A country boy can survive (in Nashville)

Published 8:24 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Clanton-born Ray Smitherman high-tailed it to Nashville in 1994 only to return home emotionally beaten down by the highly competitive country music business.

A bright-eyed kid with a knack for writing songs arrived in the city virtually blind to the complex world of high-profile entertainment dealings. The up-and-comer had another thing coming and scampered back with his tail between his legs.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, nothing about it,” Smitherman said. “I left and went back home. I was scared to death.”

Not one to up and quit, Smitherman honed his skills as a writer and guitar player until he felt his time had finally come, or until he worked up the nerve to head back up to Music City.

“It took me a long time, but I honed my skills,” he said. “I went back up there and met a lot of people and made connections. You’ve got to really set your mind to it and say, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’”

Smitherman made the gamble by selling his house in Alabama, packing up his truck and making a permanent move to the city last March that wouldn’t kick him back down South that time. Determined to tame the beast that nearly intimidated him out of his craft, he persevered.

“It’s my drive,” he said. “I didn’t have anything to come back to. I’ve been here over a year now, and there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t meet somebody that influences my life.”

Having moved from Clanton to Elmore County where he graduated from Holtville High School, Smitherman finally established himself as a songwriter, or more importantly, as a collaborator after his second move.

Playing guitar and singing covers and his originals at “songwriter’s nights” at a local bar called Buck Wild, where 15 to 20 musicians would play three or four songs each, he met Doug McCormick.

The two hit it off, sharing songs and offering each other useful advice, leading to a partnership that inspired nearly 50 songs between them.

At the songwriter shows, music label executives might come listen and toss a singer their cards if they like what they heard. Smitherman and McCormick’s pairing may have already caught the ears of important industry figures.

Smitherman strongly emphasizes his roommate McCormick as the more talented singer between the two and helps him with management and life on the road.

“He has a great voice,” he said. “He’s opened a lot of times for big acts like Eric Church, Luke Bryan an Rhett Atkins. He inspires me everyday with his skill.”

Smitherman and McCormick will perform in Clanton on Saturday, March 13 at Café Firenze II, giving Smitherman the homecoming he’s come to anticipate.

But he won’t let himself relish in the spotlight, insisting it’ll really be McCormick’s show.

He will play a 30-45 minute set, followed by McCormick who will play for nearly three and a half hours. It’ll just be them and their guitars without a backup band.

They will play Birmingham on Thursday and Columbus, Ga., before they hit Clanton on Saturday.

Looking back at his journey to the country music Mecca, Smitherman says he’s just fortunate to be in a position to make some money doing what he loves. He also runs a small marketing company on the side aligned with the music business where he helps other artists with graphic design. He said that helps keep his own bills paid as he moves on writing songs.

“Right now I just write songs every day,” he said. “I have writing appointments every day with other writers in town. It’s all about networking mainly, meeting people and trying to get in the business.”

Smitherman and McCormick are now members of Porter Gentry Productions and have managed to expose their songs to a few familiar names in the business, such as one Garth Brooks. Smitherman said Brooks’ producer Alan Reynolds is currently looking at their song “His Last Ride” as a candidate for the country legend to record on his next album.

“We’re waiting for that phone call,” he said. “It’s hard for anybody to say they got a song into Garth Brooks’ presence.”

He said the song might also be included on a compilation album released by the Pro Rodeo Association.

This song is written and co-written by Smitherman, McCormick and Jeremy Miller.

For more information, visit www.raysmitherman.com.