In the week immediately following the March 4th release of his latest album Remington, Granger Smith mounted an ambitious promotional tour to recite the pledge of allegiance in all 13 original colonies plus Washington, D.C., in just two days. While that sincere, aww-shucks display of patriotism no doubt earned the Texas native some extra publicity during release week, it was an interesting push for a whole other set of reasons. Officially billed as “Granger Across Merica Pledge of Allegiance Tour Powered by Yee Yee Energy,” the tour’s title incorporated — at least for those in the know — multiple references to Smith’s comedic alter-ego Earl Dibbles Jr., a shotgun-toting redneck who records his own songs and makes appearances at Smith’s shows.
It’s a move that might baffle marketing types, the people who fuss over coma-inducing terms like “brand consistency” and “messaging” — a willful muddying of the water separating his two sides. “Merica,” more than just winking good ol’ boyism, is the title of a Dibbles song included on Smith’s Remington and that Yee Yee Energy powering the whole deal is an actual energy drink, inspired by Dibbles’ trademark ululation and packaged in camouflage cans. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Smith, riding high on his first Number One “Backroad Song,” throw his efforts into his primary artistic persona but he seems perfectly content to continue blurring the lines between the two.
“The blurrier we can make those lines, the better,” says Smith, calling Rolling Stone Country between tour stops. “If it’s a strict black and white — Earl and Granger — then it doesn’t connect the dots. And the whole purpose of Earl is to connect the dots back to Granger. It wasn’t to create a separate entity, a separate figure that had a separate following. The whole purpose was, it’s all one big following.”
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New fans may be just beginning to understand that Smith’s journey has been a particularly long one — even by normal Nashville standards — that winds back past the creation of Dibbles, through his D.I.Y. roots in the Red Dirt scene and on to a short-lived Nashville publishing deal a decade and a half ago. At the time, he was a 19-year-old who’d grown up singing around Dallas and was just happy to be working in music. Nothing much came of that time except education, which Smith and his brother Tyler — his manager — have rolled into a savvy, self-aware approach to surviving the music industry.
“I think about back then when I was 19 and just how fast the business was,” Smith recalls. “It was always one step ahead of me. It was always a little bit faster. And as the years went by, it really slowed down for me. And I feel like my brother and I kind of see it now before it happens.”
Returning to Texas after his stint in Nashville, Smith attended Texas A&M University and began booking his own shows as well as instructing himself how to edit video and make a record on the cheap. He self-released a series of albums like Memory Rd., Waiting on Forever and Don’t Listen to the Radio but wasn’t having much of an impact outside of Texas.
“We were playing shows where we’d have on a good night, 220 people, but most nights would be like 100, 150, 175,” recalls Smith. “And there’s the nights that we have a hundred. And we were thinking, ‘Gosh, if we played a show every single night for the rest of our lives, that group is so small and a lot of them are repeat customers. . . the message is not traveling.'”
Standing out in a media-saturated environment where the news cycle is as fast as it is fickle is a monumental challenge for anyone, let alone a mild-mannered singer-songwriter without a record deal. Without a voice like Chris Stapleton’s or moves like Luke Bryan’s, Smith’s even-tempered, populist odes to rural living were a liability as much as they were an asset for gaining radio play.
That’s where Earl Dibbles Jr. enters the picture.
At the time, Smith and his brother had been experimenting with YouTube, believing correctly that the video site could spread the word more quickly if they landed on something with viral potential. With Smith adopting the shit-kicking guise he based on family and people he knew growing up, Dibbles’ introductory “Country Boy” was a sensation. Shot documentary style, the clip depicts Dibbles going about his daily activities — mostly dipping, cracking cold ones and fixing trees — before railing against city boys running their mouths and spinning largely unintelligible, sound effects-laced yarns about something he did with his pals.
“I always have to be careful when I arrive at this part of the story because they might read it one day,” Smith notes. “But yes, there are people that are just like Earl. We grew up hearing these stories, and that’s why it was so easy to slide into the character. Of course, he’s over the top but he’s very similar to some people we know.”
Dibbles’ notoriety spread with “The Country Boy Song,” a 2012 video that cribbed heavily from the original videos and retold his story with a meaty guitar riff and pummeling drums. Presently it has more than 12 million views on YouTube. With its jacked-up trucks, dancing co-eds and Dibbles’ defiantly rural outlook, it led some to believe that it was high-level criticism of the prevailing sounds on country radio: Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and the like selling the idea of a country lifestyle through tailgates and bonfires.
“It’s really just not that deep,” says Smith, whose own recordings like the 2013 Texas chart-topper “Silverado Bench Seat” tilt much more closely toward Luke Bryan’s nostalgic, affectionate take on rural life. “It’s not a global message that Earl Dibbles Jr. has to tell the world. That’s part of Earl’s vulnerability: it’s not that he really hates the city boys, he just doesn’t understand them or care to learn about them.”
The ascent of Earl Dibbles Jr. as well as the success of Smith’s 2013 album Dirt Road Driveway — released in conjunction with Thirty Tigers — led him to sign with Wheelhouse Records, an imprint of Benny Brown’s growing Broken Bow Records empire. Wheelhouse assumed promotion duties of “Backroad Song,” originally featured on the 4×4 EP from May 2015. When his full-length Remington was released in early March, its 15 tracks included three by Dibbles: “Country Boy Love,” “City Boy Stuck” and the hilariously goofy new tune “Merica.”
“I get a good feeling there’s still a demand for Earl,” says Smith. “People could still have one more Earl song in their life. That’s how I’ve felt with each song. If I ever feel like the interest is kind of waning with Earl, then maybe that’ll be the last song he has on an album.”
Or, perhaps, as Smith accumulates more radio hits after “Backroad Song,” he’ll need Dibbles less as a means to market his own music. Follow-up single “If the Boot Fits” — a sort of Cinderella tale from a country dude’s perspective — is currently climbing the chart, while Remington is loaded with radio-friendly fare like the gentle title track, the working-class tribute “Blue Collar Dollars” or even the poignant “Tractor,” which Smith wrote about his father’s death.
But for the time being, Dibbles is here to stay — currently he has well over 400,000 Twitter followers to Smith’s 149,000. And even if the scales tip hard in the other direction and Smith ends up being an arena-level entertainer, it’s hard to see him abandoning Dibbles completely. Above all, the creation gives him a kind of creative freedom and exemption from country’s staid rules about acceptable star behavior.
“It’s kind of limitless and that’s kind of the beauty of it,” Smith says. “I feel so grateful that we have this as part of our act, if you will, that we do get to have a little piece of the puzzle that — in an artists’ world you have to be so careful about image, you have to be so careful about what you say and what you do and what you sing about and how you perform that. So Earl provides a complete release of all that where there are no rules. And we have this tiny fragment of our show where it doesn’t matter, and I love that.”
As an artist who is balancing these two distinct personalities and skillfully incorporating them into one thriving enterprise, Smith is one of a kind in country music. Or, as Dibbles might say, only in Merica, folks.