“This album is definitely about growth.”
So says Smo, whose growth as a force in American music cannot be denied. Having topped 50 million views on YouTube, sold more than 450,000 tracks and dominated both the country and rap charts, the charismatic Tennessee-bred artist, outdoorsman and family man draws fans from across all social boundaries.
How does he do it? He speaks truth. He lays down epic rhymes that challenge listeners to party when they can, to champion the values on which they were (or should have been) raised, to look straight into the eyes of life, to laugh and love and even get angry every once in a while if that helps make things right.
These many sides of Smo are represented proudly on his latest album. Yes, We The People is about growth, in creative horizons as well as in a worldview nurtured by time and trial. But it’s also about the growth it inspires among his ever-expanding audience, who see their own stories mirrored in his.
“I see things today in a clearer way than I ever have, as a father, as a son, as an American,” Smo insists. “It’s about that growth for me as an individual and hoping I can influence my listeners to grow with me.”
From working dawn to dusk on his family farm to riding border to border on his bus, from meeting and entertaining his fans, aka “Kinfoke,” from fusing elements of raw country and hip-hop in a makeshift studio to the private moments he shares via his “Smo On The Go” video posts on Facebook, Smo incorporates all that has come his way into a unique and personal sound.
A new and especially difficult turn impacted Smo’s approach to music and life in general. Last year Smo underwent quadruple bypass surgery, an experience that can’t help but change those who survive.
“When you’re facing death and you’re given a second chance with life, you find that you value that life much more,” he reflects. “I’ve been guilty in the past of taking the simple things for granted. Today I stand here, clear-minded, with my eyes set on my target.”
Smo addresses this in his “manifesto,” a creed laying the foundation for the album. It pulses throughout We The People, in the empowering proclamation of the title track, the determination to succeed that drives “Say My Name,” the spice and sass that conjures P-Funk on a backwoods parade with “Struttin’ In The Stix,” an irresistible call to rock the house from “sunup to last call” on “Retox”…
And then there are bases Smo has never touched until now, including a gentle love lyric framed by string quintet on “Thing For You” and his first duet with a female singer: Josie Dunne as the girl waiting for her traveling love on “Never Get Old.”
“Getting the opportunity to work with Josie was a blessing for me,” Smo says. “In fact, it’s a blessing for me to work with all of the singers on this album rather than the other way around. When Casey Beathard and I cut the demo for ‘We The People’ and he sang the chorus, his voice was just so majestic that I knew that no one else could fill that position. My longtime friend and backup singer Haden Carpenter has just the right amount of funk and country for ‘Struttin’ In The Stix.’ We had Michael Ray on ‘Rollin’,’ a phenomenal artist and a dear friend. William Michael Morgan is amazing. There’s so much old country in this young man’s voice. You don’t find that a lot nowadays. Plus Corey Crowder, Todd Nielson, Hookman, Brandon Rogers, Jimmy Burney … Being able to work with each of these great talents wasn’t really work at all.”
Smo gives much of the credit for bringing We The People home to his producer.
“There’s a reason why you haven’t heard a production like this on my past projects,” he says. “It’s because of my good friend Jason Mater. Our creative process was like, as soon as I thought of an idea, he was already playing it. I wanted to test the boundaries and really dig into the multi-genre experience. As soon as my manager Dan Nelson and I heard what Jason was capable of, we knew he was the guy for the job.”
You can hear the fruits of their collaboration from the opening track’s mock-inaugural of Smo as “our Commander in Chief” to the uplifting closer, “My Kind America.” One clear example is “Movin’ On Up,” an affirmation of hard work and harvest it yields, built on a handclap gospel beat that keeps peaking to the edge of explosion and then backing off.
Why this groove tease? Smo smiles and explains, “We talked about how every day we work to achieve the top goal we set. Then as soon as we achieve that goal, we set another one. And when we reach it, we set another one. We never really reach the top because once we get to what we think is the top, we set standards for our next level.
“So,” he concludes, “we don’t have to get to some exploding point because we’re never gonna feel like we can stop and quit working. For us, that point doesn’t exist.”
Which takes us back to that idea about growing, about how Smo sees himself and the world that motivates him to work and perform and connect and lift it all just a bit higher tomorrow. If We The People is about setting down his beliefs and what he’s learned, then the last track is about wrapping it all up and offering it to his kinfoke.
“‘My Kind America’ is at the end for a good reason,” he says. “I began with ‘We The People’ to get listeners thinking about this album. It’s about finding the things that make us who we are as Americans. It’s about loving. It’s a reminder that, hey, even though we’re going through hard times and people are feeling a certain way about other people, we’re fortunate to wake up every day in this country where you can stand up for your belief. You don’t have to sit on the sidelines and do nothing. Don’t put all of your energy into complaining about how things are. Get up and do something about it.
“Make this Your Kind America.”