Music » Music Stories

Songs of the South

Corey Smith challenges ideas about "country" music.


Corey Smith is ascending.

Though unless you're a recent graduate of the University of Georgia or the University of South Carolina (how 'bout them Dawgs! Go Cocks!), you may not know it. But check this out: The 29-year-old singer-songwriter and former high-school history teacher from Jefferson, Georgia, is working on a string of sold-out dates (at least below the Mason-Dixon Line) that'll soon challenge DiMaggio's hit streak.

On this, the first Friday of May, he is also the No. 1 unsigned country artist on all of MySpace, a position he has held for all but four of the past fifty-two weeks, and his page on the network has been visited well over a million times and welcomed over 50,000 "friends." Most assuredly, the Internet has been good to Corey Smith, and it is only an ignorant A&R rep who is unaware of Smith's more than impressive numbers. In the past year alone he has sold over 100,000 songs online, including over 70,000 on iTunes.

Yes, business as an independent (call it DIY, north-Georgia style) — planning his own tour schedule, producing his own records, etc. — has turned out quite nicely, thank you. And though he could use some help with radio promotion (both "Maybe Next Year" and "What Happened" from his upcoming fourth CD, Hard-Headed Fool, are more than ready for the airwaves), whether to suckle at the major-label teat is the least of Smith's current worries.

What Corey Smith struggles with most are larger, more philosophical issues, a rare mix of starry-eyed idealism and fear of failure. See, Corey Smith's audience wants to be his rowdy friend. But with a wife, two children and a freshly realized sense of direction, Corey Smith just doesn't feel all that rowdy anymore. Or at least he tries not to.

"My goal," he says, "is to write the song that explains it, that explains what it is that is the source of all of our discontent. I just want to describe it in a song and share it with people. What is it that grates at us? What is it that keeps us up at night? What is it that makes us unhappy? What is it that makes us afraid? You know, I want to be able to write this song one day that when people hear it, they'll get it."

As a lofty example, Smith offers John Lennon's "Imagine."

"That's the kind of song that changes people when they hear it," he says. "And that's the kind of song I'm striving to write."

For now, however, Smith draws on more grounded, all-Southern (if not all-American) topics. His clear voice and earnest delivery — possessing equal parts soul and twang — is particularly suited in laying out his latitudinous lyrics for the Everyman.

Or at least every man and woman in the South between the ages of eighteen and thirty. Corey Smith writes about things like church and home and college football, the joys of life at twenty-one ("Twenty-One") including, but not limited to, being pulled over by the cops and getting kicked out of your spring-break hotel room ("If I Could Do It Again").

Not surprisingly, these last two numbers are among Smith's most requested.

"The ones that are about making mistakes," he acknowledges. "The ones that are about drinking too much. And that's something that I struggle with. A lot of times the ones that people celebrate the most are the ones that I'm proud of as a songwriter, but as a person I'm not proud of having done the things in the song.

"It is the ultimate source of my paranoia," he says, "not figuring out whether this thing I've been given is a blessing or a curse."

Count on it. While Corey Smith's career is indisputably on the rise, he's also one hell of a conflicted man. But nevertheless, with the South conquered (over and over again), Corey Smith is spreading out.

On this early May night he will make his New York City debut at B.B. King's, a faux-upscale nightclub (the club's manager wears a three-piece suit and one of those Madonna headsets) in the heart of Times Square. Smith has been in the city — his first trip ever — for less than 24 hours, and like everyone who steps into Manhattan for the first time, he carries expectations. As if invoking the name of Lennon (and, for that matter, "Imagine") weren't utopian enough, what Corey Smith wants from his trip to New York is reminiscent of his broadly stroked songwriting — which is to say damn near quixotic.

"I want to feel more American," he says. "I've never been in the Northeast at all, so I feel like I've got this sort of cradle of our country that I've never been to. I want to have a better sense of how diverse the country is and how rich our culture is. Because it's easy to forget about that when you're raised in the South and never really left the South."

All hail the American South. Which is decidedly not the same as country. Or so says the No. 1 country act on MySpace.

"This pop, sugar-coated bullshit, it's not country music," Smith says of contemporary country radio fare. "It's a lie."

So while he would gladly accept, say, a University of Georgia baseball cap (assuming he's not wearing one already), Corey Smith refuses to wear a cowboy hat, the one seemingly required accoutrement of any burgeoning country-music star. Not even for the highly theoretical sum of a million dollars.

"I can't wear a hat and redefine the way people perceive and listen to country music," he says. "And I would love nothing more than to change the way that people listen to music and digest it. I would love to change the way that people perceive the South.

"My goal as a writer is to get people to think, to get people to ask themselves why they do the things that they do," he says. "As a person I want to represent the ideals that are at my core. I don't think I could be content wearing a fucking cowboy hat because somebody paid me money to do it."

Ideals? Redefining country music? Writing the song that "explains it"?

"You know," he says, "I was a high school teacher for four years before any of this opportunity was given to me, so I want to make sure that I continue educating people. I mean, I woke up a couple of weeks ago and it's like I realized I play in bars most of the time and the majority of the kids are drunk as hell. And I feel now more than ever this sense of responsibility. Like sure, I'm a performer. Sure, I'm a songwriter and musician. But I have a responsibility, and I want to make sure that whatever I produce is honest and constructive and not destructive."

There is, of course, the rather obvious question of whether or not Corey Smith's currently large and loyal fan base wants to be taught.

Before his show in New York, Smith nervously paces the cinderblock hallway behind the stage and tries not to order the vodka that would calm his nerves.

"I was a wreck before that show," he tells me when we talk again. It's nearly a month after his NYC debut, and Smith is in a van headed toward Columbia, South Carolina, for another in a long line of sold-out shows in the beautiful South.

"Oddly enough, I won't get nervous a bit tonight. In fact, I'll get the opposite of nervous. I'll get very energized and just pumped up. Last week we played to something like 8,500 people in Knoxville and our new drummer was just starting and I had every reason to be nervous, but I just don't get nervous in those kind of situations. Which is odd, because in New York, in front of 120 people, I was a wreck."

As such, B.B. King's was not a show that the singer-songwriter will rank among his best.

"As far as performance-wise," he says, "it certainly will not. It'll be down there in the lower rungs, but at the same time it will be one of the more memorable. Every Southern redneck that was on the island was there. And they were raising hell."

Well, not quite every resident Manhattan redneck, but the audience in question is well-versed in the hardy party indeed.

The scene looks like a misplaced college mixer for fifth-year seniors as former frat boys and sorority girls pack the front of the stage. They carry beers in one hand and — though smoking isn't allowed inside NYC bars — cigarettes in the other, performing what appears to be the offical dance of the recently graduated, relocated Southerner: arms in the air while shaking their full-figured cans like they just don't care.

But they do.

They are mesmerized as a former high-school history teacher strums an acoustic guitar while his doghouse bass player picks a beat. Metallica this ain't. But Corey Smith's crowd leans back and sings loudly along, with eyes closed and fists (or beers or cigarettes) pumping the air, their chests heaving with nostalgic, Southern hearts.

Particularly on the songs about drinking too much.

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