By Maxim Mower
The deeper you delve into Smoky Mountains, the debut album from contemporary country prodigy, Conner Smith, the more elusive the Tennessee native's sound becomes.
Is he the Appalachian-inspired folkster from the title-track? Is he the Radio-friendly crooner that drives ’Take It Slow’? Or is Smith better encapsulated as the joyously twangy, bluegrass-fuelled protagonist of his soon-to-be No. 1, ‘Creek Will Rise’?
The answer, it seems, is ‘Yes’ - to all of the above.
As much as critics like to think they've got Conner Smith sussed out after one song, throughout his discography so far, Smith has managed to evade all attempts to box him in.
This was epitomised by his decision to follow up the sun-soaked, post-Bro-Country anthem, ‘Summer On Your Lips’, with a sparse, alt-leaning cover of Tyler Childers’ ‘Feathered Indians’.
The glue that holds together these disparate sonic strands is Conner Smith's deft, perceptive lyricism and his smooth, honeyed vocals, which combine to ensure that every song on Smoky Mountains feels unmistakably, undoubtably true to him.
Smith compares the two, “You think about ‘Feathered Indians’, and then you think about ‘Take It Slow’, which is this down-the-middle, Pop-Country side of what I do. We put out ‘Feathered Indians’ not because I thought my version was going to be better than Tyler Childers’ - that's an impossible task. I love that song, and I knew I'd be taking my sound somewhere between those two ends of the spectrum. It was a cool way to to give fans a little taste of that far side of it”.
The fast-emerging artist credits his label, Big Machine, with giving him the freedom to explore the various creative avenues his songwriting pen had been leading him down.
As someone with multiple songs themed around American Football - he cites Morgan Wallen's ’Had Me By Halftime’ as his favourite football-inspired track - it's equally unsurprising and endearing that he chooses to frame his point in the context of the sport, “When you're a top prospect, you can get on the team, which to me is signing a record deal. But once you're on the team, you've still got to earn your spot. Big Machine has been incredible, and I consider a lot of them family now. But it took me time to really earn their trust. By the time we put out this record, I felt them going, ‘Connor, we trust you as a songwriter. We trust you as an artist’”.
Although he'll have certainly piqued the interest of the Childers, Bryan and Isbell acolytes through his incorporation of a more rootsy and less Nashville-oriented style, there's a refreshing earnestness from Conner Smith when speaking about Country Radio.
Despite recent suggestions that Radio is becoming obsolete, as streaming platforms continue to dominate listening trends, Smith is open about the instrumental - no pun intended - role it played in moulding and shaping his ear for evocative country music.
He explains, “It wasn't like I was digging deep into some eclectic soundtrack, I grew up listening to Country Radio. So naturally, what comes from myself when I write is Radio-centric music, because the dream is to hear your song played on the radio. Finding my own voice that wasn't copying someone else's formula, but that was truly different, unique and fresh, while still being inside the same landscape, was the goal”.
Whether he's regaling us with the beautifully constructed love-story of ’Meanwhile in Carolina’, settling into the weighty introspection of ‘God Moments‘ or navigating the ebbs and flows of the sinuous Hailey Whitters duet, ‘Roulette On The Heart’, there are an array of satisfyingly visceral vignettes sprinkled across Smoky Mountains.
Yet arguably the greatest triumph of this record is the fact that Conner Smith has managed to carve out his own distinctive, multifaceted path in an increasingly broad landscape of sub-genres, textures and movements in modern country.
In addition, Conner Smith delved into the prospect of releasing an acoustic covers EP, his upcoming appearance at C2C Festival 2024 and more:
“What stands out to me about the records that have lasted, is that they really piece together a storyline. I wanted to try to do that in a way that was honest....I wanted to mature a little bit, I wanted to take fans on the journey of me growing up and figuring out who I am as an artist, as a songwriter and as a man.
‘Smoky Mountains’ was written as an enhancer of the other songs, more than as another song in itself, because I wanted the record to tell a story. I didn't want every song to have to be a massive radio hit, I wanted to have some songs on there that simply make the other songs better, and that aren't for Radio, they're just for the fan”.
“I grew up on that early 2000s sound. ‘There Goes My Life’ and ‘The Good Stuff’ [by Kenny Chesney], ‘Just to See You Smile’ [by Tim McGraw], ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ [by Randy Travis] and ‘Tattoos On This Town’ [by Jason Aldean] - those are real storytelling country songs, and that's my favourite type of songwriting....If you think about a song like ‘There Goes My Life’, that is one of the most amazing hooks that tells three totally different parts of that story. Or ‘The Good Stuff’, that song takes you on a journey, and in those three and a half minutes, you're reminded what matters in life. That is so profound, and so hard to do.
I understand how to write ‘Take It Slow’, I understand how to write a love song that feels good and makes you smile, but to take the listener to that depth has always been a goal of mine. I had the idea for ‘Meanwhile in Carolina’, that reality of growing up and always wondering who your future partner is, where they are, what they look like, etc. Then at a certain point, these two stories that are running parallel to one another are joined together. It was a case of ‘How do I say that in three minutes?’ I brought it to a writer I trust, Blake Pendergrass, and we were up until midnight chipping away at that idea, and I remember leaving that session in my truck with a big smile on my face, because I felt like I finally understood how those artists did it. I'm really proud of that one as a writer, and that song feels like the heartbeat behind the album. It feels like the centrepiece”.
"That goes back to the goal of the record, which was to let people in on the last few years of my life. I hope people will listen to this record and know me a little better, and also feel like it wasn't just 30 minutes of fluff, but there was some depth to it...I knew there had to be something to close the sentence, almost an exclamation mark, to round it out. I was trying to be like, ‘Okay, I've listened to the album so far, I hear the story - now, how do I close that? How do I tie it up in bow?’
Over the last few years, I've had so many moments where I know that it was not in my control. In the writing room, we started listing ‘God moments’ where I was like, ‘Man, that was not my doing, that was just me being a part of favour and blessing and being in the right place at the right time’. I don't believe in coincidences. Every line in that song is true and it felt like the right way to close this chapter”.
“I would love to do that! There are so many of those early 2000s songs that mean so much to me. I would love to be able to do an acoustic, stripped-down version of some of those. I was literally on the phone this morning with my producer, trying to book more sessions. One thing I love about this job is you get to build the storyline and continue to peel back layers for the fans...I'm a champion of country music, and I really feel like part of my role is to carry the torch of country music...and a big piece of that is showcasing the truly great country songs, from Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash to Kenny Chesney and Eric Church”.
“One thing I've heard consistently from other artists who have been over there is that the fanbase are really good listeners, and that they enjoy the storytelling aspect and the more stripped-down side of country music...Those are my favourite types of shows to play, where you can tell stories, dig into the songwriting and bring the crowd along on the journey of how the song came to be. We'll see if that's true or not - maybe they just want me to play ‘I Hate Alabama’ ten times! But I'm very excited, I've never been across The Pond before”.
“I'm a massive fan of hers, and she's a Nashville girl, so we've got the same hometown. She's insanely talented. I'm excited that she's coming over to the UK with us”.
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