has voiced an interest,” said Smith’s friend and manager, Wayne Fuller. All Fuller would say is that someone has been in contact, and wants a copy of “Whispering Secrets” when it comes out in early January.

The patriotic songs, though not the bulk of Smith’s work, are also the ones that best capture the essence of what he said he wants to do with his music: become an “ambassador” between military members and the U.S. populace back home.

Having served in Afghanistan, Smith said he thinks Americans in general don’t get a clear picture of the attitudes and motivations of many servicemembers deployed to war zones.

Songs like “These are the Ones” — which includes the lyrics, “See how their hearts beat red white and blue. Everything they give, Lord, they give for me and you” — are meant to help rectify that, he said.

Smith doesn’t know if the recent burst of exposure will be the break that launches his music career, he said, and it’s a prospect he’s level-headed about.

“There are no pipe dreams here, man,” he said. “What’s my marketability? Who’s interested? Very few people.”

But like for many aspiring musicians, the lure of the big time doesn’t go away easily.

“If they’d take me, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” he said.

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