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Smith set his own unique musical path

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Some sharp local Corey Smith fans were quick to point out an apparent error in a Sunday Herald article about the singer's scheduled appearance at the State Theatre here Saturday.

A Herald reporter was taken to task for referring to Smith's "Twenty-one" as his "new single." After all, the fans noted, "Twenty-one" is arguably the Jefferson, Ga., singer's most popular song ... one that, incidentally, had been released in 2003 on Smith's debut album, "Undertones."

It turns out everyone was right.

"'Twenty-one' is actually the first song I ever recorded," Smith said during a phone interview with The Herald. "I do it at every show, but one of the downfalls was that it was so specific to a certain age. I originally said in the third verse 'Now I'm 26' ... That kind of locked it in.

"So I updated the song, rewrote the third verse to make it more universal. I think it's complete now; it appeals to everyone."

Smith will be making his third appearance at the State, a venue the singer said he's grown to appreciate.

"I'd been playing in the region -- in places like Valdosta, Tifton, Americus ... places a little more off the beaten path -- and people told me I needed to play in Albany," Smith said. "So the first time I'm scheduled to play there, I lost my voice the night before.

"I thought people in Albany were going to hate me, but their reaction was amazing. Playing in Albany has been nothing but a great experience for me."

In advance of his show, which starts at 9 p.m. Saturday, Smith took some time out of his schedule for an extensive conversation with The Herald.

ALBANY HERALD: Your business model is not the typical Nashville-or-bust success story. You got your fans by playing live and through social networking sites. Was that model out of necessity or choice?

COREY SMITH: That was just the natural way I approached my career. I never set out to do things the way most artists do, and it's just been a blessing that things have worked out so well for me.

AH: I guess there are a few ex-school teachers who made it in the music business -- Gene Simmons of Kiss comes to mind -- but when did it occur to you that it was time to leave the classroom behind?

CS: I'd already released three albums by the time I felt comfortable enough to step away from teaching. The fan base just kept getting bigger and bigger, and I kept getting more and more opportunities to play. Around 2005, I felt that things were well enough in place for me to give up the day job without sacrificing my family's stability. I didn't want to do anything until I was sure I was ready to take that step.

AH: What did you teach, by the way?

CS: I taught high school social studies. And, by the way, Sting (of the Police) was a teacher. I read his biography, and that inspired me.

AH: Everybody who has ever released a record usually has it in his or her mind to become a big star. That doesn't seem to be your motivation.

CS: I enjoy writing and performing. That's why I do this. And while I'm willing to sacrifice a little to promote my music, that's not why I do it. I do this for the opportunity to play music in front of fans who appreciate it. If I never become a 'star,' I'm OK with that. That was never what this is about.

AH: You told me about your decision to rerecord and release 'Twenty-one' as a single. It's part of your new album, right?

CS: As a matter of fact, about half of the songs on the new album ('The Broken Record,' tentatively scheduled to be released in May) are songs I've rewritten and rerecorded. The changes I've made enhance the songs, I think. It was really just a matter of me growing up as a producer and a writer. It was tough for me to listen to the old albums and hear some songs that I didn't think were the best they could be. That's what I did with the new album.

AH: How much of Corey Smith is in the songs you write?

CS: I feel that the 'best' songs are the ones that resonate with people who hear them. When I write, I try to be honest with myself.

'Twenty-one' and some of the other songs I've done are very autobiographical. Of course, there has to be a little fiction in every song. Like in 'Twenty-one,' that line about 'breaking hearts and taking names' ... That wasn't me. I was too shy.

AH: Are there any of your songs that are your favorites?

CS: That's like asking me to pick my favorite kid. All of them are part of me. I do tend to gravitate toward the newest songs I've written. There are a couple of songs on the new album -- 'Broken Record' and 'New Day' -- that I like a lot right now.

AH: A lot of people in any kind of business go into their profession with a long-range plan. What about you?

CS: The thing it always comes back to with me is reaching as large an audience as possible without sacrificing the integrity of my music. I could follow the Nashville formula -- bring some writers in here to polish things up -- but at some point it would cross the line where this was no longer my music. I feel good about the way I'm doing things. I feel my integrity is still intact.

AH: Your family is important to you. You've been at this for a while now. Do you feel that pull to get away from music and settle into a more 'normal' profession that doesn't take you away from your family?

CS: This career is a delicate balance. I've been home now for the better part of two months, so when I go out on the road this time I know it's going to be tough. But I've started to understand my limits. If I stay away from home too long, I get to a bad place mentally. My rule of thumb now is that after four or five days away, I have to get home.

AH: You mentioned on your website that when you headlined your first show at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, your opening act was the Zac Brown Band. What do you think when guys like that go on to have great success?

CS: It's really cool. It's the same thing with Luke (Bryan), Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean, Sugarland ... folks from the same place you're from. It's inspiring, you start thinking 'Why not me?' You realize if country radio embraces a not-so-standard act like Zac and his band, the realm of possibility increases.

AH: The complaint about country radio is that it's formulaic, making it impossible for an artist outside the mainstream to break through. What are your thoughts?

CS: That's been the case for a while, but now you see country radio embracing Zac Brown, Jamey Johnson, Darius Rucker and guys like that, and you see that it's truly starting to expand. I've found that the radio stations across the country are more receptive to an artist like me now.

AH: You've stayed away from the 'Nashville formula' for making it in country music. If Nashville came calling, would you be receptive?

CS: There's nothing inherrently bad about being popular. I'm not a young kid ready to chase a carrot that's put in front of me. I'm 33 now, I have a career. I wouldn't be afraid to go to Nashville, though, to be on country radio. Some fans tend to simplify things and assume if you become popular you've compromised your integrity. I can assure anyone who's interested that no matter what happens in my career, I will be the same guy I was five years ago. Sure, I've grown up, but that's what people do.

AH: Thanks for your time; it's been great. We'll end with this: What do you tell anyone who wants to follow in your career footsteps?

CS: If anyone would copy anything I do, I'd ask that they copy the idea that it all depends on getting joy out of playing your music. Don't play to get popular, don't play to get rich and famous ... Don't play for any other reason than the love of your music. At the end of the day, that's what really matters.