When "Wyoming" hit streaming services in February, the involvement of harmony vocalist and Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill amplified singer, songwriter and Circle Network personality Jo Smith's perseverance as an artist. Indeed, Gill's familiar voice turned a song Smith co-wrote in 2016 with fellow Georgia native Brett Jones into a sturdy stepping stone on a trail blazed with assists from Luke Bryan.
"My producer is a young guy named Brandon Hood," Smith told Wide Open Country when asked about her connection to Gill. "I think he's absolutely brilliant. He's sort of been Dan Huff's protege since he moved to town 15 years ago. Brandon and my engineer Drew have a connection to Vince. Like, they've worked with Vince in various capacities in the past. They just said, 'You know, Vince is very open to supporting new artists, and if you can have the patience, he might sing on your song. He's not going to drop what he's doing and sing on it, but if we get this to him and he likes it enough, he will do it maybe.'
"So I sent Vince an email and the guys reached out to him, and Vince said he'd do it," Smith continued. "And we waited and waited and waited, and then we got the track back that Vince had just taken and put harmonies on the track at home in his home studio. We got the track back, and it was totally worth the wait, of course."
Sure, Gill does this kind of thing frequently, with past collaborators ranging from Kelly Clarkson to Alice Cooper. But did the queen of Kellyoke or the godfather of shock rock make a man with the resolve to sing "Go Rest High on That Mountain" on a nightly basis cry?
"I don't like to overplay because I know Vince does this for many artists. He's very much a community guy and just a great guy," Smith added. "But it was especially neat for me because when I had my Opry debut in 2013, he was also on the bill and I was able to sing with him on 'Go Rest High on That Mountain'... All of the people on the bill were [part of that performance]. So, it was neat to come full circle that way, and another chapter of the story was I of course had not had any contact with Vince through this whole process. I assume he received my email. But I was asked to co-host Coffee, Country & Cody on the Circle Network with Bill Cody, and Vince was our first guest on the show. So we played 'Wyoming' with his vocal on it, and he actually started to cry on the show. Which that blew me away, and I didn't know what to do. But we have that on tape, and it made me really emotional, as well."
Smith's network of artists willing to lend a helping hand dates back to her upbringing on a South Georgia farm. While limits on time and discretionary income didn't allow for many trips to Albany to see popular touring acts, Smith found a hot country band--and an invaluable resource--close to home.
"There was a local band I was obsessed with because the lead singer was a friend of my family's," she recalled. "He was about 10 years older than me, and I had a massive crush on him. The band was called Neyami Road, and that is halfway between New York and Miami. And the lead singer's name was Luke Bryan. I didn't miss a Neyami Road concert."
"Luke was the only person that I knew when I moved to Nashville, and I'm sort of like the aggravating younger sister. He's always so sweet," Smith said. "I had lost the gig that I had moved to Nashville to do. I had gotten this lead singer gig with this all-girl band. It was a little bit shady, but I didn't know any better and left college and left everything to move to Nashville because I thought it was my ticket. Luke was who I called whenever I got fired or didn't hear from them. I was like, 'Luke, I don't know what to do. I quit college and I got no job.' He was actually my jumping-off point for the first writing connections I had. He actually helped me find a job... as a secretary, just to get me by."
Of course, Bryan's kindness would only mean so much without Smith's talent and drive. Within a year and a half of her Nashville dream almost becoming a nightmare, Smith's increased focus on songwriting landed her a publishing deal. She'd go on to open shows for Blake Shelton, pen songs recorded by the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus ("Flyin' By") and wow her grandparents by sharing a bill at the Ryman Auditorium with Glen Campbell. The Tootsies to the Ryman talent competition that won Smith the Campbell gig expanded her circle by first connecting her with contest judge and future radio and television co-host Bill Cody.
Hard-earned musical success isn't even the most intriguing part of Smith's story. Her WSM bio adds that the 2018 CMT Next Women of Country honoree and Navy Reserve officer "lived in a shipping container for a year in a compound in [Mogadishu, Somalia], traveled outside the wire in the most dangerous city in the world and wrote reports for the U.S. Department of State Counterterrorism Bureau about the progress of Somali police and army training programs."
"Wyoming" and the single that followed it in April, "For This Town," will be the title tracks of separate albums. Wyoming will stick with a Western theme, while For This Town will be more Nashville-centric.
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