The independent country artist has taken steps to make sure he has a life worth singing about.
Country singer Corey Smith is an independent success story, having parlayed a common sense strategy of regional touring and a web presence into an income that allowed him to quit his day job teaching in 2005 and earn more than a million dollars a year as a musician. He successfully worked MySpace (when it mattered), social media, file sharing platforms and his website to energize a fan base that supported him when radio didn’t. The fact that it worked says that real, financially rewarding careers can exist outside of the major labels in these gloomy times for the music industry. The fact that this approach hasn’t worked equally well for the countless others who’ve tried it says something about Smith’s music.
He has made the South his musical home, and he still lives in Jefferson, Georgia and not Atlanta or Nashville. He plays 130 dates a year, and one of those will be at The House of Blues on Thursday night. That number’s down from a peak of 170 to 180, but he thought it necessary to maintain as normal a life as possible. “That’s not really sustainable,” Smith says. “I like that  number. It’s fairly well-balanced, and I get enough time at home.”
More dates required more consecutive days on the road. These days, he tours four or five days a week, but fitting more dates into the year often meant being on the road for weeks at a time. That could lead to what Smith refers to as “The Dark Side,” where performing morphs into touring and becomes routine.
“It’s like a switch gets flipped and you hunker down and get used to the road,” he says. “You become more of a night owl and don’t go to sleep until 3 or 4 in the morning. You wake up the next morning and do it again, and you become so immersed in that life that it makes it harder to adjust when you come home.”
From the start, Smith has made being identifiable his calling card—songs people could sing along to and understand the words because they’d been to the place he was singing about, or some place like it. By becoming a full-time musician, he took a step away from the things that connected him to his audience, but he didn’t want to take many more. “I’m at home enough now and connected to my roots where I have a fairly normal life,” he says. “I still hang out with the same friends I had in high school, and I’m still close to my family. It’s one of the reasons I stayed here in Jefferson rather than move to Nashville.”
Now, Smith points to the period after he left teaching as one where he started to grow apart from his audience. The rush of being a full-time musician affected him, and it took family and friends to let him know he was becoming a bit of a jerk. He doesn’t disavow the music from that time, but he hears those albums as a step down a personal and artistic path he didn’t want to pursue. “Ain’t Going Out Tonight,” the title track from his upcoming album, can be heard as his older self talking to his younger self, the one who wrote “Twenty-One,” his first big song.
“I think the current body of work that I have for the upcoming record is much more grounded and is a return to normalcy in terms of where it all comes from,” he says. He points to artists he thinks of as “pure singer/songwriters” - Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, John Mayer, Merle Haggard - as models, people whose work reflects where they were in their lives at the time they wrote the songs, and you can hear their personal evolution in their music. Since country music is generally collaboratively written, Smith doesn’t hear many of those sorts of voices in Nashville.
“I think Taylor Swift is as close as there is to a pure singer/songwriter in the country format,” Smith says.
Though he has carefully maintained his independence from Nashville, country music fans get his music, and those who don’t pay much attention to country won’t hear a meaningful difference. The biggest difference is his emphasis on writing his own songs. “I want to succeed or fail on my own merits,” Smith says. “I want my fans to know that if words are coming out of my mouth, they’re my thoughts.”
He admits to having a love/hate relationship with Nashville. He works to avoid its machine-like nature, but he can’t deny the musical talent that is based there. For his upcoming album, he signed on producer Keith Stegall, who previously recorded Alan Jackson, Martina McBride and The Zac Brown Band. “Throughout the course of my career, I’ve focused on making better and better and better records. Records that sound better. Records that I won’t be embarrassed by in five years,” Smith says. “I really love what he did with the Zac Brown Band. I’ve known those guys for years, and they had Keith make their record, The Foundation, I was skeptical. I thought they would sound all spit-and-polished Nashville, but it didn’t. It sounded just like they always did, but better.”