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In Conversation with Songwriter Anthony Smith

Sometimes you just know.  When I walked into Anthony Smith’s house I just knew.  I’d been listening to recorded interviews for weeks and I still had more to go.   Recording apps are a great tool, don’t get me wrong.  They save you from hand writing notes and they help capture every detail of an interview so nothing gets missed, but every now and then you just want to really drink in what someone has to say.  I had a feeling about this guy.

Call it whatever you want, something was telling me I could give myself a break from the drudgery of transcribing from a recording on this day.  I sat down on that big leather sofa and knew I could put the recorder away, listen and scratch out notes the old way.  Most of those notes would be taken mentally because I could tell I wasn’t going to forget much of what he had to say.  Maybe he just looked interesting.  Again, sometimes you just know.

I’m sitting here right now, listening to Anthony Smith’s 2002 album If That Ain’t Country, and thinking how lucky I am to have been granted this interview in the first place.  It wasn’t something I requested.  It kind of fell into my lap.  A little further into this, you’ll see why this was a huge stroke of luck.  Not just for me, but for all of you.

If you’re part of the music industry, chances are you already know who Anthony Smith is.  Maybe you’re already a fan of his and I hope you are, but maybe you’re wondering who he even is.  It’s for all of you that don’t know who he is that I’m writing this for most.  I hope by the end, you know who he is and you have learned a lot by what he has to say.  I hope you enjoy his stories, which are fascinating.  I hope you listen to his words.  He’s wise and he’s interesting.  Your music preferences aren’t important here.  Keep that in mind.

Anthony Smith is a songwriter.  Not just any songwriter.  One of the best in the business.  Mention his name in Nashville and people know exactly who you’re talking about.  I’m growing a little weary about beating a dead horse when it comes to the importance of songwriters.  It’s as if Nashville is in a bubble.  Songwriting is something that people here know about.  It’s something people hear about regularly, even if they aren’t in the music business themselves.  In other places, the role of the songwriter simply isn’t generally understood, much less given any real credit.

I have tried over and over to tell people coming to Nashville to go to a songwriter show.  Once you’ve done that you start to comprehend the process and appreciate it, yet people rarely take that advice.  It’s a honky-tonk mentality when tourists visit.  That’s great to do, but check out what makes this town tick as well.  If I can’t talk folks into it, maybe someone like Anthony Smith can.  He has the credibility and if you keep on reading, maybe you’ll see why.

How did I end up sitting in Anthony Smith’s living room for this interview?  Crazy as it sounds, a photo shoot.  Not me taking photos.  Please, I can’t even take a decent picture with my phone.  Another songwriter was planning to be in town and contacted my husband to have some photos done.  She happened to be staying at Anthony’s house while in the Nashville area and she asked if I might want to interview Anthony while they were taking photos.  I said if he agreed to it I thought it would be a great opportunity, and just like that, it happened.  The only thing I did wrong was underestimate just HOW great an opportunity it was going to be.  He was far more engaging and interesting than I realized.

I’ll attempt to set the scene, but I’ll never do it justice.  Anthony Smith’s house is everything I could ever imagine my dream house looking like.  It’s not a mansion on a hill in some exclusive gated community, it’s better than that.  It’s in a beautiful, peaceful setting surrounded by nature.  When you enter, you’re surrounded by natural woodwork and stone and windows that allow all of that nature to come inside.  It’s just gorgeous.  Hanging on the walls are a guitar from his “If That Ain’t Country” video and paintings that Anthony himself created.  There’s a bear carved from wood that stands almost as tall as myself standing next to a vintage TV set that doesn’t serve as a functioning television (“I’ve never tried turning it on.”), but rather as a decorative piece.  The colors are warm and inviting.

The best part of all is everything in the house was done by Anthony himself.  This is a guy that has creativity flowing throughout his entire being.  Whether he’s writing a song, painting a picture or putting up a stone wall, he knows how to do it well.  It was in his living room that I sat down on the chocolate brown leather sofa and he sat on a matching armchair across from me.  I asked him to tell me about his beginnings.

Warsaw, Indiana.  The place that Anthony Smith considers “a birthplace” and nothing more, because right after he was born, his family packed up and moved to Oneida, Tennessee.  A small town in the eastern part of the state, it was “as backwoods as you could get” and “a cool place to grow up” as Anthony says, where four-wheeling and camping was the thing to do until the National Park system came in and bought up all kinds of property in the area and changed everything.  The cool factor dropped like a rock after that.

While most of Oneida’s population was probably busy with their outdoor activities one day many years ago, there was one resident who was walking indoors that same day and he was carrying something.  Something that caught the eye of a four-year old boy.  “Dad bought a powder blue Fender Mustang guitar.  It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen”, Anthony said with the wonder reserved when recalling seeing something like the Grand Canyon for the first time.  I asked for clarification on his age again.  Yes, he repeated that he was four.  I asked him if he wanted to touch it.  He said he absolutely wanted to touch it.  His exact words?  “At four years old, I knew that guitar was a piece of engineering.”

Anthony explained that his Dad always had guitars and “knew a couple chords”, but when he walked into the house with that gorgeous new Fender Mustang, sparks went off.  Suddenly it went from Dad knowing “a couple chords” to Anthony’s life path being laid out right there in front of him.  By the time he was five, just a year later, Anthony was playing guitar himself.  He started off knowing a few chords and by the age of eight he was writing melodies.  His mother was always supportive and when he was about 10, he moved it up a notch and took his guitar to church.

Things moved quickly from that point.  Around the age of 14, Anthony switched to a different church.  A tiny, one-room, Pentecostal church where he got involved with the band there.  He played electric guitar. There was a bass player, a drummer and “a bunch of singers”.  The singers were all older than he was, yet it must have been obvious who held the talent in the group because guess who taught the singers how to sing harmonies?  Yes, young Anthony Smith.  I asked if they were accepting of a kid telling them how it was going to be and he said they were perfectly alright with it and the whole band got better.  He was on his way.

Gospel and country music served as the backbone for what Anthony knew growing up.  Mainly because it’s all he heard where he lived.  His father was a huge country music fan, with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard among his favorites.  Anthony played in gospel groups until his early 20’s as well.  These were the genres that made him take notice of music to begin with, but wait, there’s more.

There was some Elvis Presley and even a little Creedence Clearwater Revival in the Smith home.  That’s about as rock and roll as things got around there.  Some might argue that Elvis is The King of Rock and Roll and that should have been the beginning, the middle and the end if we’re talking about rock influences, but that’s a debate for another day.  CCR is edgier for sure, so in a house ruled by gospel and country music, you have to hand it to them, this was a bold move into the dark side.

Then one day when Anthony was 13 years old, Danny Hanson happened.  No, Danny Hanson wasn’t a one-hit-wonder punk rocker that came flying into little Oneida, Tennessee and ruined the town with his outlandish ways and screaming guitar, only to ride into the sunset never to be heard from again.  Just because you’ve never heard of him before doesn’t mean he doesn’t play a very important part in this story.  He does.  I think we all have a “Danny Hanson” in our lives.  Read on.

Danny Hanson was a classmate of Anthony Smith.  It was kind of a “show and tell” day at school.  I don’t know what Anthony brought in on this particular day and I doubt it matters.  What does matter is what Danny brought in.  He brought a record.  It was by a little band called Aerosmith.  Remember when Anthony’s Dad brought home that Fender Mustang?  That was kind of an epiphany for young Anthony.  Well, so was Danny’s “show and tell” item.

Anthony Smith’s first rock and roll album purchase was Aerosmith’s Toys in the Attic, with Boston’s self-titled album shortly after that.  He said he was so astounded by the sounds he heard on Danny Hanson’s copy of “Walk This Way” that he needed to know everything about this band.  “What was an Aerosmith?  I never even heard of them.  I had to have it.”  Enter rock music into the ever-growing influences that were shaping Anthony Smith’s future as a career songwriter.

As if hearing Steven Tyler’s wild vocals and Joe Perry’s crazy guitar licks weren’t enough to shock a small town kid used to playing gospel songs in church, playing his first bar gig was “pretty weird” too.  This was about when Anthony figured out that once he could sing AND play guitar, the guitar was just a tool to write.  He played in several bands as a guitarist and sang a little bit, and no matter how far they put him in the background, he always seemed to attract the most attention.  This had to mean something.  Maybe it was time to get out of Dodge.

It was the late 1990’s when Anthony made the move to Nashville with the goal of becoming a recording artist, not an uncommon theme when people strap a guitar on their back and land in Music City.  It took three years before he was signed as a songwriter.  He didn’t get the record deal he originally came for, but he had something.  He was hoping to get one cut the first year.  He ended up getting 40.  That’s right.  40.  He himself said to this day, it’s unprecedented.  Artists like Tim McGraw, Montgomery Gentry, Trace Adkins and Rascal Flatts were cutting his songs.  He was on a roll as a Nashville songwriter.

He finally got his recording contract with Mercury and released his album If That Ain’t Country in 2002.  The deal didn’t last and he likes to give partial credit for that to superstar Shania Twain.  She was also on the Mercury label at the time and the hottest thing in country music.  Every available dollar was being thrown in her direction to promote what she had going on, leaving little for anyone else on the label.  He doesn’t seem bitter though, just matter-of-fact.  What did come out of that one record that got made, however, is worth so much.  Stay with me.

First let me say this.  I must confess, I’ve only just become familiar with this album in the last two days.  I must have been crazy not to have found this before.  If I’d been talking to the right people, I might not have missed it, but then again, I don’t usually get invited to hang out with people like Eddie Montgomery or Chris Stapleton.  Maybe now that I’m listening to what the cool kids do, they’ll have me over sometime.  Yes, Eddie Montgomery and Chris Stapleton are just a few who consider Anthony Smith’s If That Ain’t Country one of their favorite country albums.

If you’re a country music fan already, I can say, “Porter” and you’re going to say, “Wagoner”.  A legend.  Porter Wagoner passed away at the age of 80 in 2007.  He was well-known for wearing flashy Nudie suits and his singing partnership with Dolly Parton.  Those are facts just about any traditional country music fan can throw at you.  I’ve got a story you may not have heard.

If you’ve ever been to The Grand Ole Opry, you know they pipe in music throughout the auditorium before the show and in between sets.  It came to Anthony’s attention that his album, If That Ain’t Country was being played before the show and during the breaks.  He knew he had a great record but wasn’t sure why they had chosen it for this purpose.  He found out.  It turned out it was none other than Porter Wagoner who requested it.  I guess when Porter Wagoner asks the audio powers that be at The Grand Ole Opry to play an Anthony Smith album, they do it, but this is hardly the end of this story.

When asked to play The Opry, Anthony showed up with his guitarist prepared to do the standard two-song set that everyone played.  They rolled through their two songs and just as they were ready to walk off stage along came Porter Wagoner, who was hosting the show that night, to tell them to do a third song.  What?  Of course, Anthony and his guitar player knew another one, but the Opry band didn’t have any music for another one.  What were they going to do?  Nobody did three songs!  Was this even allowed?  Obviously, Porter wasn’t budging on this, so just as that album got played on the in-house sound system when he asked for it, that third song was going to get played on the Opry stage – somehow.  They counted off the song, “Metropolis”, and in no time the backing band caught on and it all went off without a hitch.

Porter Wagoner didn’t let it end there.  He was such a big fan of Anthony Smith that he told the audience If That Ain’t Country was the “best country album ever.”  He also gave Anthony a directive.  “You don’t play The Opry unless I emcee the show.”  “There we were, me, my guitar player and Porter Wagoner, all three of us, standing there in that circle.”  He was smiling as he told me this story and I could tell this was one of the highlights of his life.

Count Willie Nelson and Toby Keith as fans of If That Ain’t Country as well.  Anthony toured with both of them and told me that in addition to touring extensively with Willie Nelson, he considers him to be one of the nicest people he knows.

Speaking of nice guys in the music world, if you write a song about one of them, maybe they’ll call you and let you know what they think about it.  One day Anthony’s phone rang and a gruff-sounding voice on the other end said, “Is this Anthony?”  He replied, “Yes.”  “I heard you wrote a song with my name in it.  I don’t know how you got ‘Kristofferson’ in a song, but it’s a good one!”  Yes, that was the one and only Kris Kristofferson.  He took the time to find Anthony’s phone number and call him to tell him he heard “Kristofferson” and he liked it.  They met soon after for drinks and was he a nice guy?  The answer was a resounding, “Yes, a very nice guy.”

These days Anthony is as busy as ever.  He’s a top songwriter and no doubt there are countless artists that would love to collaborate with him, but be aware that if you’re one of those people that would like to sit down and write with him, it’s not all that easy.  He’s picky and with good reason.

He isn’t an “assembly-line” type writer (those are my words in quotes), meaning he isn’t one to churn out hundreds of songs in a year, hoping a hit falls out of that mountain of tunes.  Not even close.  He prefers to pen a “well-crafted song”.  “I want it to be special.  I would rather be consistent.”  In total, he estimates he’s written about 500 songs.  That’s not many when you consider how long he’s been in this game.  He admits he could write more, but for now he’s doing alright.

He’s also not big on co-writes that involve more than three people, and even that’s pushing things.  He said these days it isn’t uncommon to have up to 7 writers in one room.  If that sounds excessive to you, join the club.  I was really surprised too.    He explained that he’s “a melody guy”.  He likes to come up with the melodies and often when he walks into a writing session, he already has a melody in mind.  It makes him a little crazy when his co-writer is impatient with ideas as well.  He likes it when they can come up with a line, let it sink in for a little bit and then move on.  In other words, silence is a tool that he uses in his work.  It helps him to think.  People that are constantly talking and shoving ideas all over the place probably won’t get another appointment to write with him.

Does this mean he’s a mean guy and nobody should consider writing with him?  Absolutely not.  He’s about the furthest thing from a mean guy, he just has a system for doing his job.  Don’t we all?  I’m giving you a glimpse into his world because he was gracious enough to tell me about it.

It was very interesting to hear Anthony’s thoughts on how songwriting has changed in recent years.  For instance, how the tide has turned for songwriters trying to get cuts on a record.  To do that now, more often than not, even the best songwriters in the business have to write with the artist and/or producer of the album.  It doesn’t matter if the artist is a great writer or not.  In Anthony’s words, “Artists sit in the room and suddenly they’re a hit songwriter.”  He was quick to point out that there are some artists who are really good songwriters, but overall, he isn’t a big fan of this trend.  Just take a look at the writing credits on one of your more recent albums.  You’ll probably see the artist credited on at least a song or two, if not more.  It’s something I had been noticing myself, but to hear Anthony’s explanation as to why it’s happening so frequently was an eye opener.

I asked what his feelings were on artists that might want to take one of his songs and rearrange it radically, “trick it out”, maybe add a hip-hop vibe to it or something similar.  He said he didn’t care for that much and at the very least would hope they would consult with him first about their plans.  He feels that would be the respectful thing to do.

Songwriters are also having to find alternate ways to supplement their income.  Anthony isn’t any different.  He does tour and do shows, but he’s also currently working on a new project that sounds exciting.

It’s a songwriter expo type event that will take place in locations in California.  It will have two main purposes.  To give new songwriters the opportunity to engage with and have access to top music industry professionals and to receive help in landing recording and publishing deals.  There will also be workshops to help them learn their craft.  It’s Anthony’s goal to include music business professionals from the Los Angeles, Nashville and New York music scenes in this endeavor.

Part of this brainchild stems from Anthony’s idea that songwriters have lost their “mystique” of decades past, when they were almost untouchable and people wanted to rub shoulders with them.  They were among an elite clique and people thought of them as true celebrities.  He cited the old-style television variety shows, such as “The Flip Wilson Show” or “Donny and Marie” as examples.  “They always had hit songwriters on those shows.”  He wants to bring back some of that “songwriter as a celebrity” status and put the songwriters on the red carpet where he feels they should be.  How?  Don’t you worry.  He has a plan for that too.

There are plenty of celebrities that already walk the red carpets of Los Angeles, Nashville and New York and they aren’t necessarily known for writing songs, but they do.  People like Jeff Bridges, Kevin Bacon, Kevin Costner and Jack Black.  When they aren’t acting in movies, they’re playing music.  These people are just a few that Anthony has in mind to bring on board with his new project.  That would certainly help bolster the idea that songwriters can be celebrities because they already are known as such, but what about those amazing writers whose names we don’t recognize?

That’s where he’ll have his work cut out for him and I don’t doubt that he can do it.  He’s passionate about making this happen and his targeted launch date is sometime in 2019.

It was about this point where our conversation drifted from the shore right into the open seas.  We got into the heart of the music business and it was exactly where I never thought it would end up, but so thankful it did, because as someone who doesn’t play music, but who has been so in love with it since I was old enough to speak my first words, to listen to him talk so candidly was an incredible experience for me.

Liner notes have always been important to me, almost more than the actual record I was ripping into when I bought a new one.  I could never wait to read every last word of the liner notes.  I didn’t care if I didn’t know everyone the artist was thanking, I read every name.  Quick side story which I swear ties into this perfectly.  I had the extraordinary good fortune of meeting a nice man in a hotel lobby in Cheektowaga, New York, near my hometown when I was 13 years old.  We had family in from out of town and that’s where they were staying.  I was invited to stay with them there and hang out with my cousins.  It was all quite innocent in case your mind was going somewhere else.

The nice man I met had a name.  It was Richard Dashut.  He had a very interesting occupation.  He was a record producer.  Now there was something I had read many times before!  “Record producer”, I’d seen that on liner notes over and over again.  As it turned out, Mr. Dashut produced an album that, at that time, was my very favorite album ever.  I had worn the thing out.  That album, all these years later, is STILL my very favorite album ever.  That album is called Rumours by my very favorite band, Fleetwood Mac.  I will never forget the kindness he showed a 13- year old kid from Buffalo, New York.  He took the time to explain to me what a record producer did and some little factoids about working on that album.  It was one of those things I’ve never forgotten and from that time, I’ve been an even bigger fan of liner notes.  Every person that works on a record matters.  From the artist to the caterer.  I think hard about that when I read those notes, and now I’ll bring you back to our regularly scheduled Anthony Smith interview and tell you how this little piece of my life fits into Anthony’s view on music as a whole.

Songwriters, whether well-known or not, do something the rest of us can’t.  I mentioned to Anthony that although I am a terrible singer, I can still sing in my shower or my car or anywhere I want and I can sing someone else’s song.  It won’t sound good, but I can do it.  What I can’t do is craft a song.  I just can’t do it.  I don’t have that ability.  To be able to actually write a song, especially a very good one, is a gift and it takes a great deal of talent and knowledge.  That’s why I consider songwriters to be such amazing people, they can do something I simply can’t do.  Great songwriters, I am totally in awe of.

Think of some of your favorite songs.  Go back years!  Every single one of those songs had a writer who created it from scratch.  It wouldn’t exist if someone didn’t sit down and write it.  We all owe those people a great big thank you.  The songs that shaped your life, maybe your first dance at your wedding.  Someone wrote that.  If they hadn’t, you would have danced to something entirely different.  You may have changed your mind 100 times before you settled on THAT SONG because you decided it was the perfect one.  Imagine if it didn’t exist.

Anthony Smith said this to me.  “Imagine what the world would be like if all the music in the world stopped. Everywhere. No music on the radio, on TV, in stores, elevators, hotels. None. If every bit of music stopped all at once it would be like a zombie land.”  It sure would get quiet wouldn’t it?  I don’t think we even realize how much music surrounds us all the time and as Anthony pointed out, every bit of that music was written by a songwriter.  That would be the trickle-down effect in one respect.  If that’s not enough to convince you of the importance of a songwriter, maybe you need the economy to do the talking.

“Every piece of sheet music, every guitar string, every choir, every guitar pick.  From publicists, managers, executives, recording studio engineers, musicians, tour bus drivers, lighting people, stage designers.  Not one of those things would exist if it weren’t for songwriters.”  I didn’t say that.  Those are Anthony Smith’s words.

Let that sit for a minute and now think about what else wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for songwriters.  The list is endless.  I tried to STOP thinking about what occupations, what objects, even what activities wouldn’t exist without songwriters, my mind kept on racing, I could not stop. It’s mindblowing.  Would we dance without songwriters?  Dancing would be difficult without music.  When it all gets broken down, the last one standing is the songwriter.

We talked for a while longer about other things and I thought about adding them in at the end, but they would muddy the waters.  This needs to be the end.  If the opportunity arises that you can see Anthony Smith perform live, make it happen.  Download his album If That Ain’t Country.  It’s fantastic.  All of the artists I mentioned that love it can’t be wrong, don’t take my word for it, take theirs.  Most of all, if you take anything from this interview, when you listen to a song, enjoy it, but think about it in its infancy.  Think about who brought it into this world.  FIND OUT who wrote it.  Learn about the person or people who wrote it.  Without them, it wouldn’t be here.  It would be a very quiet world without songwriters.  “A zombie land.”  That’s actually scary.













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