The Producer’s Chair: Anthony Smith

Anthony Smith

Anthony Smith

By James Rea

I’m sure everyone on Music Row who knows Anthony Smith must have smiled when Curb announced on Rowfax he was producing Sweetwater Rain. Nashville labels and artists have been after Smith to produce for the past seven years and with good reason. Smith has produced over 500 sessions since he got his first publishing deal with Almo-Irving in 2000 including his own album, which got him signed as an artist to Mercury in 2003. In his first year with Almo-Irving, Smith had 45 cuts, three ASCAP Awards and he won MusicRow Breakthrough Songwriter of the Year.He penned George Strait’s hits “Run” and “Cowboys Like Us,” Trace Adkins’ “Chrome” and “I’m Tryin’,” Tim McGraw’s “Kristofferson” and “Kill Myself,” Montgomery Gentry’s “Whattaya Think About That” and Rascal Flatts’ “My Worst Fear.” He has penned songs for Faith Hill, Trick Pony, Kenny Rogers, Sammy Kershaw, Lorrie Morgan, Lonestar, Van Zant, Shooter Jennings, Josh Gracin, Trisha Yearwood and others.

Born in Warsaw, Ind. and raised in Oneida, Tenn. from age 2, Smith picked up his first guitar at the tender age of 5. “Being a musician, from the time that I was kid I was writing melodies and arranging music,” says Smith. “I got my first electric guitar when I was 10 and I became the bandleader in church when I was 13, teaching harmony parts to 30-year-olds.”

In 1996, he bought a cheap guitar, packed up his songs and headed for Nashville when he was 28. Smith landed a job working for the cable company and began performing at writer’s nights. 

“When I first came to town there was a publishing company that would always say things like: ‘We’re looking for another “Indian Outlaw” for Tim McGraw,’ so I was trying to please them and go down that road instead of being that creative person that I was inside,” says Smith. “One day I got fed up with it and decided to write what I wanted to write, no matter what. After playing for a couple of weeks at the Broken Spoke, publishers who had heard about me started offering deals.”

One of those deals involved Barbara Cloyd. “I had been talking to about five different publishers who want to sign me,” says Smith. “She made me promise that I’d talk to Scott Gunter at Almo-Irving, so I took him two songs. He wanted me to go and write something by myself. I wrote two songs, brought them in and Scott signed me to a one-year deal. I had never really co-written but Gunter put his job on the line when he signed me and I’m forever grateful that he challenged me.”

Smith quickly hit his stride as a writer in his first year and 75-percent of everything he wrote got cut.

“I was just writing for me, but I was still getting cuts,” says Smith. “I didn’t think publishers wanted to sign me as an artist, so I was reluctant to let anybody know that was what I really wanted to do. But I was producing my own demos with Bobby Terry. We spent more time on them because we had access to his studio and we were developing a sound. Bobby is a true genius in the studio and it became evident through the demos that we needed to shop it. By that time, the publishing company had figured it out. We did introductions to the record labels and played them a few songs and in no time, everybody was offering me a deal. That was in 2003 and I was overwhelmed.”

Producer’s Chair: What was the process?

Anthony Smith: We were mainly sending my demo to the labels and they’d call back and say, ‘Dreamworks, Sony and Mercury have offered you a deal.’ I think that was powered by all the success I’d had as writer. Lyric Street asked me, ‘Who do you want to produce you?’ and they started throwing out names and I said, ‘I’m only interested in a deal with Bobby Terry.’ Labels weren’t used to having artists come in dictating the terms and I saw a few jaws drop but they couldn’t deny the music and I signed with Mercury in 2003. The label’s roster included Mark Wills, Steve Azar, James Otto, Marcelle, David Nail and Shania Twain.

PC: Who signed you to Mercury?

AS: Luke Lewis, but I think Mercury signed me because everybody else wanted to. I don’t think they really got the record. I had pulled a bunch of songs that I had on hold with Faith [Hill] and Tim and Alan Jackson, to put them on my record. On my first radio tour with several of the promotion staff, they asked me about two particular songs and said, ‘What does this song mean?’ I was devastated so I excused myself from the table. I talked to my manager and said, ‘It’s over.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, we just got started.’ I said, ‘The label doesn’t even get my record.’ Radio promotion guys want the safest thing because it’s the easiest to work and these songs were unsafe and a little ahead of their time because I’m always trying to reinvent.

PC: In 2005, after releasing three Top 40 singles, the label wanted Smith to make another record but he asked to be released from the label and took a few years off when his family suffered two tragedies. Smith unexpectedly lost both his father and his brother, in a short period of time. Smith heard that Porter Wagoner was playing his music between sets at the Grand Ole Opry, and Smith was later asked to perform on the Opry stage.

AS: I did two songs and Porter came out and asked me to do a third song. I took a Sharpie out of my pocket and asked Porter to sign my guitar, and I was later honored to have him sing on my Sunshine album. Porter had just been inducted into the Hall of Fame and this was one of his last songs before he passed. We used to sit and talk on his front porch and Porter and I became really good friends.

PC: Do you prefer to be in the studio, or on stage?

AS: My favorite thing is to be in the studio, arranging music, talking to fellow musicians and sharing ideas. I’m very hands-on in the studio, so it was a natural evolution for me. After hearing my demos, labels started approaching me about producing. But I still had the artist bug in me and I was writing for myself more than anybody else, so I couldn’t take on any artists.

PC: When did you decide to immerse yourself in producing?

AS:  About three years ago, I decided that’s what I was going to do. Before that, I couldn’t take on the responsibility of somebody’s career. Producers, early on, have got a lot of mentoring to do in some cases when a new artist is not signed yet, or even if they are signed.

PC: Do you have a favorite engineer?

AS: Brian Tankersley, he’s one of the best in the world. He’s done a lot with Shania and Mutt Lang. He was the one responsible for all those re-mixes back in the ‘90s.

PC: Will the industry survive the lack of album sales?

AS: I was just on a panel the other day for Renee Grant-Williams with Paul Worley and he made a great point. He said historically, before recordings, there was only sheet music. When recordings came along publishers panicked, not knowing what to do. It took a while but after a little changeover period, they were able to make more money on recordings. The same thing happened when records went to disc. We’re just in another transition. The way that iTunes and these other companies pay will have to change, so that it’s fair to the writers and publishers and artists. As iTunes’ competition grows that will change and the internet will probably become a large source of revenue for publishers and writers, but for now, we’re still in the interim stages.

If songwriters can’t make a living, there’s going to be fewer songwriters. Fewer songwriters mean fewer good songs. People who believe in downloading for free must realize that if artists like Elvis or Elton John or The Eagles didn’t have a budget to work with, from potential monies that would come in, we would have never heard those masterpiece records. There never would have been a “Hotel California.” There has to be something to finance that kind of recording and that kind of talent.

PC: Putting out an album takes an enormous amount of time. Can the process be sped up?

AS: If you sign a record deal, you gotta find songs. That’s been the traditional way. But many artists are writing their own songs, so it’s beginning to get a little quicker. The process of finding 12 songs, for a record that you’re really proud of, can take a year. Then when you are finished the label has to set up a single and shoot a video and that usually takes about four or five months. Generally, that’s about the going timeframe.

PC: Do artists have a better chance of getting a deal if they bring private money to the table?

AS: What the labels want is an established act with a following. They want to sign artists who are building up a fan base from touring and social networking. If you’re doing 500-seaters and you’re getting a crowd and the label sees you selling out venues, they know that they can move 100,000 records. It lowers the risk.

PC: How important is the “IT FACTOR”?

AS: I first met Taylor Swift when she was about 17. She didn’t have any hits out there yet but she was on the orange carpet at the ACM Awards. She was a virtual nobody, but there was something about her that was ‘It.’ She radiated charisma. She was a star before anyone even heard her. When she got in front of the cameras it was like fireworks. That kind of ‘It Factor’ is something you’re born with.

PC: Has country radio become a little too generic?

AS: When I was growing up, the one thing that you could say about country music was that there was no mistaking the voices. You could not mistake Dolly for Loretta or Loretta for Tammy Wynette or Waylon for Willie. People who are true originals and creative at that level have issues, addictive personalities, some are bi-polar, very eccentric, and not politically correct and they’re not easy to manage. I think that this is a politically correct environment and I hate that. Conway Twitty was saying very sexually suggestive stuff, Ray Stevens did ‘The Streak’ and today you could never do that. We do have some amazing artists out there and I’d like to see country push the envelope and unleash them.

Smith is currently producing Sweetwater Rain, Lucy Angel, Shea Fisher and 13.


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