Spinnaker reporter Jessica Harden sat down with country singer Corey Smith before his concert and asked him questions about his life and his music. The answers may surprise some.
The interview below has been edited for space purposes. For the full interview, watch the video.
Spinnaker: You grew up in Jefferson, Georgia. Can you tell us what that was like?
Corey Smith: I still live in the same town I grew up in…. I left for college and came back to where all my friends and family are, to where I feel at home and feel like myself… I like that my kids are going to grow up there and go to the same school that I went to, and family is really important to me…
S: You grew up living with your grandmother. What kind of influence did that have on you?
CS: …All through high school I lived with my grandma and it was nice. It was just me and her. She cooked home cooked meals every night… I have a lot of respect for my grandmother. She taught me about integrity and hard work, and doing what it takes to support your family. And she was a huge influence on me, still is.
S: Does that influence your music at all?
CS: I think so, I think that my music has a real sense of place and that it’s grounded because of that experience there is one of the reasons that I’m still in Jefferson.
S: And before your career in music you were a teacher. Can you tell me about your decision to be a teacher?
CS: …When I was a teenager I guess I had a pipe dream of being a rock star or something, and then I kind of got my priorities straight and I realized what was more important to me was having stability and security, family, and so I decided to take my education seriously, become a teacher… I feel like it was a way to have a positive impact on the community… I was passionate about social studies… And it was a tough decision to leave but I felt like the opportunity to play music might not always be there and I could always go back to teaching.
S: You say you have a very strong sense of home. Why do you think you connect with Jefferson, Georgia so much, when at a younger age, on your website you quote going to Paris and wanting to get out a little bit, but right now you seem to have that strong sense of home?
CS: …I think part of the college experience is learning about the world outside of where you’re from. I really enjoyed going to Paris, for example, just to see what else was out there and experience different ways of life. But ultimately when it comes to where I want to raise my family I felt like I was in a great place where people care about each other and take care of each other and there is a lot drama that goes along with it but I wouldn’t trade that.
S: You said on your website listening to the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd got you through the difficult time when you were in Paris> What bands do you listen to and how do they influence you musically?
CS: …When I was in Europe for that summer I got really homesick. You know, I enjoyed being there and experiencing a new culture but it really… gave me a new perspective on my home and music was certainly a part of that and listening to a band like the Allman Brothers, it had the ability to take me back and I think music still has that power. You know, when I’m on the road I can put in certain records that just put me in a good mood…
S: Why did you choose to release your albums independently?
CS: That was really the only way… I guess necessity is the mother of invention… I was just making a record and selling it to my friends and family, they spread the music around.
S: How do you feel about the market for independent artists today, especially since the rise of social media?
CS: I think that technology has leveled the playing field where now people who make music have access to the market place in a way that they didn’t even ten or fifteen years ago and consumers have more choice than they’ve ever had. There’s still a lot to be said for mainstream media, radio in particular is still extremely valuable if you want to reach the masses… Now there’s this whole new class of musicians that are almost like a middle class of artists… It takes years if not a lifetime to find out who you are as an artist and express yourself and I think sometimes because big business needs to turn a profit quickly they take a lot of shortcuts with artists to get them out and sell product.
S: A few of your songs, including one by the title “Fuck the Po-Po”, address previous interactions with the police. Another song, “Chattanooga” addresses the concept of protection under the First Amendment of freedom of speech. Why did you choose to write about the concept of freedom of speech?
CS: I don’t know, maybe it’s the social studies teacher in me. But when I wrote “Fuck the Po-Po” I wasn’t trying to make a statement about freedom of speech, I was just pissed off and, you know, that’s my job as an artist, to express myself… And when I wrote it I expected that I would play it for my friends and family, I had no idea that I was going to be playing it all over the country, and have everybody flicking the police off and stuff. But you know, I was just sort of doing my job and in Chattanooga… It was one of the first times that I was being intimidated by the content of my song and I really thought about it in a first amendment way… I had a room full of adults who paid for a ticket who were told that they couldn’t hear a song… That was just a slap in the face to me and as an artist I have the right to be critical of authority and that’s what’s great about America: we can criticize the people who are enforcing the laws… Whether it’s justified or not that right is fundamental to a free society.
S: You support the SEVA foundation and Be The Change International. Can you tell me a little bit about these two organizations and what your relationship with them is?
CS: Be The Change International is actually based here in Jacksonville… I met Dr. Robert Lee who heads that organization years ago, when I was just starting out. He was drawn into a song called “Be The Change” that I wrote… I’d just become great friends with him and the organization. The Organization started as Fresh Ministries which did a lot of economic development work here in Jacksonville… In particular they do a lot of work in Sub-Saharan Africa on HIV and AIDS prevention, research and treatment. So I was able to go to South Africa with them and learn a lot about what they do, so that was certainly a cause I was happy to get behind… They do a lot of work in Haiti now… SEVA is another global non-profit, they specialize in eye care… It was a cause that was important to me… What SEVA does is they are able to go into developing countries and provide eye care at extremely low cost. Especially cataract surgery, here in the states it’s thousands of dollars… they can actually do a cataract surgery for fifty bucks… there’s a lot of people out there who can’t see and they just need a fifty dollar surgery and they can get their sight back… I went to Guatemala with them a few years ago and learned a lot more about them so I hope as my career grows I can be more valuable to the causes I find meaningful…
S: Your music has some variance of style. Do you ever feel pressure to “stay in the box” of a certain genre?
CS: Yeah, certainly. I try to not pay attention to it… In particular in trying to reach a radio audience there’s the need to sort of fit to this mold. I think that my music is already there without trying to do that, especially in the country music format. I’ve seen it change so much over the past ten years. When I first started out I was like “Well, I’ll never be on the radio”… I didn’t even think about it or consider it, but as the format’s changed over the past ten year, my music could fit right in there… I have a conscious that guides me when I’m writing songs or when I’m in the studio I just try to do what feels natural to me and not worry about what preconceived notions are…
S: What do you like about turing?
CS: I love the being on stage, it’s certainly what it’s all about, especially certain nights where everything is just right… You feel like you’re as big as the whole room because you can hear the audience, you can feel that they’re connecting. I think one thing people get from my show that they don’t get out of a lot of country shows especially, is the fact that I’ve written all the songs that I sing… I’m sharing part of who I am with them.
S: Tell me about your craziest experience on tour.
CS: I’ve got bit… After meeting with fans I was getting my picture made with this lady and she was drunk and she reached over and bit me, and drew blood. So I had a big bite mark I had to explain to my wife, “You’re not gonna believe this, but I actually got bit”.
S: Looking back on your career so far how would you say you feel about where you are right now?
CS: I feel like I’m in a good spot. Creatively, I’m at the best place I’ve ever been… I’m working on a record now with a producer now… who produced all the Alan Jackson records, all the Zac Brown Band records… It’s the first time I’ve been able to work with a producer of that caliber. And it’s something that in the past I was always afraid of you know, working with a producer who made hits and them wanting to change me… I knew right away that he was the right guy because as an artist himself and a songwriter he understood me and understood what this is all about for me and didn’t come in and change things…
S: Last question, your song “I Love Everybody” and the message of accepting different kinds of people, do you think this is an important message to spread?
CS: Certainly… When I taught social studies I had a group full of students that were very diverse… I learned to love all of them and treat them all equally… I think tolerance is a really important part of who we are as a nation… That song came from an experience I had up in Kentucky one night where after a show I went out to a bar and… this kid came up to me, he had been at the show, he was hammered, you know, but he had his hand up to give me five and as he had his hand up he just started spouting off all these offensive, bigoted remarks “F these people, and F these people, and F these people” and I kind of pulled my hand back, it made me scratch my head and think why does this kid think I would go along with that? Is it because I sing country music?… The first time I played it I was kind of nervous, I didn’t know how it was going to be perceived. Most of my fans are white people from the South, Well no, I take that back, it’s not white people from the South, it’s white people everywhere… And they’re largely country music fans so I’m thinking “how are they going to receive this message?” And it was the best feeling to get to that chorus and have everybody start cheering and realizing there are so many like-minded people out there.
Email Jessica Harden at firstname.lastname@example.org