Writing and recording during the pandemic has had a profound impact on new music being released by many artists, and Canaan Smith is no exception. Smith’s sophomore album, High Country Sound, finds the Virginia native returning to his roots and serving up songs that reflect where he is today in his life and career.
“This album is a flag in the ground for who I am and what I stand for,” Smith tells Sounds Like Nashville during a Zoom conversation from his garage where he created the record. “Honestly, where I’m at in my life, it’s been a perfect storm for stripping away the things that needed peeling back and refocusing, and a recalibration of what I value, what matters the most. Life has shifted from ‘what can I do for me’ to ‘what can I do for them,’ for my daughter and my wife? And it’s also been a journey of remembering what I loved about music that moved me here [to Nashville] in the first place 16 years ago. There was a fearlessness to just embrace that fully, and being home has been the catalyst for that.”
Signed to Florida Georgia Line’s Round Here Records and the duo’s Tree Vibez Music Publishing, Smith co-wrote every song on High Country Sound. He also solely produced eight tracks and co-produced the remaining four with FGL’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley. “Being home has put me out here in the garage where I write my songs now. Out here in the garage under a blanket is where I recorded half the vocals and I just feel like that that has had a huge impact and influence on the freedom I feel right now to express what’s in here,” he says gesturing toward his heart, “and to really just only concern myself with inspiration and not commercial success. Do I want commercial success? I do. I’ve had it and it feels and tastes good to have that, but I’m not driven by that at all right now. So that allows me to shift gears and just go where I always wanted to go.”
His current lane finds Smith hitting the throttle on a collection of songs that are sonically rooted in the traditions of his Virginia homeland, yet with an inviting modern edge that finds Smith melding the best of country’s past and future. His warm, evocative voice has never sounded more confident, yet there’s an endearingly sweet quality that echoes the vulnerability and strength both inherent in new fatherhood. “’High Country Sound,’ to me, is meant to make people hear that Appalachian influence, that old soul, the mountains in Virginia, the river I grew up near and the role they’ve played in my life,” he says, “and also the current passion I have for the outdoors and the awakening that’s happened in me.”
Smith has come a long way since moving to Music City from Virginia. He first tasted success as a songwriter, penning songs for Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Love and Theft, Cole Swindell, Mason Ramsey and others. He signed with Universal Music Group Nashville’s Mercury Records and released his debut single, “We Got Us” in 2012 and quickly starting appear on New Artists to Watch lists. He released a self-titled debut EP followed by his first full-length album, Bronco, which received praise from critics and scored Smith his first No. 1 single, “Love You Like That.”
After a few years, Smith opted to sign with Florida Georgia Line’s Round Here Records, becoming the flagship artist for Hubbard and Kelley’s new label in 2018. Now after a six-year wait, fans are finally getting the second album they’ve been looking forward to from Smith. He performed the entire album during a livestream event in the Smoky Mountains of Gatlinburg, TN on the Visit Gatlinburg Facebook page the night before the album’s April 2 release.
“I’m so thankful that I hadn’t put out another one since ‘Bronco,’” Smith candidly admits. “I know it’s been six years and that’s a long time, but I’m so grateful that God set apart this time to be the sort of ‘flag in the ground’ moment for me because I feel like I have arrived—I always want to become better and you never truly arrive—but I have arrived at a commitment to make music that I love. I’ve arrived at a shift in my perspective where what I value about music is different. I value a song making me feel a certain way. I value finding depth in a song. I don’t care if it sounds new. I don’t care it if wouldn’t work on crossover pop radio. I don’t care about all that I was worried about. All I care about is the way this music makes me feel through the story, and the country music production. The music that influenced me enough to move me from Virginia to here sounded like this music.”
He credits Hubbard and Kelley’s encouragement with having tremendous impact on his creative process. “I feel I’m doing what I came here to do, and that was there all along. It just needed woken up and BK and Tyler have been a huge part of that,” Smith says of his Florida Georgia Line pals. “I moved here and met them shortly after that. They knew my goal back then. They remembered those songs and who that guy was and they’ve sort of embraced where I was at. They also saw that I was longing for some help but hadn’t figured out in what way until God did that part. He had them come along side me and be a catalyst for a returning and they empowered me to be that. That’s who they believe in. They’d say, ‘Just be yourself Canaan.’ The best version of me is me and my guitar and the truth. So I just feel really blessed and thankful that God has used them the way he has.”
Smith’s faith has always been a vital part of his life and he feels God has guided him through this season of life. “He’s even used COVID in that way,” he shares. “I know COVID has been a devastating time, but it has also been an important time of simplifying, stripping away. I keep saying recalibrating. That’s what it feels like. I’ve been feeling like I’m recalibrated and set back to a truer north than ever.”
One of the biggest events to impact Smith’s new direction and vision for his music is becoming a father. He and his wife Christy welcomed their daughter Virginia Rose on Oct. 31, 2019. “I just think I got a little hungry for success and the Lord has redefined success in my life and has been very intentional about growing me up and me learning how blessed I already am,” he says. “The things that truly are the blessings in your life aren’t necessarily accolades or the numbers or the money and my daughter has taught me that.
“She’s everything,” the proud dad gushes. “Virginia is such a personality and such a force. I’m learning every day and I’m blown away by all of it. What means more to me than anything now is just being a there for her, knowing her and seeing her happy, and making her happy. There’s just such an impact that a child has that you can’t put into words. Of course, it spills over to where my heart is at, where my head is at, what I want to say and what I value saying. All of that has led to this: the sound of this record and the stories of this record.”
One of the songs that is resonating most strongly with listeners is “Sweet Virginia.” “I love that song,” Smith smiles. “I wrote it two summers ago and we were about to have Virginia. We were two months from our due date. We went old school and we didn’t find out the sex until she came, but we had names on deck and Virginia was the leading female name. I knew there was a chance we were going to have Virginia in our lives, but it wasn’t a guarantee so what I wanted to do was sing to a lost love and the great state I grew up in all in one interchangeable voice. And now that Virginia is here, there is a layer that I think was there. The intention and the hope was somewhere in there that that would also apply and work with this song, but it wasn’t a guarantee. So I think that that was a bonus layer to the depth of this song and to the ultimate reward of it.”
Smith even has a tangible memento that he treasures. “I’ve got this necklace that my wife gave me for Father’s Day and on the back it says ‘Sweet Virginia, you’re always on my mind,’ and on the front these are the coordinates to our home here in Nashville. It’s the best gift I’ve ever gotten and she’s the best human on the planet,” he says as he leans toward the camera on the Zoom call and proudly displays the precious gift.
“And this song has been the tone setter,” he continues. “I’ve got another one on the album called ‘Grounded,’ which is another great tone setter. It’s a tribute and a thank you to the people and places that have kept me grounded.”
Another of his favorites on the album is “Losing Sleep Over A Girl.” “That is just my life, the most current version of me that we could possibly fit onto an album,” he says with a big grin. “I wrote that with Marv Green and Kyle Fishman and as soon as Marv said that title, it just woke up this place in me. I was in that. When he said it, I was living it, so I said, ‘We’ve got to write that. I’d be honored to write that. It feels like my story.’”
“Catch Me If You Can” features Brent Cobb. “Brent is a tremendous artist and songwriter. I’m inspired by him and when he said ‘Yes’ it was a validating feeling for me big time because I respect him and the place he comes from and his music,” Smith says. “This song is one of my favorites. I used to tear up some line dance floors back in the day and every time I hear this song, that’s all I want to do is just put on a cowboy hat and get my friends together and go stomp one out.”
One of the things Smith is proud of is having produced the album and being able to see his vision through from the writing of the songs to the performance and production. “I know what I’m doing in the studio. I went to an audio engineering school before I moved to town, so I don’t feel intimidated. I speak the language. I’d always appreciated the professional commercial headspace of a producer and I still value that,” he says, “but I didn’t find that necessary because this project was all about people hearing me for the first time, hopefully, and that’s the feedback I want. I felt like I had to be 100% responsible for the way it sounds. And that’s scary honestly because I think that for too long I was worried about what’s cool and now I’m like, ‘Hell, I’m 38 years old and this music probably is not what the kids would call cool because it doesn’t sound like what they are hearing on their playlist, but I don’t care. It sounds cool to me.’ It sounds real and it’s what inspires me. I hope that that is what ultimately wins and for me it is, so you can’t take that from me. No one can take away my pride in the way this album sounds and turned out.”
Smith has created an album that perfectly captures the passion and excitement he feels during this time in his life, and he’s grateful for those who have helped him on his mission. “I jumped ship from arguably the biggest label in country music at UMG to a record label that didn’t exist yet,” he says. “God had a plan. I know that the plan until now was to get me here. We’ll see who comes alongside and what happens next, but I’ve got an amazing group of people in my life right now that are facilitating this creative freedom and I think we’re all just thankful for the results. I’m here because God led me. I’ve always felt that He’s given me songs to allow people to connect in a way that speaks to their lives so I’m just going to embrace that and see where it goes.”