In a genre whose biggest artists tend to be those signed to major label deals, Corey Smith is the exception — an indie-minded country singer who’s spent the past decade breaking rules and selling records.
When he releases While the Gettin’ Is Good on June 9th, though, he’ll do so with the help of Sugar Hill Records. Smith recently signed with the label, joining a roster of country traditionalists, Americana A-listers and roots-rockers who couldn’t care less about the trends of Music Row. For a songwriter who had already sold more than 1.5 million digital singles on his own, partnering with someone like Sugar Hill — a label that’s driven by music, not sales sheets — seemed like a smart way for Smith to increase his reach without cutting off his DIY roots.
“Every major label said no,” says Smith, who funded the recording sessions himself before shopping the album around Nashville, looking for likeminded partners. “A lot of indie labels said no. And then Sugar Hill came to the table, and they were the first label that said what I had been hoping to hear from somebody during the entire process, which was, ‘We just think this is a great record, and we want to put it out and figure out a way to sell it.’
“That’s not putting the cart before the horse,” he adds. “That’s the artistic way to do it: make good music, and then let the label figure out how to sell good music, as opposed to making something that we know we can sell.”
Although it’s his 10th album overall, While the Gettin’ Is Good marks the first time Smith has worked with someone as radio successful as producer Keith Stegall, whose resume includes chart-topping albums for Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band. Setting up shop at Ardent Studios in Memphis and Ronnie’s Place in Nashville, the two added punch and polish to songs like “The Baseball Song,” a nostalgic ballad that looks at childhood through the lens of America’s greatest pastime, and “Taking the Edge Off,” a traveler’s lament of the loneliness of the road. Smith penned all the tunes himself, bucking the tradition of country stars leaning on their co-writers for help.
In a sense, the Sugar Hill deal brings Smith full circle. Years ago, not long after he’d given up his schoolteaching job to play music full-time, he found himself listening to Darrell Scott’s Family Tree on repeat.
“It’s a great record,” he enthuses, “and it’s a Sugar Hill record. I got to meet Darrell Scott, and he signed that record for me. I was just starting out at that point, and he was telling me, ‘You don’t try to write hit songs; you just write songs, and occasionally you knock one out of the park.’ He wrote on there, ‘To Corey, your songs, your way, your time. Darrell Scott.’ I’ve carried that [sentiment] with me.”