Conner Smith has always had a burning passion for music. The Nashville native began penning songs at the age of six, and at nine, he signed with BMI as a writer, historically becoming the second youngest signee to music legend, Michael Jackson.
Still, Smith maintained a regular childhood with school, sports, leisure time, family time, play, and simply being a kid. His heart was set on music, but he knew he needed to live the everyday life that country music is all about. “As a songwriter, it’s like, if you’re not living, what are you writing about? If I had just dropped out of high school and focused on writing songs, what am I writing about?” muses the now 21-year-old.
With that determination in mind, Smith juggled the academic grind, being a stand-out player on the baseball team, and innumerable songwriting sessions, all while snagging as many live shows as he could as a high schooler.
Fast-forward to 2019, the Brentwood Academy alum inked his record deal with Big Machine Label Group’s Valory Music Co. imprint, joining a star-studded roster that includes Thomas Rhett, Justin Moore, Sheryl Crow, Eli Young Band and Tyler Rich. “Conner’s talent and sophistication far exceed his age. He’s hot-wired his vision, songwriting and artistry and is ready for prime time,” shared BMLG President/CEO Scott Borchetta.
To date, Smith’s laudable achievements as a newcomer include opening up for Thomas Rhett on his Center Point Road Tour, serving as direct support for Sam Hunt, headlining his own gigs, having his infectious debut single “Learn From It” clinch the Top 3 Most Added spot on country radio, and an opening spot for Ryan Hurd’s just-announced Tour de Pelago shows in 2022.
Last month, Smith also released the cleverly-written heartbreak song “I Hate Alabama” after it completely blew up on social media and took on a life of its own. Despite having no initial intentions to release the song, his record label and team knew that they had to accede to the overwhelming demand from fans for it. So, they made the magic happen and dropped the track eight days after it went viral.
Managed by Brad Belanger, who also oversees the career of Hunt and played an instrumental in his launch, and backed up by one of Nashville’s leading record labels, the sky is truly the limit for the young bonafide superstar in the making.
Sounds Like Nashville spoke with Smith recently for an in-depth conversation about his journey to music, musical influences, “Learn From It,” “I Hate Alabama,” and something he holds near and dear to his heart—his faith in God.
Introducing the next promising rising star you have to “get to know”: Conner Smith
SLN: Now, did I read that you signed with BMI as a writer at the young tender age of 9 years old? How did that happen?
CS: It’s a wild story! I grew up in Nashville and understood what it meant to be a songwriter. I started writing songs when I was six years old and was writing songs every day. It was just what I loved and what I wanted to do. When I was nine years old, Clay Bradley, who’s now the head of BMI in Nashville, heard this little story about me and had me come and play some of these songs. He said, “Man, these songs are better than half the people we have signed here.” He just really believed in me and saw something in me. More than [that] these songs were great songs, he saw the talent in me and desire for it. He encouraged me and asked me to sign there at nine. I was the second youngest to ever sign with BMI other than Michael Jackson. So, I kept writing and when I was sixteen, I signed my first publishing deal.
It sounds like you knew you wanted to do music all along but stayed on the “regular kid” path and balanced it all until you graduated high school?
In my junior and senior years of high school, I was going to school until about 11:30am, leave to go and write songs at noon on Music Row and then I’d come back to play the baseball game at 4. It was busy, it was exhausting, but at the end of the day, I feel so thankful and lucky that I got to do it all. As a songwriter, if you’re not living, what are you writing about? If I had just dropped out of high school and focused on writing songs, what am I writing about? I’m super thankful I got to finish out high school with all of my friends, finish out my baseball season and [in] my senior year, and just do it all. This was also part of growing up in Nashville. I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to move somewhere to chase a dream. I had people who believed in me in school, my coaches and my publishing company that let me make it all work.
Who are your biggest musical influences?
I always say, my Mount Rushmore is Johnny Cash, Randy Travis, Kenny Chesney and Eric Church. They really inspired me in their writing and songs. Growing up, those were my main four dudes. Kenny Chesney was my first concert. The first song I ever sang was “Big Star” by Kenny. He’s been a huge inspiration to me.
If there’s one country song, not of yours, that describes your life a nutshell, what would that be?
It’s an easy answer- Thomas Rhett’s “Sixteen.” I was 16 years old when that song came out, and I played it for my mom in the car and she looked at me and went, “Did he write this about you?” [laughs] Every time he plays it live at a show, I always think about that moment. I turned 21 three weeks ago, so it’s a very true song to me and one that I wish I wrote.
You recently shipped your infectious debut single, “Learn From It,” to country radio. Could you share the story behind penning this autobiographical song?
The song started as an idea I had in my kitchen. I sat down and started writing all the stupid things I did growing up—the first dip I ever had, stealing beer out of the fridge, [breaking] my arm, and I tried jumping over a desk at one point. I wrote most of the verse and chorus by myself and then took it over to Daniel Ross to finish it. In all the music we have, this felt like the first single to country radio because I really look at that as an introduction to who I am. “Learn From It” does that better than any song I could write. It’s just fun to hear people’s stories and reactions and their “Learn From It” moments when we’re out on the road playing it. I love the song because it’s autobiographical. I can tell you a story about every line.
What was it like hearing your song on the radio for the first time?
The first time I heard it was on an FM station in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We had just done a radio visit and an interview and they played the song. That was my first time hearing my song on the radio. It was such a surreal moment. So many dreams and so many days of working your butt off to get to that moment. I knew the song was coming though, I knew they were about to play that song. I haven’t yet been in my car where I wasn’t ready for it and they start playing it on the radio. When that happens, I might wreck my car. [laughs]
I have to talk about the song that’s completely blowing up right now— “I Hate Alabama.” Lyrically, it does an amazing job at melding heartache, wit, and real-life relatable references together. Did you have the slightest hunch that it’ll blow up the way it has when you uploaded it to TikTok and Instagram?
You know what? This was one of the songs that I thought had the chance [to]. Here’s the story behind it. The song gets sent to me, I heard it, and knew I had to cut it. It’s the only song I didn’t write. I’m a huge Tennessee fan but even as a songwriter, it’s such a well-written song. We went in to record it and didn’t really tell the label because if you tell the label you have a song called “I Hate Alabama,” everybody’s going to be like, “Whoa whoa whoa, I don’t know if you can say that!” [laughs] In reality, it’s not about hating the state or football team. It’s really about [the fact that] it makes you think about the girl. We did it low-key where we had my band members come to my producer’s house and just play on it. We thought, “OK, how do we do it? How do we approach this to where we convince the label to put it out?” We believed in the song so much and when we play it live, the reaction is huge. So, we decided to shoot a video for it and have a game plan. We got everything together, called the label to ask [for their approval] and they said “absolutely.” We didn’t have any plans to get it on Spotify, Apple Music, or just out to the world. I put a TikTok [clip] out the night before and the next day we put out a video, and it just blew up. It has five times more shares on Instagram than any other video I’ve ever done. People just freaked out and really embraced the song. I got a text from Scott Borchetta (President of Big Machine Label Group) and he said, “We have to get this song out as soon as possible.” It was fun for my team to look around and be like, “Our plan worked to perfection!” The song [came] out eight days after we posted the video, which is wild. So much credit goes to Scott and the Big Machine team for getting behind it.
“Why I Can’t Leave” is the latest song you released. Would you talk about co-writing this one
“Why I Can’t Leave” is a song I wrote with Ben Hayslip and Matt Jenkins. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve written because it’s just a good country song. I had the hook for it, like “the same reasons you can’t stay are the same reasons why I can’t leave.” We wrote the song pretty quickly and over time, it just grew and grew and it got to a point where it’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written.
I know faith is something very important to you and you might not get asked this often, but how do you stay rooted in your faith in the hustle and bustle of your career, especially as you’re hitting the ground right now?
Well, first off, thanks for asking this question. It’s something I love talking about. It’s hard, it’s really hard and there’s no way around that. When you’re going at the speed of life, it’s hard to find time for yourself and to talk to the Lord. I think what I’ve learned from my relationship with the Lord is that you hear the Lord the most in stillness. When you don’t have stillness, it’s hard. I think for me, finding my faith in Him more than the results of my music, how many adds to radio I got that week or how many streams I got that day, has been huge. It’s [also] about putting the right people around me. When we put my band together, it was really about putting the people around me that I knew would care more about me than the success of everything, even more than how they can play guitar. For me, it really is about the people I put around me and being intentional about making that time and the importance of it.
You’ve been out on radio tour, writing with some of the top songwriters in Nashville and playing out on the road with country superstars such as Thomas Rhett and Sam Hunt. 2021 has been a busy year for you! As we inch closer to 2022, what do you have on the horizon?
There ain’t gonna be much slowing down for me for a while but once again, it’s a blessing. We have some crazy exciting things happening next year and stuff that will be out soon. There’s gonna be lots of dates and lots of shows. We got some really cool things lined up that I’m excited to announce. We’re going to be on the road every week doing radio shows, college shows, and opening up for people as well. Hopefully we get to meet a lot of people and fans and put out songs. I think we’re going to try to get a lot more songs out early next year. It’s going to be an exciting year and another year of some busyness but, I’m excited!
To wrap up our chat, how would you describe yourself in one sentence?
Conner Smith is someone who cares about singing songs that matter and saying something that matters in a bigger way. I think as I write songs, I always want my songs to say something. I hope that’s a reflection of who I am as a person.