Sometimes perceptions and reputations can be deceiving. Take singer-songwriter, for instance. At first listen (and second and third, for that matter), I'd swear that Smith is a product of the Texas music scene. I'd easily peg him as coming from Austin or perhaps New Braunfels. Imagine my surprise, then, in finding out he actually hails from Athens, Ga.
After all, Smith's music sounds nothing like the iconic indie and alt-rock that Athens is primarily known for producing in the early and mid '80s. What Smith does carry on, however, is a fiercely independent spirit and work ethic. In a world where the music industry paradigm is shifting, Smith is an example of why it's a great time to be an independent artist--if you're willing and able to put forth the effort to make it work.
Five albums and more than a decade into his career, Smith might not be a household name, but he's built an impressive catalogue of material and loyal following without having to cater to the whims or wishes of a label attempting to direct or dictate his career.
As a result, he has continued to grow as an artist, as evidenced by his latest disc, Keeping Up with the Joneses. Unfettered by style or genre boundaries, it's a tasty blend of country, pop and blues, all sheltered under the umbrella of a great singer-songwriter.
In all honesty, after even a cursory listen, Smith struck me as the kind of artist I'd expect to see at All Souls or even the Church Studio. Under a decade's worth of hard work and touring, however, means that he's got an ever-growing fan base that sold out his last show at Bob's and sees him moving to Cain's main ballroom stage when he returns to Tulsa this weekend.
So what's the secret? Great songwriting is the key. You see, I'd heard of Corey Smith before but never actually heard him. After all, how many more blues-based singer songwriters do we really need? Once his latest disc slipped across my desk, however, I was convinced--if the songs are this genuine, there's always room for another.
Not quite country, not quite pop and definitely not hard-core blues, Smith incorporates a little of it all and weaves tales that all hit close to home. Whether shunning the rat race in the title cut or crooning about the healing power of love in "Arc of a Rainbow," celebrating with a bluesy shuffle with an "$8 Bottle of Wine" or expressing "Sweet Sorrow" upon ending a relationship with a folk-based soliloquy, Smith consistently hits the mark.
It should come as no surprise then that the conversation naturally turned to the songwriting process. While his earlier work was primarily acoustically driven, he said that with each record he's had more resources and more experience, making this album a big step forward for him, sonically.
"With this record, I was able to explore a lot of different types of sounds," Smith said. Even so, Smith said that he considers himself primarily a country artist at his core because he writes about typical experiences; although, he doesn't really fit within the country stereotype.
"The philosophy that undergirds my music is more progressive and rock and roll," he said.
"It's about freedom and rebelling, or at least questioning, authority.
"It's weird," he said, "because country music sounds more like rock and roll, but has a more traditional philosophy. Mine sounds more like country, but has a more progressive philosophy."
Perhaps that's why Smith has done so well as an independent artist. He openly said that because he's not tied to Nashville, he doesn't have to worry about format or gaining radio airplay and that's fine by him. It allows him the freedom to write and play what comes naturally. It has also allowed him to develop naturally as an artist and musician. Throughout time, that has allowed his music to blossom and become more orchestrated, expanding from the primarily acoustic platform he started his career with.
With that progression in writing and sound, Smith has found some fans discontent with his departure from a primarily acoustic format. While he understands fans connection to that sound and the older songs, even the rawness of them, he also feels the need to progress as an artist.
"Neil Young said a great performer is always aware of his audience, but doesn't let it dictate what he does," Smith said. "In the end, I have to make it (the music) for me.
"I'm a firm believer that the song is the most important. I've based my career on that--especially the beginning of my career. Good production and proper instrumentation only enhance the song and make it better."
As a result, Smith believes it makes the new record more accessible to more people, which is his ultimate goal as an artist, so long as he's not sacrificing the integrity of his work.
It's just that independent spirit and from-the-heart songwriting that made me initially peg Smith as a product of the Texas music scene, one which he easily identifies with.
"I love the region and the whole Texas country/Red Dirt thing--I feel right at home," Smith said.
Part of that, he said, is because there are currently many artists in Georgia (but admittedly not as many as Texas and Oklahoma) that are making a go of it without tying themselves to Nashville or major labels. In turn, he appreciates the fact that so many artists from our region are making music that's largely unprocessed by the major music cities as well.
And although Smith hasn't toured the southwest as much as he has the Southeast and East coast, he said, "My experience reminds me of the first few years of my career. People there just come out to enjoy good music and have a good time--that makes me feel right at home."
That's a good and welcome thing as Smith plays anywhere from 150-200 shows per year and continues to expand his national reach. And while selling records is nice, it's merely a means to playing more live shows for Smith. Even respected music blogger Bob Lefsetz has praised Smith for his progressive policy of giving away music and ultimately profiting from it.
"Touring is really our bread and butter," Smith said. "That's why I encourage people to share my music. When people are moved by the music, whether they paid for it or not, they will come to the shows and that's what it's all about."
With an album that rings as true as Smith's latest, Keeping Up with the Joneses, the live show can only make it better. There's good reason why Smith sold out his last show in Tulsa and his reputation as an amazing songwriter and performer precede him. If you haven't caught on yet, or are late like me, you won't want to miss his show at Cain's Ballroom Saturday, Feb. 6. Tickets are $15 in advance or $19 at the door, and Sam Thacker will open the show at 8pm.
Share this article: