Fans are used to seeing Smithfield onstage, but this time of year the Texas-born duo love to hit the kitchen. For Trey Smith, that means making his family’s famous sweet potato casserole, and for Jennifer Fielder, that means crafting seasonal spirits. The “Hey Whiskey” singers invited us in to Fielder’s own Nashville kitchen for some cooking, some cocktails and some conversation about how the duo got where they are and where they’re headed.
While preparing Smith’s traditional family Thanksgiving side dish, the topic turned to the early days of Smithfield. Between slicing sweet potatoes and mixing up a sauce of butter, maple syrup and cooking sherry, the duo talked about the family ties that brought them together.
Jennifer Fielder: Our grandparents went to high school together. Our parents went to high school together and double-dated. When we were kids our families always did New Years Eve and Fourth of July together. When Trey’s family moved to Houston we stopped doing parties together–around high school or junior high–but his cousins still lived in the Dallas area where my family lived so instead of driving to Houston to do Thanksgiving with his family, we’ve had them every year. So his family is part of my family tradition.
One year in college we [were all together] at Thanksgiving. We both always sang, but we’d never sang together and at the table [they were] like, “Hey Jenn, Trey’s rock band just broke up and he’s looking for his next musical thing.” I was studying music business at the time and they said, “He may wanna come to your school. Do you think you guys could just get together and play together?” Growing up our families would make us get up and sing, but never together, so I guess it just wasn’t the right timing for us.
Trey Smith: Timing is everything!
JF: So Smithfield started over Thanksgiving dinner. That next week Trey reached out to me and I thought, “I can’t say no; we grew up together.” And he came over and we sang…
TS: And the rest is history!
JF: A month later we decided to put together a show in Dallas and the only people who showed up were family and friends. I had plans to play CMA Fest by myself–it would have been my first time to play in Nashville, but I was like man if we’re gonna be a duo—if this was something we were really going to try and take seriously and move here…
TS: I never really thought about Nashville. I was in a rock band, so at one point I was even thinking about LA. I didn’t know that much about Nashville.
JF: So we came to CMA Fest in 2011 and played our first show together in Nashville. My college roommate had a cousin who was an agent at William Morris Agency, who many years later is our agent now, so it’s crazy to think back that he was just one meeting then. He said you need to start writing your own songs, decide what your brand’s going to be what you stand for because right now you’re just two people who sounds great together—we didn’t even have a name at that time. We were just Jenn and Trey at that time and we took that meeting to heart and that next morning we had breakfast and said we’ve wanted to do this professionally our whole lives and this feels like we’re being led to Nashville. After that we made trips once a month and met people and played bars and made the move in 2012.
TS: And here we are. Cooking sweet potatoes.
Sounds Like Nashville: And what exactly are we doing to them?
TS: We are boiling the sweet potatoes to get them nice and soft. Then we’re going to grease up the pan—I’m going to have my trusty assistant Jennifer do that—with coconut oil. Then we’re going to put half of the potatoes in the pan. Then we’ll start making our sauce here in just a second.
SLN: Coconut oil? That seems pretty on-trend. Was that part of the original recipe?
TS: Oh Lord no, Crisco all the way! This is slightly modified. The original recipe also calls for corn syrup but maple syrup makes a perfect substitute.
SLN: How long were you in Nashville before you were signed to a label?
JF: We were playing at Belcourt Tap 10:30 at night. I just got off my work shift and it was raining on the way over and I just did not feel like playing. It was literally three people and the brartender in there. And at the end of the night, this guy—who looked like he was in the mob—full black suit, smoking, hair slicked back, he showed up for our last two songs. We’re walking back to the car and he followed us. So we start talking to him, and he’s [singer/songwriter] Rock Marcello…we have all these people in our lives we call our Nashville angels and he was one. He was like, “You sound like Lady Antebellum. I have a friend that works at X company and I want you to meet her and see if she can pitch some songs for you guys.” So we meet her, and she liked us, she said I wanna set you up on six cowrites that I think would be great for you guys. And one out the six was a woman named Susan Ruth and she knew the CEO of Bigger Picture and said they’re looking for a group or duo to sign. We had a meeting over there—and we were babies, we had nothing to brag about. So we landed a record deal just off our talent, which still happens, but so rarely. They had us spend a year in the writers room. Our deal was we had a year to write and if they felt like we had great stuff at the end of that they would sign us to this option and give us the full-blown deal with a radio tour and an album. Eight months into that deal they signed off and we got to make the record. We had a tour planned for August 2014—our first—and three months before, the label folded. And they didn’t give us our record back.
SLN: So you couldn’t get to your own music?
JF: We were tied in to that deal for four months—couldn’t do anything—after they folded and we’re like at the very least can you give us our record back so we can at least have something to show for the last four years of our life? And they said, “No, we want thirty grand.” Trey’s working in a grocery store, I’m working for Postmates. We didn’t have thirty grand in our back pockets. So we did a Kickstarter campaign and said this is what happened to us, if you believe in us donate, and we raised the money for our record. That took us a year by the time we raised the money, recorded the album, packaged it, figured out how to get it out independently—that’s been the last three years of our life, building off of that kickstarter EP.
SLN: And cooking! What’s next?
TS: Next up we put half of the potatoes in the pan…
JF: Why only half?
TS: You’re about to find out! Pecan me. That’s the most Texas thing I’ve ever said. Now we spread the pecans and then we top it with marshmallows.
JF: Dang this looks good!
TS: Now we add the rest of the sweet potatoes.
JF: I’ve never seen Trey cook like this. I’m kind of impressed.
TS: I don’t mess around with my sweet potatoes.
While the casserole bakes at 350 degrees for 40 minutes (see the full recipes below), it’s time to make a cocktail, and given the success of the duo’s sad love song “Hey Whiskey” it’s only appropriate we make one with the sauce in question.
JF: We’re making a Fall Spiced Old Fashioned. It’s a normal Old Fashioned but I add a little bit of nutmeg and cinnamon sticks. The [giant ice] cube is the most important part. This calls for two ounces of whiskey, but I know an Old Fashioned and that’s not enough whiskey! [She doubles the recipe.] I know what I’m doing here!
TS: We are using Rebecca Creek Fine Texas whiskey. We started working with these guys a few years ago and they’re great. It’s smooth and makes a great Old Fashioned or any cocktails.
SLN: How did you partner with Rebecca Creek?
TS: Long story short Jenn’s dad had a cardiac arrest and ended up in ICU and the insurance company cut him off. So we did a benefit show to raise money to pay the bills back home and at the show was a guy connected with Rebecca Creek. He heard “Hey Whiskey” and told them about it and they reached out to our manager. We’ve been working with them for about two years now. They’ve been great partners on our radio tour—we’ve taken Rebecca Creek all around the country—and they just launched nationally this year. It’s been a great relationship. We got to go to their distillery in Texas and watch the process–that’s a whole other kind of creativity.
SLN: And since we’re drinking whiskey, it’s a good time to hear the story behind your breakout song.
TS: It’s an I told you so story
JF: Being as close as we are—we’re family—we can be real with each other. “Hey I don’t like that or you don’t like this”…and we don’t mean anything by it. You’re not always gonna like each other, but when you’re family you’re gonna always love each other and have each other’s back. So I don’t say this to be mean, but…
TS: Well a little mean…
JF: I had this line “you only miss me after whiskey / you only want me when you’re gone” and I had this super old-school melody in my head that was horrible but I sang it for the guys and all three of them were like, “Cool, but we don’t need another song in country music about whiskey there’s been a million. It’s already been done.” I was super stubborn and fought for that and Trey came around picking on the guitar and starts playing the riff. I think between my stubbornness and his riff our other cowriters were like OK, Smithfield’s not going to let this go. They said they’d be willing to write it if we came up with a way that people hadn’t heard it before, and so we talked about how the girl’s always blaming the guy, it’s always his fault, and in this song it’s the perspective of me talking to whiskey: it’s YOUR fault. So we told the story from that perspective and thought it was a little more vulnerable to hear this girl’s still got feelings for him. She’s not just blaming him, she wishes this didn’t exist so she could have the person she wants the most. And if you didn’t know the title, we painted the first verse in a way that you think he’s cheating on her. We wrote it that day and we knew it was special when we wrote it—I don’t think we ever could have imagined, though, that it would be the song that launched Smithfield and our career.
SLN: So what should we toast to? What’s to come?
TS: We’re fresh off radio tour and diving into a creative hole working on a new project—diving into the writers room with some of our favorite collaborators. We’re in the works with a possible producer but we can’t say yet…
JF: We’ve got four songs done right now, and we talked about doing a small EP at the top of the year just to give fans something to listen to [while the new record is being made] and wanting to do our own tour in the spring. 200-to-300 seat theaters and some opening slots in between. I think 2019’s going to be a good year.
TS: It’s going to be a great year!
Sweet Potato Casserole
2 to 2 1/2 pounds large sweet potatoes peeled and sliced 1/3″ thick
1/2 cup orange juice
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1/4 unsalted butter
3 tbsp cooking sherry
1 tbsp light corn syrup (or sub maple syrup)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 bag of miniature marshmallows
Place sweet potatoes in greased pot and cover in water, boil and cook until tender.
Combine orange juice, brown sugar, butter, sherry, syrup and salt in a small saucepan and warm over medium heat.
Drain potatoes. Put half in greased dish.
Add half of the pecans and half of the marshmallows.
Pour half of sauce over the first layer.
Repeat for another layer.
Bake uncovered for 35 to 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
Add more marshmallows just before removing from the oven.
Cocktail Fall Spice Old Fashioned (yields one drink)
2 ounces Rebecca Creek Whiskey
1/4 oz or tsp of agave nectar
3 to 4 dashes of angostura bitters
1 organic orange peel
1 cinnamon Stick
a dash of nutmeg