Welcome to Corey Smith country

by Alison Bonaguro

Special to the Tribune

Published January 22, 2010


"My music is what fans gravitate toward. Not me," Corey Smith said.

Refreshing, right? An artist who sees himself as nothing more than a conduit for good music. Smith is that kind of humble.

And he's right. It is his music that pulls people in, because that's all he has. What he doesn't have (good looks, a big fat record deal and/or a defined genre) doesn't seem to matter. His progressively country sound was enough to take Smith from high school social studies teacher to unlikely self-made millionaire.

But a large percentage of iTunes reviewers pine for the old Corey Smith, ranting that his new album, "Keeping Up With the Joneses," is proof he is selling out, making the very same music he spent years criticizing. So do new songs such as "$8 Bottle of Wine," "Dirtier by the Year" and the title track have merit despite their commercial appeal?

In a recent conversation, Smith talked about his back story, his new album and his Saturday show at Joe's Bar.

What teaching high school taught Smith:

"I got into teaching because I wanted to make the world more just, to open people's minds, make them tolerant. I like to think that I'm still teaching."

Why word-of-mouth has made the crowds at his live shows so much bigger:

"When artists are honest about their emotions and experiences, it tends to be infectious. It strikes you as true, and you want to share that with people, and they come to the show."

How his music compares with mainstream country:

"It appeals to people because of how it's unprocessed by Nashville."

Why he's often labeled as something he's not:

"Sometimes when people hear a country theme in a song, or my Southern accent, there's a lot of baggage that goes with that. … My music is more like country with a rock 'n' roll philosophy."

Top three favorite songs that are not his own:

" Paul Simon's ‘Slip Slidin' Away' never gets old to me. And I listen to Randy Newman's ‘Birmingham' over and over again. And Darrell Scott's ‘Heartbreak Town.'"

What's behind the roughly $4 million he made last year:

"There's a fine line between art and commerce. Great artists find a way to navigate that line. But Nashville has become a machine that puts out brands, and then the music ceases to be an art. I want my music to be heard, so I put free downloads on my site. I'd rather not make money than not be heard."


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