Granger Smith Stays the Course With 10th Album, ‘Country Things, Vol. 1′

He's focused on hope and growth in the wake of tragedy.

Written by Chris Parton
Granger Smith Stays the Course With 10th Album, ‘Country Things, Vol. 1′
Granger Smith; Photo Credit: Jeremy Cowart, Design Credit: Shauna Dodds & Sarah Dodds/Backstage Design Studio

With the release of his new album, Country Things, Vol. 1, Granger Smith had some serious obstacles to overcome. But despite a global pandemic and unthinkable personal tragedy, he’s staying the course. Marking the first half of a double album that will be completed in November, Country Things, Vol. 1 is one of those rare moments where fans can see an artist’s life changing in real time.

Smith’s 10th album overall and third since signing with Nashville’s Wheelhouse record label, the set further proves that this longtime independent hero is very much an established mainstream player, sounding more confident than ever in his ability to run with the “big dogs.” But it also marks a new personal chapter as the first release since the heartbreaking 2019 passing of Smith’s young son, River, who died in June after falling into the family’s pool. And even though Smith would have every right to roll over and quit, emotionally speaking, he clearly hasn’t.

Granger Smith; Photo Credit: Jeremy Cowart, Design Credit: Shauna Dodds & Sarah Dodds/Backstage Design Studio

Vol. 1 stretches into new territory and digs deeper into Smith’s musical roots, offering a something-for-everyone approach that’s just as potent as his superstar peers. But it also presents a brave and sincere message of hope, as Smith purposefully focuses on the good that remains.

“I’m trying to be intentional in the moment and I’m trying to have hope … to appreciate where you are in this present moment,” he tells Sounds Like Nashville in a recent video call. “Tomorrow’s not guaranteed, you can’t change yesterday, but there’s always hope. Ultimately I am an entertainer, that’s what pays the bills, and I think for me it’s important to always instill that hope in others.”

Smith started the album in 2019 before the accident, then put it on hold to care for his family — who all continue to rally with grace and selfless strength. But then COVID-19 swept across the globe and plans were pushed back again. All the while, Smith’s song list kept growing, he says, and since he didn’t want any of the songs to get lost on a sixteen track album, the decision to split it up was made. The plan has two benefits — one being the intended effect, where each song has space to be remembered by listeners, and the other being that it scratches an itch Smith still carries from his independent days.

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A LONG road got me to this post. . A lot of life has happened these past 20 months and on & off, through it all, I’ve been hunkered up in my little home studio singing about it. Sometimes I use music to forget about life. Sometimes I use it to remember it. Most times I use it to feel the emotions deeper. I think we all kinda do that. . All that to say, this is my 10th studio album and I feel like it’s also my best. (Including Vol 2 coming later) My hope is that these tunes…from the light hearted windows down songs, to the more deep thinkin’ ones, connect with you like they do with me. . I’m releasing 2 of my favorites tonight (8.27) so tag a friend and lemme know if we’re on the right track! . If you really want to be able to help an artist like me in this modern music world, go to wherever it is you find music (link in bio) and pre-save, pre-add, pre-order stream it off your phone and CRANK IT UP! Love y’all. Yee Yee! #countrythings #September25

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This is the guy who built a grassroots touring fan base and put out seven successful albums on his own, and even started his own Yee Yee Apparel company. He likes thinking outside the box.

“I like going to sleep at night knowing that if we fail, it was our decision we failed with, not a big corporation’s,” he says of the quick-hitting double-album decision — more interesting as the format struggles with the album format’s future in general. Artists like the complexity of expression afforded by long-play albums, but fans want to stream singles. Perhaps Smith’s approach is a useful compromise. “So we approach everything with the mentality of ‘What would we have done as an independent artist in 2009, back when we were scratching for anything we could find?’”

Each volume of the record features eight tracks, and a lot of diversity. Texas-proud two-steppers are joined by hard rockers sure to fire up live crowds, thought-provoking ballads and a hot-blooded Latin-style romantic — plus a custom made country-radio anthem. And for the project’s sound, Smith took the same approach.

Only focused on using organic sounds made by musicians, instead of computers, he aimed to create individual moments that are each distinct — meaning one song transports the listener right to the doorstep of Smith’s Texas ranch (“Country Things”), while another seems most at home blaring from the speakers of a jacked up truck (“Chevys, Hemis, ‘Yotas and Ford”). Others are filled with tender pride (“I Kill Spiders”) and one standout track takes a vacation in the Caribbean sun (“Mexico”). But no matter where each one started, they all feel a little different to Smith now.

First single “That’s Why I Love Dirt Roads” was released last year. It’s crisp, modern country pulse leads a deep thinking theme, all about how dirt roads aren’t just for four-wheeling — they’re for slowing down and thinking. Smith started the track before River’s passing and finished it after, with the devoted father exploring a new perspective on not just the track, but life in general. It could have taken a darker turn, but instead celebrates the things in life money can’t buy … and that ultimately became the lens the whole album is seen through.

“People are looking at me like, ‘OK, what’s Granger gonna say now? Is he gonna fall on his face in a deep dark depression? Where is he mentally?’” Smith explains. “And I want that to come across as ‘hopeful.’ They don’t see me in the dark moments, they don’t see me when the door closes. But on the stage, I want the show to be hopeful.”

River doesn’t show up in any of this album’s songs by name — it’s just too soon, Smith says. But that will eventually change, and his spirit makes an impact all the same.

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It suddenly hit me. . And I like it when that happens. Last night I jumped off the bus, grabbed my food delivery and spun back around to grab a quick bite before meet and greet. But right before I shut the door behind me, something caught my eye…a full parking lot. You’re probably thinking that’s no big deal. But it is actually. It’s a huge deal. . Right then, holding my bag of dinner, I remembered. It seemed like yesterday when those parking lots were empty. I would religiously use parking lots as the measure of how my night was going to go. I would think: maybe it’s too early? (10 min before showtime) or maybe a lot of people carpooled? 😑 Or sometimes my thoughts took a darker turn…maybe I should quit the whole thing. . I fought through those nights. I tried to stopped measuring my self worth on how full (or empty) the parking lots were. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but I fought through those nights. . I know the amount of cars changed slowly over the years, but I didn’t notice it as much because I was so close to it. Similar to seeing children grow- if you’re with them everyday you don’t see it until you’re away from them for a bit. . I love those little flashes of perspective. I like to pause, soak it in and then allow myself to feel one of the most powerful emotions: GRATEFULNESS. The beautiful thing is, it can be applied to anything in life. A sunny day, a good meal, a trusting friend. We all know what its like to be without. But are we just as quick to appreciate the things we have right now? It’s a practice worth living.

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“[River] doesn’t show up explicitly in the lyrics yet, but I know he will,” Smith goes on. “It’s not in this album, maybe the next one. But then again it could be 10 years from now. … That’s what happened with my dad [the song “Tractor” was inspired by his 2014 passing]. It wasn’t right away when I lost my dad that I went and wrote a song about it. It takes several years. But I think there’s a feel of songs that could have come from a new mindset or lessons I’ve learned, and that’s reflected on the album for sure.”

The title track is one of those songs. With a mild-mannered traditional sound and an understated vocal, it’s a tribute to down-home living that comes with a hint of bittersweet nostalgia. But Smith says that’s also from his pandemic experience.

“That’s definitely a product of the COVID world,” he admits. “As a family, and I know as a band and crew, we’ve all pulled back into what’s important to us. These things like money, career, status, things money can buy, they end up letting you down, and they really have this year.”

Likewise, “I Kill Spiders” celebrates the bond between father and daughter, a charming reminder of a girl-dad’s real job — no matter his profession. The idea came from Smith’s friend and co-writer, Tim Owens, and features a proud, protective vocal, plus a voice memo from Smith’s daughter as the intro. “It’s the idea that no matter what happens in your career or what happens to her, you will always be the hero that kills spiders for her,” he says.

But Country Things, Vol. 1 is not all about serious thinking or tugging heartstrings. It’s also about fun. “Mexico” is full of red-hot passion and gut-string guitar runs, a distinct change of pace that’s already adding flavor to Smith’s live shows (which he’s slowing firing back up). “Chevys, Hemis, ‘Yotas and Ford” is a full-throttle truck rocker, and then there’s the album finale — which features the return of a Smith’s comedic alter-ego, Earl Dribbles Jr.

The “Yee Yee” hollering good-ol’ boy appears in the bridge of “Country & You Know It,” and it’s about as “happy” of an ending as one can imagine. The song itself is based on the children’s classic, “Happy and You Know,” featuring twangy dobros, lighthearted lyrics and the buzzy hook, “If you’re country and you know it, raise a beer.”

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Happy Birthday Earl! . 9 years ago today, my brothers @tylersmith11, @parker__smith and I were promoting my 6th album “Poets & Prisoners.” We were leaning heavy on YouTube and putting out a lot of videos hoping to get something viral. . Cue @earldibblesjr. We filmed the original video in a few hours, I edited it in about an hour, and we were live on YouTube not long after. I had no idea what this would become, BUT I do know that we laughed until we cried while filming and again while editing. . I’m grateful for the magic that happened that hot July day. I’m grateful for the creative release that writing songs for him gives me and even more for the smiles I get from him in return. . Happy birthday Earl! (ps- I’m pretty sure this is an unreleased photo from 2012)

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It actually finds Earl opening his worldview a bit, as the singer of “City Boy Stuck” invites those same city boys to join the fun, and maybe that’s an allegory for Smith himself. He’s evolving, too, learning how to move forward in a world that looks different from the one he knew, and how to stay true to his original mission in the process. With Country Things, Vol. 1, Smith seems to be on the right path.

“During this crazy 2020 time, I just hope the album gives people a smile, a little reason for a deep thought,” he says. “and I hope it gives them an escape. That’s what music was always for to me, and I think that’s a special thing.”