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If that ain't country, that ain't Anthony Smith

By Dan MacIntosh, August 2002

Anthony Smith's voice comes out in a powerfully soulful growl, and he sounds a whole lot closer to John Hiatt than, say, Vince Gill. His Mercury Nashville debut album is called "If That Ain't Country," and while it is certifiably a country music album, calling it a mixed breed would in no way be doing it a disservice.

He's country all right, but he ain't at all ashamed to rock either.

"I always liked a lot of classic rock," Smith explains. "I know it sort of sounds kind of weird coming from a country singer 'cause I'm such a traditionalist and love classic country. But I also like classic rock as well, and I listen to bands like Aerosmith, AC/DC and ZZ Top. So, I've got some of the intensity of that kind of music intertwined with that classic country, and that's sort of how it all came about."

There's just nothing wrong with a strong shot of intensity, followed by a traditional country chaser.

Nashville, unlike the general medical community, has never had anything against cloning. This is why it takes extra effort sometimes to tell one new singer from another.

Smith, however, has a warm and conversational way with a song lyric, so he sounds like nobody else. This may be why it was his songwriting talents, which have enabled him to place tunes on albums by artists such as Montgomery Gentry ("Didn't I"), Trace Atkins ("I'm Tryin'") and George Strait ("Run"), preceded his recognition as a solo artist.

Mr. Smith came to Nashville to be a performer, but it doesn't bother him at all that his pen was recognized first before his singing voice.

"Anytime you come to Nashville and you find some success at being creative in what you love, it's always an honor," Smith comments. "I was completely humbled to the fact that people wanted to cut something that I wrote. It wasn't frustrating for me; I was just thankful."

"If it hadn't been for writing, it probably would have been hard for me to get in the door. I signed my writing deal, and I sang my own demos, and labels were calling wanting to know who the singer was, and that was sort of how I got heard."

Singing and writing songs have seemingly always been a part of Smith's life. He started playing guitar at 7, wrote his first songs to sing in the church around the age of 15 and has been expressing himself through music ever since.

Smith, 38, was born in Warsaw, Ind., began his professional performing career in Kentucky and eventually made the jump to Nashville in the mid-nineties. Although he was raised in the eastern part of Tennessee, he never really visited Nashville much before taking that brave leap of faith to move there.

He may have grown up 70 or so miles away from Nashville, but in his heart he was already there.

"Ever since my earliest memory, I've always thought I was going to be doing this," Smith states emphatically. "That's a hard concept for some people, I know, but basically I've been involved with music since I can remember."

His musical skills gave him a kind of boldness he sometimes lacked in everyday life.

"I was always a shy kid," he recalls. "But I never was shy when I was playing the guitar because the family would come over, and mom and dad would ask me to play in front of the family for the holidays. I wasn't shy at all then. I'd grab that guitar and just play."

"I started by coming up with these little riffs and melodies," Smith recalls. "And I'd run dragging that guitar - that was as big as I was - to my mom to show her, and she'd get a kick out of it. I started writing lyrics when I was a teenager. When I was 15, I wrote my first song. It was a gospel song. At that point, I didn't have any references, in terms of other songwriters. I just wrote because it was very inspired."

"But I did listen to a lot of country music at that time. I was a big fan of Jerry Reed's because some of his songs had a sense of humor, great guitar playing in them, and they just smoked."

Reed's influence on Smith's style is most pronounced on the song "Venus," where he tells this story in Reed's trademarked conversational style. It even reads like something Reed might have written.

They say men and women are worlds apart
With neither one willin' to travel that far
But I never bought into psychological stuff
And never claimed to be a bonafide genius
But if men are from Mars and women are from Venus
I'm goin' to Venus

The character in this song is not even the least bit interested in psychoanalyzing the differences between the sexes: he just wants to hookup with the opposite sex. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine Reed also cutting straight to the chase regarding man's never-ending need for companionship, while also sugaring it with a touch of humor.

"That's my dad's favorite song," Smith says. "He loves that song."

Smith is equally adept at writing dead serious songs, as he is composing the lighter ones. "John J. Blanchard" imagines what might be going on in he head of a coma victim and does so with great detail and much feeling. It's the kind of character study country music once excelled at, and through it, Smith renews this honored tradition.

"It's not a real person," Smith explains. "I consider myself sort of a daydreamer, a thinker type person. I ponder things and have questions spinning around in my head. "John J. Blanchard" came from an idea I had always wondered about. I always wondered, 'Do they hear? Can they think? Are they dreaming? What are they thinking about?' Even though they may be out of it for years, some of them. 'What's going on all that time they're gone?' That's where the thought came from, so I just started to write on it a bit."

On this song, and others, Smith allowed his imagination run wild. There's nothing calculated or summarized in its ruminations. It's something only a dreamer – in the very best sense of the word – could have come up with.

"This song comes out of my favorite thing to do in a writing session with somebody. I want to paint a picture that puts you there, and it draws in the listener where they can smell what's around them," Smith says. "They can see, feel it and just picture the room. It's kind of a cool thing to try to do."

And to quote the man himself, "If that ain't country, I don't know what is."