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Caitlyn Smith is Turning Industry Heartbreak into Career-Changing Music

Joseph Llanes

It’s been a big year for Caitlyn Smith. And it’s been a long time coming. Since arriving in Nashville, she’s landed songs with some huge artists, including Dolly Parton, Jason Aldean and Kenny Rogers. She went on the road with Eric Church and Dierks Bentley. You’ve probably even heard her songs on the hit show Nashville.

After finally finding her sound as an artist, she took to the studio and released her Starfire EP. She racked up critical acclaim (and a couple million streams on Spotify) before heading out to finally play on the road again.

And she did it all while undergoing just about the biggest life change possible. “I’d been writing for the record and found my producer and the vibiest studio in town,” Smith says. “And shortly after we had it all on the dock to go, I found out I was pregnant.”

The recently-turned-30-year-old didn’t skip a beat. “I sat down with my husband and we were like, ‘Ok, what does that mean?'” Smith says. “Well, it’s business as usual! Everybody has babies!” Smith welcomed her son Thomas Miles on Sunday, Aug. 7 at 4:17 a.m.

Smith bristles with infectious confidence. She’s as expressive in tone as she is optimistic. And she has every reason to be, after years of “no’s” hardened her resolve. Her new EP, Starfire, feels almost like a thematic rejection of rejection itself.

“There’s been a lot of ‘no’s’ on the artist side,” Smith says. Her support group — family, co-workers, fellow writers — kept her head above water. But being turned down ultimately helped Smith create her emotive, poignant sound. “I stopped caring as much about what other people think,” she says. “It’s been a huge help in discovering what I want to do. Singing the songs I want to sing. And just not thinking of all the bullshit in the music industry.”

Originally from Minneapolis, Smith made hundreds of trips to Nashville before she finally made the move. Her first visit came at the age of 16. “The writing community was the first thing I remembered about Nashville,” Smith says. “You can be a great singer, but if you don’t have the songs — those are what give you a real lasting career.”

Her Minnesota upbringing played a pivotal role, too. Being from an area where the likes of Bob Dylan and Prince flowed through the city’s veins projected an austere vibe for Smith. “It was very magical, and hard to leave,” Smith says. In some ways, she didn’t leave it in all. In fact, her band members are still from the state — including her husband, who tours with her.

When she finally made the move to town, it took her a few years to really find her niche. Meaning, her people — the folks she felt akin to in the writing room and who helped make her better. She put the “artist thing” (a favorite term of Nashville hopefuls) on the back burner to hone her writing craft. “I’m a chameleon in the writing room,” Smith says. She wrote five to eight songs a week.

The cuts (having an artist record and release your song) actually came pretty easily. “The door swung open faster than I thought it would,” Smith says. Those songs included Cassadee Pope’s “Wasting All These Tears,” Lady Antebellum’s “747” and Meghan Trainor and John Legend’s duet “Like I’m Gonna Lose You.”

(There’s also another *huge* cut, but we’ll get to that in a minute).

So a few years into her publishing deal, with plenty of success to show for herself, Smith and her publisher put together a 10-song album featuring Smith as the writer, but more importantly, the artist. “We pitched it to a lot of labels in town,” Smith says. “And everyone passed.”

To make matters even more frustrating, that album never came out. Though two of the songs on it went to the top 10 on the charts when other artists performed them. “It was bittersweet,” Smith admits. You can hear the toll that type of thing takes on the gut-wrenching tune “This Town Is Killing Me.”

So, Smith kept her nose to the grindstone. She kept touring, opening shows for a bunch of cool acts. When she opened for Sheryl Crow, Smith decided she needed an EP to sell. “I was just trying out songs and seeing what the audience liked,” she says. But that didn’t necessarily lend itself to the best body of work. “I was really focused on trying to make it sound like radio, or more country,” she says. “I tried to chase radio or fit into a genre box and I think I just tried to hard.”

So she kind of  “scrapped” the EP. Which, in reality, is a luxury that some label deals wouldn’t afford, had they not all said no.

Instead, Smith set out to find a batch of songs that had their genesis in a more personal place. She wrote with the smaller, more deliberate group of writers. She stopped caring so much if other people liked the songs and went with what she really liked. “Songs that were actually my story,” she says. The resulting EP, Starfire, knocks your socks off.

But truth be told, she knew somebody else liked at least one of the songs she put on the EP. “I got a call from my publisher one day, and they were like, ‘Hey, I know ‘Tacoma’ is your song, but this guy wants to sing it — his name is Garth Brooks,'” Smith says. “He’s one of my heroes. It’s the highest honor any time somebody wants to sing a song you wrote, but when it’s one of your heroes, there are no words to describe it.”

Brooks put “Tacoma” on his most recent release, Man Against Machine. He invited all the writers over to the studio to hear their cuts before the album went out. “It was chills the whole time,” she says.

And yet Smith’s version carries every ounce of impassioned fervor you’d expect from somebody who means every word she’s singing. The delivery morphs from hauntingly beautiful to earthshaking. It’s the type of song that deserves as many believable versions as possible. It’s not a contest, but if it were, Smith beats Brooks by a country mile.

Some songs come easily, and some you wrestle with. “Tacoma” certainly qualified as the former. “The roof opened up and it just came down,” Smith says.

The rest of the EP feels similarly meant-to-be. Which bodes well for the full album, seeing as it’s actually the first half of her debut release. Which, since I know you’re wondering, you can expect sometime in “quarter 1,” meaning January through early April.

In the meantime, Smith has plenty of amazing things on the horizon. Besides raising a beautiful family (Thomas has already been on 6 flights; “He’s a little rock star”), Smith was just named a member of CMT’s “Next Women of Country” Class of 2016. She joins some exciting company, including Americana darling Margo Price and alumnae like Maren Morris, Jennifer Nettles and Kacey Musgraves.

Oh, and she gets to play the Grand Ole Opry for the first time on Nov. 5 with her husband right by her side. “Yaaaaaaaaay!” Smith says. (She’s clearly excited).

“It does kind of feel like, ‘Finally!'” she says. “Here’s the payoff to all this hard work. But looking back at the journey I’ve been on, I wouldn’t change it. Each step helped me get to where I am today.” And for Caitlyn Smith, it’s only going to get better from here.

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Caitlyn Smith is Turning Industry Heartbreak into Career-Changing Music