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'A really strong sense of place'
Georgian singer/songwriter Corey Smith is bringing it all back home
Corey Smith comes from Jefferson, Ga. and began his career in Athens

Corey Smith is the most famous musician you’ve probably never heard of.

The native and resident of little ol’ Jefferson, Ga. – a stone’s throw from Athens – has sold more than 200,000 CDs, and close to one million single–song downloads, all without the benefit of a major label, significant radio play or one iota of television exposure.

(That may change with his just–released new album, The Broken Record, which is being distributed by Nashville–based Average Joe Records, home to Colt Ford, Montgomery Gentry and others.)

He’s a singer/songwriter who knows how to write a poignant, rowdy or just plain funny lyric. His music has definite country blood in its veins. Unlike Jimmy Buffett, who does something similar, Smith is a young man whose energy and enthusiasm for his work attracts lots of college–age girls.

They’re the ones, presumably, who planted the seeds for his grassroots rise to the top of the indie world. And although he performs all over the country, Smith’s shows are almost always sold out in the Southeast. He’s a regional hero.

So expect a sizeable crowd at Smith’s Johnny Mercer Theatre concert Thursday, July 14. The estimable American Aquarium will open.

We spoke with Smith this week in anticipation of his Civic Center show.

Indie success

“I just wanted to make a living, and I thought that would involve playing in bars within a three–hour radius of my house. But the fan base kept getting bigger. The shows kept getting more significant. There was a lot more out there than we had thought. Largely, it was because of MySpace, Limewire and Napster, the file sharing that was going on. The music was spreading around on its own. So the trick for us, early on, was trying to figure out where it spread to, where the pockets were, and going there to play shows.”

Signing with a label

“It was a shift in some ways. But the real result of it is having a lot more people working on the record, that are passionate about getting the music out there. Where before, my manager, my agent, my business manager, we went through a couple of different publicists but that was pretty much it. We didn’t really have a promotion budget. The fans were the promoters! So now it’s nice to have the infrastructure and the resources to really help spread the word – to have more sophisticated publicity campaigns that involve radio and new media marketing. It’s really exciting.”

Making changes

“This was the most natural relationship for me. I’ve known Colt and everybody over at Average Joe’s for a long time. I saw what they did with my friend Brantley Gilbert, and we were noticing that they were really starting to make some waves. Every time I went down the road talking to a major, it always became obvious they weren’t going to allow me to make the kind of music that I wanted to make, purely. They were going to want to mold me, and make me what they think is more digestible for the masses. And that’s just not something that I’m interested in doing. No one at Average Joe’s has asked me to change the way I do things. I’ve changed, but all those changes represent my desire to change.”

Georgia on my mind

“I don’t think I would’ve made it in Nashville or L.A. or New York. I would have become disheartened. My music has a really strong sense of place, and I think that’s what makes it special. I’ve never been caught up in a rat race where I’ve felt I like I was competing with other people to make a hit. It was always ‘Here I am, and I’m writing and making the music the best I can make it.’ Playing it for people was a real simple formula.”

The fans

“At my shows, there are country fans who know they’re country fans, and they go see Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw, they’re plugged into mainstream country to a degree. Then there are country fans who don’t really know that they are! They don’t like the commercialism of it. I probably identify with those fans – they like the idea of music that represents the working class, the common experience. And they’re disenchanted by what they hear in mainstream country. The gimmicks, the canned nature of it all. And I think they’re looking for alternatives. I describe myself as country because I’m from a small town in Georgia and I make music that is representative of my experiences here.”

Corey Smith

With American Aquarium

Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe

When: At 8 p.m. Thursday, July 14

Tickets: $21 advance, $25 day of show


Artist’s web site: