Written by Madoline Markham // Photography by Birdie Thompson
More than 150,000 people were moving to the music in the crowd in Morocco. The size of the crowd was nothing new to pop artist Jason DeRulo, but the moment is seared in the memory of his guitarist, Kerry “2 Smooth” Marshall. He’d never seen that many people respond to his playing before. “Oh my God, I think I finally made it,” he remembers thinking.
“The feeling on stage was a high I have never felt before,” he recalls. “It was a place of bliss. Everything was in slow motion.” From there Marshall would go on to travel to Malta, Switzerland, Hungary, and Germany on tour with DeRulo.
Marshall’s story starts back in Birmingham at Purity Holiness, where he says guitarist Willie Marsh Sr. inspired him every day as a kid and shaped his early musicality. “He seemed like a rock star in church,” Marshall recalls. “I aspired to be like that. He changed the dynamics of church. People paid attention and wanted to join in.”
From there, Marshall took guitar classes at Chelsea High School—where he also was exposed to country, alternative, pop, and even some metal for the first time after years of solely hearing gospel music. His high school days, which culminated in a 1999 graduation, were filled with Green Day, Blink 182, and 311 on the radio.
At age 13, he began to “live and breathe” guitar. “It became a lifestyle, engraved in who I was,” he says. It was then that he first earned the nickname “2 Smooth” because he would never move as he played at church.
When he later entered the military, it brought not just tours in Iraq but also exposure to new cultures and music. While stationed in Kuwait, Marshall came to understand jazz and blues for the first time and won a talent show for playing guitar for an audience of 2,000. “That was the day I knew I wanted to be on stage every day and perform on a larger scale,” he says.
So that’s what he pursued when he came back to Birmingham in 2007 after his eight-year stint with the Army. He played locally at The Plum Bar and Bottletree, honing his craft and shaping his R&B chops. Local artists helped shaped his musical palette as they covered songs by artists like nine-time Grammy nominated Ledisi and Chrisette Michele, with whom he would later play on stage. From there he moved to Los Angeles in 2013 to launch a career that would take him onto stages with these artists worldwide. “Music for me is a universal language,” Marshall says. “I see how it connect with people of different nationalities. If I feel like I am upset, I could lay it out and feel like I had a way of releasing it. It’s a way I speak and communicating.”
On tour in Germany and Italy, he recalls singing the gospel tune “Oh Happy Day.” Even though the audience didn’t know English, they knew every word to the song. “That embeds something in your memory that you’ll never forget,” says
Most recently, Marshall completed five months on tour with The Groove Academy in China and played Radio City Music Hall in New York on tour with Sebastian Kole. Add that to a list of artists he’s played lead guitar for (Ledisi, Chante Moore, and Sean Kingston) and the even longer list of those he as toured with: Tyrese, Ty Dolla $ign, Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child, Fantasia Barrino, and Jacob Latimore, to name a few.
He released his first studio album, No Ordinary Conversation, in 2013, and is now working on his sophomore album of instrumental guitar originals, Modern Art, due out later this year. The first single, “Puppy Love,” was available as of Feb. 17 on all digital media outlets. In the meantime, he has been featured in Guitar Player magazine and appeared on “Good Morning America.” (Marshall also has over 900,000 views on his YouTube channel.)
No matter the venue, his mission remains the same: “I don’t play for the sake of playing. I play to connect with people. It is a dialogue that allows me to open up with people on a different level.”
Part of that dialog these days means freelly sharing lessons with his fans. Marshall has partnered with a company called Soundslice, where he has pre-recorded downloadable guitar lessons specializing in R&B. He gives away tips and techniques on his unique sound and is contacted by people all over the world—including Thailand, Singapore, Germany, Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and Brazil—who are emulating his signature style and sound.
“I love that feeling,” says Marshall, who talks a lot about the importance of encouraging others to pursue their dream, to never give up.
It was a seminal moment in Iraq, in fact, that taught Marshall the importance of daring to pursue one’s dreams and living life to its fullest. Eight of his fellow soldiers died in a car bomb that would have taken his life as well had he not left the site just five minutes earlier. “War sucks,” he says. “But in that lesson I realized God spared my life for a reason. I want to use my life in such a way that it’s not a waste.”
While he believes that means making the most of his passion and talent for music, for Marshall, it also means making his hometown proud. In the military, he says, you talk about where you are from, and in music he does the same. Don’t put it past him to play “Sweet Home Alabama” in Beijing only to find everyone singing along or to get Alabama football fans together on a Saturday in L.A. to talk trash about USC. “Everywhere I go, I try to let people know where I’m from.”•
For video of Marshall playing, visit YouTube.com/kerry2smooth or you can follow him on Instagram or Twitter at @kerry2smooth.