When the next big thing is in front of you, you sit up and take notice. That’s the effect Caitlyn Smith has on a room: She demands your undivided attention. While she may not be a household name yet, her show at The Blind Pig on May 3 had the distinct feel of a star rising — the kind of grungy, small-venue performance you brag about having seen a year later when the artist is all over the radio.
Smith is already the biggest name you’ve never heard in the music industry. Her origin story fits neatly into the mythology of the all-American country singer: Raised in a small town in Minnesota, Smith started performing in the Twin Cities before moving to Nashville, where she built a career as a songwriter. Some of her songs were picked up by major recording artists, including Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”), Rascal Flatts (“Let it Hurt”), Lady Antebellum (“747”), James Bay (“Hear Your Heart”) and Meghan Trainor and John Legend (“Like I’m Gonna Lose You”). Smith struggled to establish herself as a performer in her own right until Starfire, her breakout release this January from Monument Records for which she is currently touring.
“This album was the end of a long, winding road. I went around to every label in Nashville and tried writing for radio and tried writing what I thought other people wanted from me. Finally, after years of hearing ‘no’ from record labels and ‘no’ from most of Nashville, that’s what brought me to creating Starfire,” said Smith in a phone interview with the Michigan Daily. “I stepped back and I thought, you know what, I can write songs that are my story and not think about genre, not think about radio, not think about anything except making music that I love.”
The tracks on Starfire tend toward confessional, drawing from Smith’s Minnesota roots and the hustle of trying to make a name for herself in Nashville. For Smith, the freedom to be more vulnerable and personal in her songwriting was an important reason for the shift towards performing her own songs: “When you go in the room to write for an artist or for a specific project, it’s a little bit more like work. You’re able to dig around in what the artist is thinking, but not necessarily tell your story. You can play a character in a room, but it’s not as personal. When I’m writing for myself I’m digging around my own heart and my own story and my own truth and trying to write that.”
The intimacy of these songs is always evocative and occasionally heartbreakingly raw like in “This Town Is Killing Me,” a song about Smith’s struggles in Nashville with the lyrics, “Nashville, you win / Your steel guitars and broken hearts have done me in / I gave you my soul / I wanted it so bad and now I just wanna go home / This town is killing me, this town is killing me.”
Smith covers a lot of ground in Starfire, both in terms of emotional range and genre. As much as she can access vulnerability and grief, Smith is also able to pump out brighter, brassier tracks like “Contact High” and “Before You Call Me Baby” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Top 40 charts. While the album holds a country backbone, Smith includes pop-inflected hooks and elements of blues and rock, making her style difficult to pigeonhole.
Despite this variety, Smith’s songs show off her meticulously honed instinct for songwriting — unsurprising, since she considers herself “a student of songs” and cites singer-songwriters like Carole King, Paul Simon and Patty Griffin as some of her biggest influences. Smith identifies a common thread in her work: “All the songs have some guts! Even on the more fun songs, I still feel it from my toes.” With Smith’s powerhouse vocals and take-no-prisoners confidence, it’s easy to see how gutsiness could be her calling card.
After finishing the Starfire tour, Smith will go on the road with country legends Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and then with Sheryl Crow. She says, “2018 is about getting this music out to the fans. And then anytime I’m in Nashville and have a few days off I’ll definitely be writing and making some new stuff up for the next record.” Whatever that next record may be, there’s no denying that Caitlyn Smith is on the rise, and she’s taking all of us along for the ride.