“I’ve watched hundreds of acts come and go in Nashville,” he said. And he’s hung in the fight to win longevity in an industry that has chewed up and spit out tougher men than him, in a city where all that matters is sales numbers.
He built his fan base by playing 200 dates a year, bought his own tour bus and PA system, and managed his own promotions, booking and sales. Despite 10 years in the industry, he’s not living the rock star life — or even the country star life, which can be pretty sweet.
“When it comes to country music, it’s about the relationship between the artist and the country music fans. When the country music community accepts you into their family, then you’re set,” Smith said.
But for a decade, he’s just been working long, hard hours and hoping.
Maybe it’s the championship collegiate wrestler in him. He’s used to grappling with opponents and wrestling them to the ground, which is kind of what you have to do with a record company to get them to put their money behind you.
Maybe it’s his upbringing. He grew up in Ada, Okla., with a population just over 16,000 and the headquarters of the Chickasaw Nation Indian Tribe.
“I come from a small town, and I speak about small-town virtues that people can relate to,” Smith said.
But it might be the close brushes he’s had with fame — while both writing his own songs and seeking out hits from others — that have encouraged him to keep going.
“I get pitched a lot of songs. I’ve always thought I had an ear for what would be a hit,” he said.
He cut “My Give a Damn’s Busted,” but Jo Dee Messina hit the airwaves with the same song before he could get it out. And way back in 1999, he cut “Good Morning Beautiful,” which became a No. 1 hit by Steve Holy in 2002.
Despite his near-hits and long misses, at the age of 33, he’s finally got record and management contracts on the desk in front of him — more than one, as a matter of fact.
Smith is at a crossroads, a place that can make or break his career.
But why does he even need a label? Granted, Smith isn’t a household name. But he’s already had a song on more than 900 radio stations: “Jesus Runs With a Rough Crowd,” which hit No. 1 two years ago on the spiritual charts against Rodney Atkins and Carrie Underwood. He sold more than 50,000 records in the last year.
Smith majored in marketing at Oklahoma State University, and he didn’t drive across county to work as an opening act on the bar circuit. He came to play, and to do it as a headliner.
And he’s brought all of his education and experience to bear on the matter.
“A record label is really a bank,” he explained. “You’re borrowing money from them as an artist. When you do, they’re going to put their resources into promotion, marketing and video production.”
They only care about how many units he sells. They need him to move those units. He needs them to get where he wants to go, starting with an opening slot for a headlining act, like Montgomery Gentry.
“I’ve been laying the foundation. I’ve done all of the developmental processes that a major label does with acts,” he said. “All the kissin’ ass, all the behind-the-scenes work you have to do to become an artist.”
Now all he has to do is find the right situation that will let him do what he does best: entertain a crowd.
“People who are entertainers have huge success,” he said. “It’s what I do that brings back that entertainment factor.”
And this tour may be the last time audiences have a chance to see him in a venue smaller than an arena.
The Country Club
Friday, May 16
$5 guys, $3 girls