Nov 2, 2023
Salem Civic Center
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The Forum River Center
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According to an age-old cliché, getting knocked down ain’t what matters – it’s how you get up, and Sony Music Nashville’s Nate Smith knows firsthand. With a personal journey scarred by disaster, but defined by revival, he could have stayed down multiple times through life, and instead grew into something else entirely: A beacon of country-music hope.
Featuring a mix of gritty backwoods soul, rock ‘n’ roll swagger and velvet-thunder vocals, Smith is a Nashville artist with a unique connection to life’s inner tug of war. And with his first batch of major-label music, he’s aiming to tip the scales once and for all.
“I just feel lucky that I get to be the messenger for these songs,” says the rising singer-songwriter. “I’m not here to be cool or anything like that. It’s literally just to hit people in the heart.”
A California native and lifelong music lover, Smith approaches that mission with a background as eclectic as it gets. Learning guitar at 13, Garth Brooks, Elvis Presley and Bob Seger were among those informing his powerful, fire-from-within vocals, while Michael Jackson made him crave the spotlight and Nirvana gave his sound a jagged edge.
The young artist combined it all as a gifted worship leader, and first chased his neon dreams to Nashville in his early 20s – but it didn’t stick. The disheartened Smith returned home and thought he was “100-percent done” with his artistic journey … until a crucible of change burned away the past.
In 2018, Smith lost everything he owned in the devastating Camp Fire which tore through Paradise, California, now known as the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. Although his family was safe, he struggled to cope and turned back to music for comfort, using a loaned guitar to co-write a song called “One of These Days.” “It was just to help me process, I guess,” Smith says. “And then hopefully help other people, too.”
Help it did. Caught between bittersweet nostalgia and his rock-solid belief the community would rebuild, the song embodied everything Smith was feeling – and everything he loved about music. Going viral online, it led to local TV appearances, recovery benefit concerts and finally an opening slot at a Sacramento arena show by Pitbull and X Ambassadors, before Smith finally understood what was happening.
“It made me go ‘My gosh, this song is really helping people, I think I want to do more of that,’” he explains. “[The fire] was a horrible thing to happen. But it did move me into a place to start doing what I think I’m supposed to be doing.”
After returning to Nashville, the singer-songwriter is now unveiling a new round of music which puts that inspirational mission front-and-center – and features an edgy-organic sound unlike anything else in the format.
Recorded at the world famous Blackbird Studios with producers Lindsay Rimes and Joel Bruyere, tracks like “Wildfire” and “Under My Skin” started a new chapter, mixing timeless country soul with a touch of ‘70s-rock toughness, a sweet-and-sour sound with deeper implications.
“My songs have a little bit of melancholy to them – but there’s an element of hope mixed in,” Smith admits. “I want to emote that, and the passion behind what I have experienced, and I hope that’s a voice for somebody else. I want people to feel it inside, and that’s why I like country music so much. The heartfelt level of what we can do.”
Tracks like “Raised Up” take the idea a step farther. Co-written by Smith with Trannie Anderson and Johnathan Smith, the emotional tune is a raspy power ballad about overcoming obstacles, built on epic vocal power and the hidden strength within each person.
“The day we wrote it, I had to leave the room because I was tearing up,” Smith says. “The song talks about ‘Any time I lose my way, I turn the way I was raised up,’ and for me, whenever I’m lost or feeling alone, I’ve got God.’ That has really helped me, but it can be whatever somebody needs. It could be thinking about something your grandma said one time you now hold on to, or the phrase you have tattooed on your arm. It’s however you find your way back home. I’m all for that.”
Elsewhere, Smith practices romantic honor with the sexy soul-rocker, “You Shouldn’t Have To,” his voice as craggy as a mountain and ideals just as lofty. That force-of-nature vocal is matched by a hurricane of awestruck attraction in “Name Storms After,” and tunes like “Sleeve” use a Fleetwood Mac-vibe to tribute those like Smith, who wear their hearts on the outside.
But with “World War Me,” all of Smith’s authenticity, resilience and optimism combine for an introspective country masterpiece. Featuring a stormy sonic soundscape, battle-hardened wordplay and all the wounded soul his voice can muster, the song speaks to Smith’s decade-long battle with anxiety – and his drive to be an example for others.
Proving you can achieve your dreams even as you work on yourself, Smith says the song began one particularly bad day, when “That dark voice of ‘You’re not good enough’ was really there.”
“I was just accepting it, but then as I was driving to a co-write, I was like ‘Nah. I don’t accept that. I am supposed to be here and I am worthy,’” Smith says. “I stood up against the dark thoughts, and it was like ‘That felt good. Why am I letting these take over my life?’”
Smith has been standing up like that ever since, and it’s led him to the batch of music he was born to create. Tested by wildfire and challenged by inner demons, he refused to stay knocked down, and something else won out.
“If I could sum everything up in one word, it’s hope,” he says. “We all go through things, we really do. But I truly believe the world is trying to bend in your best interest. I really believe that with my whole heart.”