Photo: Luke Hutcherson

Conner Smith

The rising country star breaks down the phenomenon of college sports, praises God, and talks debut album 'Smoky Mountains'

The ascension of country music within the overall sphere of the industry in recent years, despite some political and cultural blemishes, is extremely notable. Middling country/pop crossovers slowly trickled into the staggering ChartCipher statistic that country music consumed 8% of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2022, then jumped up to 20% in 2023 as a result of the work by the genre’s current golden boys and girl in Morgan Wallen, Luke Combs, and Lainey Wilson. At the time of this writing, Beyoncé’s “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” the first offering from her country-themed Renaissance II, is firmly planted at No. 1 on the Hot 100.

“I think country music is understood more now on a wider scale,” said singer-songwriter Connor Smith, born and raised in Nashville. “For a while, it was kind of this ‘Hee-Haw,’ silly thing that people never really understood. It’s definitely an acquired taste. But, once you acquire it, I feel like it consumes you a little bit ‘cause there’s so much intricacy and beauty to it.”  

Smith’s debut album Smoky Mountains is out now. He had a glow about him during this conversation as he drove around Nashville preparing for a long day of work that included meeting up with fellow hot commodity Hailey Whitters to rehearse their new duet, Smoky Montains track “Roulette On The Heart,” for future performances.

Always A Student 

“I’ve studied albums my whole life,” he said. “I’ve been committed to this dream… since I was six years old. Nine years old I signed to BMI. At 16, I get a publishing deal. I finally get to put out a debut album and it’s like, ‘What do I want this to be?’ It’s so much harder than I imagined, but I think the best debut records are the ones that tell the fans, ‘This is who I am.’ I go back to Eric Church’s debut, Sinners Like Me. 80% of that record is just Eric telling people, ‘This is who I am.’ I wanted this record to be an extension of that.”

The record, arguably one of the finest debut projects by any recent star in country, was crafted and cultivated over time. Hitting the pavement as a support act for fellow contemporaries such as Thomas Rhett, Jordan Davis, and Luke Bryan was certainly a factor. “I think you take something different from every person you get to be around,” he said. “Being around those guys… watching their show, you learn so much about what works and why. I’m always curious. I’m always asking questions. I’m such a student of it. My perspective is from a place of just wanting to learn and wanting to carry the tradition of country music.”

His dedicated efforts resulted in a track list featuring the mass appeal of “Creek Will Rise,” “Take It Slow,” and breakout hit “I Hate Alabama,” the earnest nostalgia-driven ballad “Boots In The Bleachers,” and the cardinal “Meanwhile In Carolina” and “God Moments.”

Smoky Mountains 

“I Hate Alabama” instantly captures his musical essence and warmth, and establishes his rich, drawling baritenor. Conviction, a bit of desperation, and a fatigued yet affirmed sense of loss is present in every word, despite him not having had a hand in the writing of it: “I love Lynyrd Skynard but Lord, I hate ‘Sweet Home,’/ Cause when I hear it all I see is a girl with houndstooth on in the stands of Tuscaloosa/ Mighta’ lost by 22, but I hate Alabama/ Cause that’s where I lost you.” In just three minutes, he hooks the listener into the world of college sports and gives them a reason to care about it, regardless of their affiliation, or lack thereof, to it.

“I think it holds relational weight,” he said. “My greatest memories with my dad involve sports. Like when we watched Tennessee beat Georgia on a Hail Mary in 2016, or the four or five Saturdays a year me, my dad, and brother would drive three hours up to Knoxville, go to the game, and drive back. I think that’s the beauty of college sports and sports in general. It brings people together in such a cool way.”

Smith may have been handed “I Hate Alabama” on a silver platter, but, along with Ben Hayslip and Jordan Walker, wrote the albums second strongest ballad, “Boots In The Bleachers.” “Boots…” is another sports-centric track in which he manages to break the concept of varsity and intercollegiate sports down to a level of “I had this… you have this… we all have this”: “We grow up ‘cause that’s what timeeeee does/ But Friday nights will always remindddd us/ The games we played, the whole crowd behinddddd us/ And there’s a thousand other towns just likeeeeee us.”

Photo: Luke Hutcherson

While he may fall short of Sam Barber and Brett Young, he pulls these ballads off with ease, able to whip out the tiniest fragments of gravel in just the right places while widening his phrasing just enough elsewhere to add the kind of suave you can’t teach: “’Cause ‘round here it’s all country on the speakers/ Red-and-white, ‘Go Eagles,’ on the T-shirts/ ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Yes, ma’am’ to the teachers/ Field goal flies right through the cedars.”

“I think those songs both have a lot of heart and nostalgia to them,” he said. “What I love about “Boots…” is that, if I was in high school, that would have been my jam. For me, as an artist, I love making songs like that… that make me think about specific people and specific moments that I can really hold onto.”

Outside of the odes to sports, Smith has his fun. “Creek Will Rise” is a tongue-in-cheek jam in which Smith playfully exaggerates his southern accent for a retelling of sexy time in the back of the truck, the title track “Smoky Mountains” calls back to the square dance era, and “Heatin’ Up” is the true tailgate anthem of the record fit for a Monday Night Football intro.

“Baby, I” and “Regret In The Morning” are the closest to misses, never quite finding the vocal or emotional footing that other tracks do, yet fit the general narrative and musical direction of the record.

One of those God moments” 

Midway through the record is “Meanwhile In Carolina,” a song of longing for the love he grew up craving, and has now found, and, at the tail end, is “God Moments,” a direct look into Smith’s relationship with his higher power. “I try to make plans but He makes the path/ Never makes sense ‘til you see it in the past/ Eyes wide open and I didn’t even know it/ I was looking at a God moment.” Both parties here agreed that these two songs are the most prolific of the project.

“Those two specifically carry an element of faith,” he said. “I think to be a great artist you have to have the most purified stream of creativity that is unfiltered. Now, I put out this debut record… I feel like there are glimpses that you see the most honest versions of that. For me, leaning into that is what I hope to do for my career. My faith in Jesus is the biggest part of my life. The lens I view the world from… creativity from… music from.”

Stream Smoky Mountains: