With next to no radio support, Jefferson, Georgia, singer-songwriter Corey Smith has amassed for himself country’s most dedicated cult following. His concerts are consistently well-sold, from the southeast to the northeast, with a steady stream of passionate college-aged fans singing along to coming-of-age anthems like “Twenty-One” and “Carolina.” But such success didn’t come quickly — Smith has an aversion to the easy way, which he addresses in his new song, the biting “Fast Track.”
“When I started doing this almost a decade ago, I made a conscious effort not to take shortcuts. To figure it out on my own, rather than go to Nashville and go through the writing seminars that the system is there,” Smith tells Rolling Stone Country, going on to reveal his roots as a former social-studies teacher. “The companies that run the machine [in Nashville] have to report quarterly profits, so they have a fiduciary responsibility to create shortcuts. And those shortcuts are designed to create the illusion of authenticity, which is not to say that there is a complete lack of authenticity in country music. There are bright spots in the format, but this song is my way of expressing my own jadedness.”
Smith is keenly aware, however, that such remarks and a song like “Fast Track,” with lyrics about a label manufacturing a star (and asking him to grow a beard to become a “renegade”), could paint him as an artist frustrated by exclusion. “For a guy like me, it’s tough to be a critic because people automatically label me as a hater. That I’m just jealous because I don’t have a hit song on the radio or I’ve never won any awards. That’s not the case. The reality is [country music] has swung too far into this fake plastic place that is the antithesis of what country is. I’ve known this stuff firsthand. I’ve been out there slugging it for a while and have had many artists, without naming names, tell me, ‘We’re going to do it like you, the slow methodical way and earn one fan at a time.’ And then three months later, they’re on the top of the charts and they are everywhere — shortcuts.”
“Fast Track” isn’t the first song Smith has written about the Nashville struggle. The title track to his 2011 album The Broken Record, released on Average Joes, told a similar story, and his eviscerating “If That’s Country,” a live favorite, called out some of country’s biggest stars by name.
But Smith is not entirely disenfranchised with Music City. He has a complete album produced by Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band) that will soon see the light of day, as well as a new stripped-down release, Maysville in the Meantime — which features “Fast Track” and the freeloading-fan exposé “I’ll Get You Home” —out now.
“I was reminded of what got me to where I am, and that was putting out a record every year. I wanted to return to that,” says Smith of recording Maysville. “I knew I’d be putting out [the Stegall] record soon, and that is why this was called Maysville in the Meantime. It was going back home, to my roots, and doing something that was fun. Oddly enough, I think it’s the best record I’ve made in years.”
Smith is currently taking those songs on the road. He’ll play Philadelphia tonight before heading to Washington, D.C., tomorrow.
“We had a fantastic 2014 [for touring] and the whole time I was stressed about not having a new record out. I was waiting for people to just stop showing up. But they kept coming,” he says, restating his doctrine. “We earned fans the old-fashioned way and grew at a nice pace, so the fans aren’t going to be as fleeting as the ones who might just hear a song on the radio.”
As Smith says, he’s taken the slow track.