When you regard the majority of country music’s major label performers, you really can’t judge them as artists or individuals based off of their musical output. After their original inspirations have been quashed, and their independence usurped, their expressions are so heavily processed for algorithmic optimization, they can be rendered virtually unrecognizable from the artist that showed up to Nashville all bright-eyed and full of country music dreams and ideals.
That is why one of the most desirable attributes of an artist to Music Row is not always singing or songwriting ability, but the capacity to not gag as the powers that be reach down your gullet to exhume all free will, and attach the marionette strings. Soon it’s not only the public who doesn’t really know who you are. It’s yourself—utterly confused at what you’ve become. But if you’re lucky, the bills get paid, and perhaps you even become a superstar. The price you pay is levied on your soul.
Canaan Smith moved to Nashville in 2009, and signed a major label deal with Mercury Nashville in 2012. Eleven years later and he’d released all of one album. Canaan was an opener on eight major tours over that time. Mercury Nashville released multiple singles, though only one that cracked the Top 20 in the pretty terrible “Love You Like That” from 2014. And if you’re not releasing hit radio singles, most major label manager have no idea what to do with you. And so in Canaan Smith’s case, they did nothing.
Don’t even bother listening to Canaan Smith’s previous music. It’s like the songs of his good friends Florida Georgia Line, only not as good, if you can believe that. At least FGL was catchy at the start, and included a sliver of an original approach. Canaan Smith was like the derivative, generic version of that. Listening to his previous music, and seeing that after exiting from Mercury Nashville he’s signed on as the “flagship” artist for Florida Georgia Line’s own label Round Here Records, it may give you little to no hope he has anything to offer. But you would be wrong.
Only now that Canaan Smith is free from the Music Row system can his true career commence in earnest, and an honest assessment of his music be made. Co-writing all twelve songs, and producing many of them as well, Canaan Smith has emerged with this new record called High Country Sound, and looking like a guy you’d buy a rebuilt carburetor from on Craigslist.
The transformation of this guy from pandering for radio play to a dude writing and singing good ol’ country songs is quite remarkable. There’s no drum machines on this record, and surprising amounts of fiddle and steel guitar fill the tracks. It’s not a traditional country record. But it’s not exactly pop country either. It’s Canaan country, meaning a mixture of traditional and contemporary influences, underpinned with decent writing, and something a world apart from most Music Row output, or Canaan Smith previously.
You still can hear the influence of the industry in songs like the “Mason Jars & Fireflies”—not just the style and attitude, but the list-like lyrics. Despite Brent Cobb’s involvement in the song “Catch Me If You Can,” it’s still a little silly, but great as a guilty pleasure. Even at it’s worst, High Country Sound is a pretty damn fun record.
At its best, Canaan Smith is captured getting quite personal. As often happens to new mothers and fathers, the birth of Canaan’s baby girl Virginia was one of the catalysts for a re-evaluation of his life and career, and he turns in a really great song in “Sweet Virginia.” Even if songs like “High Country” and “American Dream” feel a little stock with their cultural references and sentimentalism, it’s a significant step forward from what you would hear on the radio, and most everything is fleshed out favorably with fiddle and steel.
Still, it really is the difference between old Canaan and new Canaan that is the album’s greatest asset. High Country Sound continues to include that sort of Alabama quality to it (the band, not the state), where the songs are always catchy and always country, but still a bit shallow. But hey, Canaan losing his give a shits about radio most certainly rendered positive results. Since radio wasn’t playing him anyway, why not shake loose of the shackles, and start recording what you want? It certainly can’t hurt, and right now country is kind of a hot trend.
High Country Sound won’t compete with your favorite records from the independent folks in country, but you can put it right beside Carly Pearce’s 29 and Lainey’s Wilson’s Sayin’ What I’m Thinkin’ as one of those surprise and welcome mainstream releases that will compete as one of the best in that realm for 2021.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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