When you think of the biggest future names in country music, few names ring louder than Cannan Smith. Thanks to his smash breakout single "Love You Like That," Smith has gone from a relative unknown to one of the most hyped players in the game.
That hype has carried over into not just commercial success, but into the live arena. As Smith heads out on his first headlining tour, the Virgina native spoke to Music Times about his live show, breakout single and what he's learned from some of his previous touring partners.
Music Times: You are on your first headlining tour. How does it feel to be out on your own?
Canaan Smith: It feels super rewarding. I feel like it's a culmination of a lot of hard work and, you know, it takes an army to make this kind of thing happen. So it's not just my dream coming true, it's also the people that I work with. We've been busting our butts to get to this point, so sometimes I step back, [and] when I wake up on my own bus and put on my own lament and walk in and set up my gear, it's pretty surreal. It really is.
MT: How long did it take for you guys to put this tour together?
CS: With my booking agent we started working on it probably about six months ago. As it just started selling we were like, "Man, this is going to be incredible." We already sold out several of the dates and it just keeps selling, show just keeps getting better. I think we're already starting to plan the 2016 tour.
MT: Oh, nice.
CS: That's something we definitely planned way ahead for, 'cause you kind of have to. I mean, my whole year is already mapped out for next year, including now, for the next 30 days. We are going to start playing another headlining tour in the fall of next year, so all that stuff has to be planned out way in advance, so I leave it to the pros like my booking agency to kind of start working on that while I do my thing.
MT: Does it feel weird to have your entire 2016 planned out? Or are you excited for it?
CS: Yeah, it's definitely weird [but] I'm excited for it, for sure. I feel like it's a sign of the times. It's working; we are successful right now. It's awesome that 2016 is already kind of mapped out and coming together. I'm doing the Brantley Gilbert tour starting in late January and that goes for like a solid three months or longer, and then a bunch of fairs and festival dates this summer. And then we are in the beginning stages of planning another headlining tour for the fall because this one is so successful. I think it's sort of surreal that you know my 2016 is already booked up but I think it's a sign of the times. You know, it's working and we might as well just keep on doing everything we can to make this dream come true and get bigger and better.
MT: For your upcoming tour with Brantley Gilbert: How'd you guys hook up? Are you excited to hit the road with him?
CS: He just invited me to be on the tour with him as direct support. That's a great spot to be because all his shows are arenas. I'll be in front of his fans on a nightly basis, and my fans too. That's a cool thing when you can kind of gain a new audience while also bringing your own to the table. All three artists on the bill -- myself, Michael Ray and Brantley Gilbert -- we are all stoked about it. I think it's going to be a great tour.
MT: Do you find that you have a different approach in your performing when you're being a supporting act versus when you are being a headliner? Do you mix up the setlist? What kind of things do you do to maybe engage fans who aren't yours but potentially could be?
CS: I think some of it depends on how long of a set I'm giving. So the set list order will change depending on that. But I treat every show like it's the first show I've ever done. As far as excitement level, getting out there and just soaking up the moment, you know? I'm so lucky to do this, we are all so lucky. We pray every night, me and my band guys before we go on stage. We kind of just thank God for the opportunity because we've been working for it for a long time. Each night that there is a room full of people that are there to hear my music; that's something to be thankful whether I'm the headliner or opening acts. I just play it like it's the last show I'll ever play.
MT: What kind of thought do you put in when you are going through and putting together your setlist?
CS: It's trial and error. I've changed the setup; we've rehearsed a certain order before we went out on the road and the first night it went well. But I assumed I'd make some changes based on the first night, and we did. We ended up switching up, put a couple tempos earlier and then a couple tempos later in the set. We actually start the show with my new single just as a way to be like, "Hey, here we go." We set the bar high; it's going to be a great night. It's called "Hole In The Bottle" and it's a pretty rocking party anthem song. So I wanted to put that up front to set the tone, and it's working. And you kind of just learn from the crowd what works, and each show is different, each crowd is different. I think that we've got it down to a routine now, and you can kind of predict how things are going to go. It was trial and error at first until we found a groove and we just stick to it.
MT: I noticed that I a few of your setlists from this year that you did a cover of Nick Jonas's "Jealous," which is very much not a country song. How did you decide to cover that song and make it over? It works shockingly well.
CS: I know, I was real stoked that it went over so well. At first I just liked the song; I think it's a great song, and at the core of the song, the message is a lyric that my country fans can relate to. Jealousy, guys getting jealous 'cause some dude is hitting on his girl at the bar. That's something I can see happening every night from the stage, I can witness that going on, so I had a feeling that that would resonate, and it did. And that was a big song in the pop genre last year, so people recognized it, and it was cool to put my own twist on it.
MT: You opened for Dierks Bentley over the summer, and he is a very seasoned performer. Did you pick up any touring things from him? Did he give you any sort of advice that you take now that you are headlining on your own?
CS: Dierks does a great job engaging the crowd every night just kind of giving it all he's got, too. And I love seeing him, I love guys that work hard. So I definitely was side stage watching how certain things would really get a rise out of the crowd, whether he was pulling them up on stage to shotgun beers or whatever he was doing, it was those little moments in the show that I definitely drew from. I tried to make my own twist on that in my own live set. I think it's important; as a kid I was always going to shows just to be mesmerized. You don't go to a concert to hear music. You go to a concert to have an experience and to be in this moment that you can't quite put your finger on. It's just an undefinable escape. So when I'm thinking about things I want to do, that's in the back of mind. How are the fans going to come to the show and be totally engrossed in the moment and the feeling and experience outside of just the music they're hearing, and I think that being on the road with a seasoned artist like Dierks kind of helped me have that mentality and put a finger on how I want to do things.
MT: What's life like on the road? What are the kind of things that you like to do between shows?
CS: Well, sleep is very important. We're go, go, go all the time, and if I don't stay healthy, it could be a pretty disastrous thing. I've got a great group of guys around me; we spend a lot of time together outside of the shows, we will hang like family. If one of us wants to go work out, I can always grab someone else to come along. It's important to feel like you're not the circus act performers out here, you know? That we are actually a family and [to] stay in touch with that because that's what gives you peace of mind and keeps you grounded.
MT: You really broke out with "Love You Like That"; it was a huge crossover hit, it went No. 1 on country radio. Were you surprised by the song's success, and why do you think it resonated so strongly with people?
CS: it's phenomenal, it's humbling and it blows my mind still how big it was and still is. Outside of it just being a hook-y sound, I think that people can really relate to sort of that honest, unapologetic, " I ain't gonna do like a pretty city boy" mentality. I'm a fishing-in-the-dark, nitty-gritty boy. I love the metaphors and people love the metaphors. Loving someone "Slow as the Mississippi/ Strong as a fifth of whiskey." I think you can see those images in your head, and the songs that have those in them are the ones that kind of stand out in my head. As far as me being a music fan, my favorite songs are ones that move me not just musically but lyrically, too. I guess some of the success can be attributed to the lyrics. Just kind of having some really great lines.
MT: When you write, where do those lines come from? Those are very detailed metaphors.
CS: You bang your head up against the wall for hours and hour at a time until something comes out. [Laughs] It's really a crapshoot, you know? Writing songs in general, sometimes you're great, other days you absolutely wonder what in the world are you doing writing songs in the first place. It's those magical days that kind of feel like God just kind of gives you something that really is otherworldly. And you can't really define. You kind of chase down inspiration and then... I don't know. You can't explain songwriting, I just think you have to work hard and not settle. Just try to exhaust yourself so that each line can be better than the last.
MT: Can you tell me the story behind "Hole in a Bottle?"
CS: I felt like my fans, as hard working as they are, I felt like they needed a song that could just be sort of a weekend, clock-out-at-5-and-hit-the-club party song. I love that it's sort of a new take on a drinking song; finding a hole in a bottle is another metaphor for a never-ending drink. I like that twist. It's not just about getting blackout drunk. Different uses of the word hole - "I've got a hole in my shoe, a whole in my jeans, hole in a bottle, when I got a hole in my heart, slide up to some pretty little thing at the bar." I love plays on words like that, and I think that this song, hopefully it will resonate like "Love You Like That" did. I think that they are going to be really stoked to find that they can relate to it.
MT: How did you and your team come up with the concept for the "Hole in a Bottle" video?
CS: With music videos, several different directors submit their treatments, and you reach them and whichever one stands out the most, you pick that one and then you make tweaks until it feels just right. That one, in the stack of treatments, stood out because I saw the setting being a skating rink and I was like, "Man, I've never seen a music video in a skating rink," and I thought we could take that one over the top. It was something not ordinary, and I'm drawn to that sort of stuff. The way it turned out, like I said, it was something I had a blast doing.