Photo courtesy of Dan Smalley
We all think we know someone talented. Chances are, we do. In Nashville, there’s no doubt about it, we absolutely do. We know a lot of people that are not only talented, they’re extremely creative and often times, brilliant. That’s the trouble. Unless you’re here, living in the thick of it, you have no idea. This town is crawling with them. Just when you think you’ve seen and heard the best of the best, another one comes along and you’re shaking your head wondering how you missed “this one”. That’s sort of what happened with Dan Smalley, but not really. I was given the heads up about him by another outstanding artist, Cheley Tackett, a while ago. I was just waiting for his new music to hit the world. That happened on March 20, 2020 when his four-song EP, If I’m Being Honest, released. Long story short, it’s four totally undeniable tracks. Any one of them could be a hit and it’s a rare EP where you run through it, and as it starts rolling through again, you don’t even notice, much less care, because you’re already in love with it. Guaranteed. I don’t even know how many times I let mine go around before I finally stopped. I can tell you I knew all the words to every song pretty fast. Smalley’s voice is crystal clear and smooth like butter. The songs are so catchy and so instantly likable you want to tell all your friends about it. It’s one of those records.
When I was granted an interview with Dan Smalley, I had a million questions. How would I ever know what to ask in 20 or 30 minutes? Somehow I extracted a pretty good amount of content out of a half-hour. This was a phone interview, thanks to the current state of the world and the COVID-19 virus. Phone interviews can be difficult because you can’t read a subject’s body language, but this one was so easy. Smalley was a great conversationalist and seemed to know exactly what I was about to ask next. Everything just kept on flowing. We got a lot from a little time. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. Now, could I make it translate to the written word? I have to say, I had a little help. From, of all things, a bird. I never had a chance to ask if he had a pet bird, but the entire time we were on the phone there was a very vocal bird tweeting in the background. As I was going back over the audio, it was as if this bird was serving as my writing coach. He was pushing me to keep going on that outline, tweeting louder to type faster. How it all turned out, well, you’ll be the judge.
Dan Smalley was born in Fairbanks, Alaska. His father was in the United States Air Force so the family moved around a lot. From Alaska, they moved to Alabama, Ohio and finally Shreveport, Louisiana. His dad was a vocalist in the Air Force, so Dan Smalley became familiar with music quite young, spending time on stage, back stage and at rehearsals. He even sang with his father at times. Smalley enjoyed his time in Ohio and Louisiana best, having grandparents in both states. There were waterways in each of those places where he liked to fish. “Shreveport has the biggest influence on me as a person. It’s where I spent most of my childhood. When I wasn’t at school I was fishing, hunting or just outside doing something.”
We talked a bit about how Shreveport is a hard place to live. He said as much as he loves the area and the people, the economy is rough. I understood that. I feel the same about my own hometown of Buffalo, New York. People from such areas are tough, however, and they manage through thick or thin. That’s what makes them such amazing cities. No matter what gets thrown their way, somehow they survive. It’s the people. “I love the people. I love the culture. I love the history. I love the place. I love the culture of Louisiana. I just feel like until they change some things they might lose population. Young people that can’t raise families there.” You could hear in Smalley’s voice the love he has for Shreveport and Louisiana as a whole.
Before I go any further, I have to restrain myself from typing in all capital letters. I really want to drive a point home here. Dan Smalley might just be the one I was waiting for. I haven’t really had one since I wrote our very first Ashley McBryde interview back in 2018 before her Girl Going Nowhere album released. You’re wondering what I’m talking about. Annette Gibbons and I knew when we spoke with Ashley McBryde that we were interviewing the next country superstar. She was the most grounded person you could imagine. More grounded than your next door neighbor, yet we knew it just the same. I’ve heard Dan Smalley’s EP and now that I’ve talked with him, I have that exact same feeling about him that we had after that first Ashley McBryde interview. If you don’t care to believe me, that’s fine. I could be totally wrong, but at least take a listen to his EP after you read this. Decide for yourself if you think he’s got it or not. Now that I’ve made a pretty risky prediction, here’s what Smalley had to say about each song on that completely stellar EP. Most of it in his own words.
Of course, I started by telling him in my most understated non-fan girl way, that I thought his EPwas fabulous, and asking about his approach to songwriting. Specifically the writing of the songs for this EP and how they came about. I loved how Smalley spoke so freely about them. It was like having a songwriter round right through my phone.
When it came to melody and lyrics, Smalley believes he contributed fairly equally in both departments with every song. “I feel on each of those songs I wore both hats. ‘Lucky’ (Brian Kolb, Dan Smalley) is biographical. The melody, the ‘epicness’, was definitely Brian Kolb. He was the guy that was pushing for it to be really big.”
The title track, “If I’m Being Honest” (Dan Smalley, Davis Corley, Mark Addison Chandler), relied on everyone in the room to come to fruition. “It was a pretty collaborative situation. I had the idea and kind of the structure and brought it to my friends Davis and Mark. We completely reworked it and kept the title. We kind of kept the structure, but Davis kind of did the heavy lifting with the chorus lyrically and Mark and I, we edited quite a good bit. As far as the melody goes, I feel like that was a collaborative effort too. When it comes to melody and me singing, usually whatever comes out, comes out and until I get it recorded, it’s never going to be done the same way (laughs) until I get that memorized. Until I know the song and I have to live with the song.”
Image courtesy of Dan Smalley
One of the songs that I thought really showed brilliant songwriting was “Rich and Famous” (Chase McGill, Dan Smalley, Jonathan Singleton). Smalley proved to be a humble guy when talking about how that one was written. “I stepped into a room with two hit songwriters. If I put in a few words, that’s about it and I stepped back and watched those guys and then got out the way. That’s a hat you have to know how to wear as a songwriter. You have to know how to get out of the way in a room of three or four or five or even six people. I try to keep it at four or under. Even four’s a lot these days. If you’re in a room with three people and two are really hot and going after something, just let ’em go. Get out of the way and let ’em do their thing. With ‘Rich and Famous’, I was like, ‘That’s pretty cool.'”
When I mentioned how clever I thought the song was, Smalley gave all the credit to his co-writers. “It is. That’s Chase McGill and Jonathan Singleton. Those are two humongous songwriters.” I had seen McGill at a songwriter round not that long ago and I told Smalley how funny I thought he was. “That came out for sure in that song,” Smalley agreed.
Continuing on with the story of “Rich and Famous”, Smalley said, “My wife and I split up in 2008 for about two years and we’d already been together four and a half years at that point, so during that time I packed up all my stuff and moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama and planned how I was gonna start making trips back and forth to Nashville and I just never made it and got set back. During that time I was desperate and I was like, ‘You know what? The Hell with her. I’m gonna do music, I’m gonna make it big. I’m gonna be awesome and that ‘Rich and Famous’ mentality was definitely there. That was a decade ago.”
Image courtesy of Dan Smalley
Almost like a sequel to “Rich and Famous” is “Till Country Comes Back” (Dan Smalley, Jimmy Robbins, Josh Thompson) and the song is very often misconstrued by listeners, which is why I’m so glad you’re reading this! Just as though you’re sitting at a songwriter round, you’re going to hear what it’s really all about direct from Dan Smalley himself. “Till Country Comes Back” is that same mentality (as “Rich and Famous”) about me waiting for the love of my life to come back. The idea came from Josh Thompson and Jimmy Robbins who were in the room. Again, two hit songwriters, amazing songwriters. The first question was, ‘How is it not that thing when you hear till country comes back?’ ‘How is it not country music?’ Is it a girl because that’s more relatable, obviously? So, as a songwriter, it has to come out the complete opposite way of what you hear and what you see. People are like, ‘Oh, they’re making a statement,’ and really it’s not that at all.” I made sure I understood and asked, “So, it’s really not about country music, it’s about a relationship?” He responded, “Totally, yeah, yeah. It’s really about a guy that has nothing better to do than sit around and wait for the love of their life to come back.”
There’s a lyric video out for “Till Country Comes Back” and I mentioned I’d seen it and thought it looked like a fun video to make. Smalley said he had a blast. “All kinds of people running around making you look all handsome and stuff.” I have a feeling he’ll be making a lot of videos in the future. This is just the beginning.
Video courtesy of DanSmalleyVEVO and YouTube
We’re working a little bit backward, but we were both so excited to talk about the new music, we kind of went for it right away. Rather than rearrange things for chronology’s sake, I’m just taking all of you on the same path we went down. Why not be different? Let’s back it up to when Smalley first came to Nashville and how that happened, because he didn’t just beam himself there and nobody dragged him by his neck either. Everyone has their own story of how they landed in Music City. For Smalley it was a series of starts and stops. He tells it best. “At the end of 2015, I started making trips to Nashville. I went and started paying rent on a room and started coming back and forth. I did that for almost two years. I talked Heather into moving to Nashville in 2017. First we moved to Murfreesboro in June of 2017. In 2018 we moved to Nashville proper, but in 2008 is when I moved to Muscle Shoals and tried to go back and forth to Nashville. There was ten years of trying to actually get to Nashville before we actually got there.
I needed to know a little bit about his time in Muscle Shoals. If you know anything about music, you know it’s one of the epicenters for great musicians and some of the most iconic records ever were recorded there. It turned out that Smalley’s time spent in Muscle Shoals was an important link in the chain that led him not only to Nashville, but to the right people in Nashville that he needed to know in order to jump start his career.
Smalley explained, “There are so many amazing musicians and there’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals. James LeBlanc is a good friend of mine and he was the guy that was kind of taking me under his wing saying, “Come on, you can make these trips with me to Nashville. Move your stuff here if you want. You can crash here. James was my guy that was really trying to help me at the time. Through him I met so many other amazing artists and musicians in and around the Muscle Shoals, Florence and Tuscumbia area. Per capita, I would say it has a greater number of influential musicians than any other place on this planet probably, as far as the size of the place goes, and as far as how many monsters are living within that community. There are just so many it’s hard to count all of them.”
I interjected that it’s the kind of place where you could walk into any rural grocery store and there would likely be at least a couple people that are outstanding musicians milling around. Smalley agreed by saying, “Right. Exactly. Or there would be pictures of them in there. Everybody knows everybody.”
From Muscle Shoals to Nashville to putting out an EP with killer songwriters on it. How in the world does that happen? That’s what I’m sure a lot of artists pounding the pavement are wondering. “For me, it was a long time coming,” says Smalley. “From the outside lookin’ in, it probably looks a little bit quick, but I’ve been committed to music as a lifestyle and a career since April 20, 2008 and before that. I’ve been doing this for a long, long, long time and I think getting to Nashville, and writing songs in Nashville, was really the beginning of what I hoped to be a career in the business. Everything I did before that was preparation and practice. Until I got to Nashville, I didn’t actually begin my journey in the business, because I wasn’t actually writing songs that were good enough to get out there and make a difference. You have to really hone your craft, and when you get to this city, and the creative energy is palpable, you have to get better if you’re paying attention. All you want to do is get better because everybody in this place is so good. Everybody here is writing better songs than you. They’re all singing better than you. They’re all playing better than you. You just have to do things better, and if you do, hopefully people will start to pay attention. I think the thing that helped me is I spent a lot of time doing what these kids are doing here on Broadway, just in different atmospheres, in actual honky tonks in Texas and Louisiana. That’s where I cut my teeth instead of on Broadway.”
He continued, “So, when I got here, I knew I didn’t want to do that because I had already done the live music part and I’ve gotten pretty good at that part, and that’s where I’m the most comfortable. What I needed, was great songs, and I wasn’t gonna find those on the stages on Broadway, I was gonna find those in these writing rooms with these amazing hit songwriters, and they’re not gonna hand them to you, you know what I mean? You have to prove yourself. They have to know that you’re worthy of their time. Until they see that or hear that, they’re not gonna give you the time of day. Most will not give you the time of day because most have all been here a lot longer than you have.”
I guess it’s no secret that somehow Dan Smalley proved himself to the hit songwriters that he’s been working with, but someone must have been the first person to give him a chance. Who was that? Or who were they? I asked that question. The answer. “Aaron Tippin.” I couldn’t help myself because ever since Annette Gibbons and I interviewed Aaron Tippin, I’ve been an extra big fan of his. “I love Aaron Tippin, and he makes great wine!” He did bring us wine, which is quite delicious. That’s a whole different story, but it even has an Ashley McBryde chapter, but back to Dan Smalley. So, Smalley went on, “Yes, Aaron Tippin, isn’t that nuts? He heard my project that I recorded in Shreveport, with all the vocal guys in Shreveport. That kind of opened the doors in Nashville. He came to Shreveport to see the studio and we had lunch with him and just hung out, and he was like, ‘Man, when you come to Nashville call me and we’ll set up a write and hang out and we’ll write some songs.’ So, really it was James LeBlanc, because my first trip to Nashville was with James and we wrote, and then Aaron was like, ‘Hey, next time let’s write.’ So, we hooked up and then Aaron introduced me to John Dorris. The exact same trip I met Keith Stegall and I met Jennifer Johnson at The Song Factory, which is now Riser House. I met John Dorris the same week. When I met Keith, having his name, I met him through a mutual contact, a Shreveport, Louisiana guy, one of my best friends, Hassle Teakle. He’s a keyboard player who played for years with Mark Collie. He’s well-connected in the industry, kind of on the underground, old school side of things. He connected me to Keith. Keith was like, ‘You can come write with any of my songwriters.’ When he opened his doors and said, ‘Use my name, tell people that we’re working together because that’s gonna help you and I believe in you,’ when he said that, and I was able to have a start doing that. it really opened every door in town.”
That was a huge break for Smalley. One that very few singer/songwriters ever get, but you can get all the breaks in the world, it’s what you do with those breaks that really matters. That’s where the cream rises to the top. Not everybody knows what to do when they get a lucky break. Dan Smalley knew exactly what to do and he continues to do the right thing. He continued his story, “So, then I guess when I kept showing up and when the demos started making their way around town, people wanted to know who was singing them.”
I asked him if he ever wondered how he managed to have that kind of luck. “I do. (He laughed) “My life, it has been a pretty strong pattern throughout my life. I’ve been a pretty lucky dude. I’ve been through some situations where most people don’t make it out the other side. I consider myself blessed and extremely lucky to still be around, and I think that’s a big part of the whole thing is hard work and talent go a long way, but there’s a little bit of luck too.”
I responded, “It’s said you have to know someone. I do believe you have to know that one person that can help you. At the same time, you can know Garth Brooks, but if you suck, it won’t matter. Even Garth can’t help you then. You have to have something to offer.”
Smalley came back with, “It is who you know, but you have to be able to sell yourself by being yourself. I think that’s kind of what helped me when I got here is knowing exactly what I wanted to do and knowing exactly what I did not want to do, and being able to stay true to that. Had I not been through Hell before I got here, I would have been laughed right out of town to be honest with you.”
There’s another big payoff for Dan Smalley being himself, and as soon as the Corona virus settles down, he’ll be headed out on the road with Ashley McBryde. How exciting is that? It might be hard to wait for that, but until that happens there’s a little something that’s going to happen even if we’re all still stuck in our houses, and nobody is more ready for it than Smalley. Well, maybe one person is anticipating it a little bit more and that would be Ashley McBryde. I’ll have Smalley tell you the details. “I met Ashley right after I met Jennifer Johnson at The Song Factory because that’s where she was writing. Our first song together was ‘Velvet Red’, that’s coming out in a couple of days, it’s on her new record, it’ll be out April 3rd, I guess next Friday, a week from today! (Italicized to emphasize the excitement in his voice) So, we met a year before she took off, but the next time we wrote I went out to her house, and I kind of hung out and I still wasn’t living in Nashville yet, so she let me crash there ’cause it was a ways out of town. We were just kind of the same person almost, in a way. We got along in a lot of aspects of life. We have that connection, it’s really, really cool. Then the music connection is also very cool. So, when I found out she was gonna cut ‘Velvet Red’, I was way over the moon. Then in January, right after the break, when she called to let me know I was the first name on the list of people to take out on her tour, I was not expecting that, but to have that opportunity now, with a friend who has been working just as hard as anybody for the same thing, and to get to go through that with somebody that people rely on for really great music, I want to be that next Ashley McBryde. I want to be that next person that people really gravitate to.”
I had to stop him and say something. “I think you are going to be the male Ashley McBryde.”
Our time had actually run over and he had an interview right after waiting on another line, so he had one more thing to say.
“If people called me that, I think that would be pretty alright. That would be quite a compliment because she’s an amazing person and she’s an amazing artist. Yeah, like I said, she’s someone I’m excited to get to work with.”
He really had to run, as we ran a full four minutes over at that point, but I wish we had another 30 minutes. There was so much more we could have gotten into. He was so easy to talk to and had such good stories. That said, this artist is not just someone to watch he is the artist to watch. The next big star. Whether it be a performing artist or a songwriter or both, he has the chops. One way or the other Dan Smalley is a name you need to know and you need to tell your friends about. It’s never easy to get people to get on board with a name they haven’t heard on mainstream radio. It’s like pulling teeth actually. I hope people listen this time. Dan Smalley is going to be a household name. That’s all there is left to say.
Video courtesy of DanSmalleyVEVO and YouTube
Dan Smalley Website: https://dansmalleymusic.com/
*Featured image courtesy of Dan Smalley