Granger Smith is the first to say that Country Things isn't the album he first set out to make.
Back in June 2019, he'd booked studio time to start creating the sort of fun-loving, down-home country record his legion of fans — his Yee Yee Nation — have come to expect. The actual date, June 5, is easy for Smith to remember because it now falls among the worst days of his life. The day before, he pulled his 3-year-old son, River, not breathing, out of his family's pool at their home outside Georgetown, Texas. The day after, the boy was taken off life support and died in an Austin hospital.
″When that happened, I obviously stopped everything,″ Smith, 41, tells PEOPLE. ″Not only physically stopped it, but mentally. I stopped the creativity flow completely."
Though Smith would return to touring just three weeks later, with his wife, Amber, and older son and daughter at his side, he put the planned album on hold, unable to even think about new music.
But a day finally arrived in September, he recalls, when he decided to at least crack open the door. He sat down and listened to a demo of ″That's Why I Love Dirt Roads,″ one of the songs intended for the new project. ″And suddenly,″ he says, ″there were words that sounded different to me.″
Smith easily quotes them now: ″Out here in the quiet / I know you hear me / The stars are smiling / I feel you near me.″
″I was like, wow,″ he says. For the first time in months, his wheels began to turn. He rewrote the bridge, finding something profoundly new to say about dirt roads: ″Sometimes they're beat up and broken / scattered and tossed in the breeze / But no matter their scars / it doesn't change what they are / That sounds a little like me.″
″Those were probably the first lines I wrote after Riv,″ Smith says. ″And from then on, I slowly started getting back into writing."
The result is what Smith now considers perhaps his finest album, and he's spread out its riches in two parts — eight songs last week and another eight coming in November.
Country Things Volume 1 offers a depth and a breadth far beyond what Smith has previously delivered. Make no mistake: The artist who built his massive fan base on beer, boots and truck songs is still present in such rowdy tracks and ″Chevys, Hemis, Yotas & Fords″ and ″Country & Ya Know It,″ which features redneck alter ego Earl Dibbles Jr. (and brilliantly borrows from the children's song ″If You're Happy and You Know It″).
But Smith also has unflinchingly put the full range of his big heart on display. Finding the real-life metaphor in ″Dirt Roads″ was just the start. He's followed that up with ″I Kill Spiders,″ a tender tribute to a father's protectiveness of his daughter, and ″Heroes,″ an anthem to the everyday people who keep the world turning, including the sort of medical staff who cared for his dying boy (″It's the face of a nurse seeing loss, feeling hurt / Wishing she could've done more than she did / But she goes back in, come 7 a.m. / to fill a new bed again″). Even title track ″Country Things,″ which could have relied on more masculine themes, instead leans into the gentle imagery of a ″whippoorwill singing on a summer night″ and ″the crickets we're listening to.″
″You could feel the turn that the album was taking because of my life," Smith says about his creative process.
The album is deeper, Smith knows, because he is deeper — a change that he calls, in poignant understatement, "a special outcome of this situation." But River's death has had a profound impact on Smith's professional life far beyond his music. As he and Amber have chronicled their grief journey in their popular YouTube show, ″The Smiths,″ and he's opened up on his weekly podcast, he's found fans turning to him as a guide through their own struggles.
Smith says he originally decided to solicit questions from podcast listeners ″because it's a great way to feed content,″ but increasingly he's finding they don't just want to hear celebrity tidbits. They're seeking his counsel, not only on grief and loss, but also on work and marriage issues.
″They're overwhelmingly deep life questions that I don't necessarily feel qualified to answer in a lot of ways,″ says Smith. ″And I just think, how did I become the Dr. Phil of country music? I will definitely say that I'm not qualified. I didn't go to any kind of school for this. But I will walk through it with these people as if we're riding together in a truck and we're buddies and I'm being asked for advice. I'll walk through it like that."
His candor and down-to-earth insights have been resonating with fans, and as surprised as Smith is by this new role, he's also feeling grateful. He's well aware that this dose of reality — in his life and in his music — could have driven off the fans who've gravitated for years to his merry-making shows and songs as escapes.
″I could have become either one of those artists that took a left turn and no fans went with them,″ Smith says, ″or I'm an artist that's stuck trying to please a fan base and I'm halfhearted doing it."
Instead, Smith says, he's feeling embraced for all the facets of his life — which, he adamantly affirms, still includes a tractor-load of good ol' Earl Dibbles Jr. He says he's found it ″strangely natural″ portraying the overall-wearing, tobacco-spitting hayseed in recent promotional videos.
But even Earl's famous ″yee yee″ is sounding different to Smith these days. It began years ago as a country bumpkin battle cry. But now Smith hears something different in Earl's holler.
″Live life to the fullest,″ declares the man who's learned that lesson the hardest way. He repeats it for emphasis: ″Live life to the fullest.″
″Anything affirmative and positive — that's what 'yee yee' is," Smith adds. "I can't believe that it's taken on that kind of meaning. But I just love it."
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