Corey Smith comes off with a certain coolness. He just conveys that quality. It’s the calm confidence of a man going his own way, doing his own thing, writing what he wants to write, singing what he wants to sing.
It is little wonder that Smith, a Jefferson native and ex-teacher, has become one of the top singer/songwriters on the independent music scene. Saturday, he returns home to play a benefit show at Jefferson High School, which he and city officials hope to boost three local efforts.
It will be Smith’s first performance at the new high school’s William Duncan Martin Performing Arts Center.
Groups benefiting from concert proceeds include the Jefferson High School Performing Arts department, the Jefferson Police Department’s DUI education program and the Jefferson Better Hometown Streetscape Project.
Recently, The Paper, a sister publication of The Times, caught up with Smith by phone on the road somewhere outside Indianapolis.
Smith already was excited about coming home.
The Paper: What are you looking forward to the most about the show?
Smith: We’ve never really done anything like this before. This is the first time I’ve been able to do an event, plan it myself, and then have 100 percent of the money stay in the community and go to things that will be tangible in the community.
The Paper: How and why did you choose the groups to benefit from the concert?
Smith: It just made sense (that) the show should benefit the groups that are involved in the show. The high school is letting us use their nice facility there, so it made sense to give part of the proceeds to them. The city has taken a big part in promoting the show, and the police department is going to be helping us out that night as well.
What I’m hoping is the show is gonna sell out and be a big success. Hopefully, we’ll raise about $15,000 that’ll stay in the community. And if it goes well, what I’m hoping is it’s the beginning of a tradition of doing some sort of yearly event in town and will get bigger every year.
The Paper: What are some of the biggest rewards ... and biggest challenges ... for an independent artist today?
Smith: It’s nice being able to call all my own shots and record what I want to record, play what I want to play. I make my own schedule. There’s a sense of gratification that I get that maybe major artists don’t get.
And it’s sort of a challenge because a lot of people equate success in music with being heard on the radio or being seen on TV. A lot of times, people assume that because I’m not on the radio and on TV and they don’t see my face plastered everywhere that I’m not successful. That’s cool. It’s kind of a jab to the ego sometimes. But at the end of the day, the numbers that we post in professional journals like Pollstar and Soundscan are equal to or better than most major label signed acts. I’m really proud of it and proud of the fact that we’ve been able to do it without big label support.
The Paper: As a songwriter — or any kind of writer — it’s difficult sometimes to write about your home for strangers. But writing about your home for your neighbors presents its own challenges. You know that you’re going to be performing (your songs) for people all over the country. What’s that like and then to know that folks back home are going to be listening to them as well?
Smith: When I’m writing, I try to write about what I feel and what I know. Whatever is moving me. It’s my responsibility as an artist to whatever has inspired me. I was born and raised in Jefferson, and I still live there. A lot of my songs have a really strong sense of place. And people in Jefferson, when they hear them, they hear them in a literal way that no one else can understand. Because when I say something like Hurricane Shoals or Highway 129 or I talk about Athens or Jackson Trail — I mean, these are places that are very real to people in and around Jefferson.
But what’s cool is I play these songs, like tonight I’m gonna be in Indianapolis, and the people are still going to sing along to these songs. They like them every bit as much as people in Jefferson. But to them, they conjure up different places. They conjure up different thoughts. And they may not know exactly what Highway 129 is, but they have a 129 in their home. They have a highway that they can associate with it.
And I think people just appreciate honesty and authenticity in writing, so that’s what I strive for.
The Paper: Let’s shift gears and tell me about your family and what it’s like for a young dad being out on the road a lot.
Smith: I’m very blessed to be able to do this for a living. It’s more than I ever thought was possible, and I’m very glad to be able to do it. But like with anything else, with success there usually comes sacrifice. The bad part about it is I miss my family a lot. I miss Sunday dinners a lot. I’m not home as much as I would like to be. But, you know, it’s just the sacrifice that we have to make. I think my kids will understand it when they get older. They’ll understand that my job requires that I be gone a lot. When I get down on myself, I think a lot about people who are in the military who have families. How they’re gone for an indefinite period of time. And they’re risking their lives. It makes my job seem a little bit easier because I’m only gone, for the most, two or three weeks at a time. And I’m pretty confident that I’m gonna be coming back. I’m not out here dodging bullets or anything.
I just try to put it in perspective. It’s a sacrifice that we have to make, but it could be a lot worse.
The Paper: Before we go, what do you want to make sure people around here know about the show?
Smith: I just want people to get excited about the show. I just want them to know it’s a one of a kind thing. And personally, it means a lot to me every time somebody’s buying a ticket for it because the money’s staying local. I really want the show to be a success. I’m from Jefferson. I still live in Jefferson. My kids are gonna grow up in Jefferson. As much as I travel ... I’ve gotten to see most of the country and I’m gone more than I’m home ... but my heart is always in North Georgia. It’s pretty much where I’m always gonna hang my hat. So it’s cool to be able to do a show at home that my kids may potentially benefit from one day.