Album Review – Caitlyn Smith’s “High & Low”

Why is it falling to Saving Country Music dot com to throw some deserved pub behind this damn album? This is the place for reviews of hipster dorks in east Nashville in their thrift store Nudie suits trying to sound like Lefty Frizzell, or Outlaws that look like they’re trying out as extras on Sons of Anarchy, or wild-ass Appalachia hilljacks and their cracked voices crying out about about coal and cocaine.

If you’ve gotta listen to country pop though, make it Caitlyn Smith. Even before her debut album Starfire was nominated for Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year in 2018, she was one of the few bright spots in the pop country space where you didn’t give a damn that she didn’t sound like traditional country given the strength of her songwriting, and the power, range, and sweetness behind her voice.

Caitlyn’s 2020 album Supernova had its moments too, but just veered too much into the exclusively pop realm for it to be remarked upon here. This new one has some of those exclusively pop moments too, but High & Low also has some of those mind-blowing, goosebump-inducing songs that only Caitlyn Smith can deliver, and you couldn’t care less how country they sound. High & Low also happens to have just enough acoustic instrumentation here and there where you don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you get from this album as a country fan.

What the hell is mainstream country music doing pushing Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris to the front of the class when an artist the caliber of Caitlyn Smith is out there releasing songs like these and singing the hell out of them? She’s the consummate songwriter if there ever was one, crafting stories around the meaningful moments in all of our lives to the point where performers well beyond country like Meghan Trainor and Miley Cyrus come to pilfer her catalog.

In fact, you rarely even see folks in country covering Caitlyn songs anymore because top pop country performers all want a portion of the rights, and so songwriters have to ride around in buses with them on tour for a cut. Sunny Sweeney and Miley Cyrus recently co-wrote with Caitlyn. So at least they know what’s up. And George Strait regularly books Caitlyn as a favorite for his few shows annually. So even he’s paying attention.

A very strong case can be made that Caitlyn Smith is the greatest singer in all of country music at the moment. Yet when award show time comes around, is Caitlyn Smith nominated for top selections or given a performance slot? Of course not. The ACMs finally nominated her for Best New Female Artist in 2022—you know, a good dozen years after she’s been killing it.

And Caitlyn Smith continues to kill it now. As a country fan, you have to go cherry picking through an album like this. But when you land on something like “Mississippi” or “Alaska,” the berry’s so sweet, it’s worth the hunt. Maybe more pop-oriented songs like “High” and “Dreamin’s Free” aren’t exactly your thing. But you can still appreciate the mastery of the writing, and the skilled performance Caitlyn Smith brings to them.

Caitlyn Smith just can do things with her voice others can’t. It’s not just the range, but the textures, volumes, dynamics, and moods she’s able to utilize. She even knows how to use breath and pauses to her advantage. And most importantly, Caitlyn has the boldness and confidence to go where some other singers could go, but are too scared to. She’s like a skilled acrobat, and knows how to write to her strengths. And along with Ben West who she co-produced this album with, Caitlyn also knows how to pick the right instrumentation to compliment the mood intended.

The reason Caitlyn sometimes veers into straight up pop on this album like in the pretty terrible song “Downtown Baby” is because she has to populate her records with songs that the pop world may find appeal in too because Caitlyn Smith is still seen as a songwriter by the industry as opposed to a featured performer. This is a gross miscalculation by the country industry. They are squandering one of the genre’s greatest talents while any Bro with a radio single gets gerrymandered to #1.

Caitlyn Smith songs aren’t always autobiographical, but “Writing Songs and Raising Babies” most certainly is. Perhaps Caitlyn Smith is just too damn good to be a superstar. She also might be too centered and grounded to be one either. She’s not the kind of narcissist you need to be in the mainstream country business to succeed at the highest reaches. She just wants to write songs and sing them.

But even though Caitlyn Smith gets little love from country radio—and even the “Women in Country!” orgs and loudmouths virtually ignore her because she’s not on Twitter telling everyone how they should think, which makes her useless to that class—the public knows what’s up, and they always have. That is what’s so galling about this whole matter. Caitlyn Smith clearly has resonance, and in much greater measures when you look at her streaming numbers than some of the men and women the industry continues to shove down the country consumer’s throat because they need to make good on an investment.

So here it is falling to independent outlets like Saving Country Music and others to put the importance of Caitlyn Smith’s career and music into proper context. No, this is not a traditional country album, by any stretch. But if this is what defined country pop in 2023, there would be no need for a site like Saving Country Music.

7.4/10

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