Country Next: Dan Smalley
We take pride in introducing fans to country music’s brightest new stars through our Country Next series. Here, we chat with Dan Smalley.
Dan Smalley; Photo by Robby Klein
Dan Smalley has dealt with plenty of hard experiences to know that life is short, but that second chances still exist. Raised in Shreveport, Louisiana, the country newcomer got the wake-up call he needed, after surviving a near brush with death, which involved him being under-the-influence and acquiring a few bullet wounds in the process.
After waking up in a hospital bed and discovering the direction he was searching for, Smalley knew he wanted to help others find hope and inspire them to make good decisions through music. He put down alcohol for good and began chasing his dreams, making frequent trips back and forth from his hometown to Nashville.
In 2017, with the support of his loving wife and the couple’s two children, Smalley officially moved his family to Music City, but his road to success didn’t come without difficulties. The 34-year-old Alaska-born artist relocated to Nashville with the bare minimum when it came to household necessities.
“We lived on lawn chairs for the first few months. We sacrificed a lot to get here, and the fact that it’s starting to pay off makes us proud,” Smalley tells Country Now.
Despite financial struggles, Smalley managed to make a name for himself in Nashville’s songwriting community and eventually signed a publishing/production deal with Keith Stegall (Alan Jackson, Zac Brown Band) and Dreamlined Entertainment. A year later, he signed on with Big Machine Records. And, in the Spring of 2020, he released his debut EP, If I’m Being Honest.
The project, which features four songs, including “Till Country Comes Back,” “Lucky,” If I’m Being Honest” and “Rich and Famous,” showcases Smalley’s fun-loving side as well as his vulnerable side by addressing his personal stories through truth-telling lyrics.
Country Now recently caught up with Smalley, who has previously shared the stage with stars like Tim McGraw, Justin Moore, and Willie Nelson.
Continue reading for our interview with Smalley where he opened up about unique background, personal experiences, and EP and more.
When did you discover your passion for country music?
Well, my dad was a vocalist in the Air Force. So I grew up listening to him sing, and I sang with him a little bit too. I started playing the saxophone in third grade. But I also played football. My dad was always like, ‘What are you going to do if you get hurt? Then, you can’t play football anymore.’ I was like, ‘I will be a country singer like you.’ So that has always been a plan for me. To be honest, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t imagine myself as a singer because I’ve watched my dad do that my entire life. It’s always just been that goal of mine, and I’ve always wanted to be just like my dad.
Did you ever write music with your dad?
No, he was never able to put pen to paper and write a song. He never felt comfortable enough to put himself out there like that. For some reason, though, I started writing little ditties when I was about 10 years old. I always had music running through my head, and I would always make stuff up on the spot. He also told me, when I was young, that I had a really good ear. Other than that, he tells me when I sound flat, or when I’m not hitting the right notes (laughs).
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Well, obviously, my dad would be up top. Then there are guys like Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Ray Charles, Al Green, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, and the list goes on, all the guys throughout the ‘90s like Keith Urban and Blake Shelton for sure. All of those guys are huge influences for me, and I’m pretty sure that’s noticeable when you listen to my music too.
For those who are just now discovering your music, how would you describe your sound?
If you have never heard me before and you’re wondering what to expect, a lot of people are saying throwback or real country music. I have a steel guitar in a lot of my songs too. To hear that from people makes my heart happy because that is what we are going for, real country music. And, that’s what I hope even more people take away from it.
You recently dropped your new EP. How does it feel like to have new music out?
Its sort of like having babies. I have these songs and the whole world is about to meet them. Their opinion about them matters at this point in my career, whether or not people can relate to the songs matters too. It’s frightening but exciting, and a dream come true. It’s all of that rolled up into one. But, it’s also in the middle of a pandemic. So, It’s one of the most awkward situations that I’ve ever been a part of, but it will be something that I’ll never forget.
Can you tell us more about your song ‘Till Country Comes Back?’
‘Till Country Comes Back’ is a song about a dude that has nothing better to do with his time but sit around a wait for the love of his life to come back. He calls her country, and when the title for the song was brought up, the first question that came up in the room was, ‘How do we make that a saying that everyone can relate to?’ So I think we nailed it – the idea of the girl, and that’s just what we called her. I thought it was perfect because I’m not trying to bring anything back. I don’t think country music has gone anywhere. There are still people playing country music out there, and I want to be one of them.
“Lucky” seems more personal when comparing it to some of the other tracks on the EP. What was the inspiration behind that song?
“Lucky” is autobiographical. The first line says, ‘I should’ve never walked away / from the smoke and flames of that Chevrolet / on that rainy day / When I took out those crosses.’ That’s an instance where I was drunk and ended up taking four crosses out, going over the side of the road in Shreveport, Louisiana. And the other line says, ‘They say that I just laughed / When those four boys that whooped my ass / Asked if I was drunk or If I done lost it.’ That was during my 24th birthday in downtown Shreveport. I was drunk again, and my friends say I just walked into a crowd of guys and started a fight, and they beat the hell outta me.
I don’t remember any of this stuff. I wake up having gone through a situation without any memory of any of it, and I feel blessed and lucky to be alive. Another line in the song goes, ‘There’s scars on my heart scars on my head / And one right here where the bullet hit.’ That was the last time I drank alcohol. I was in my truck at night, and it was, again, on my birthday back in 2014. I woke up in the hospital with a couple of bullet wounds and didn’t know how I got there. Apparently, I was dropped off in front of my home, but I couldn’t get into the house. So I kicked in the door to what I thought was my house, except it wasn’t my house. It was the neighbor’s home. So the neighbor shot me with a .40-caliber, hit me in the chest, and the arm. I was pronounced dead on the scene, but they revived me on the way to the hospital. And, I woke up a brand new man. I woke up as somebody who understands the value of life. I feel like I had a completely different outlook on life as someone with a direct path and vision of where I needed to go. So, that’s when I started planning trips to Nashville.
So the take away from ‘Lucky’ is I had a woman who stayed with me through every bit of it. She was there through all the good and all the bad. Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of faith, something bigger than yourself, and someone else to try to pull you out of this hole to get to the other side. Then who knows the realm of possibilities once you get out of that hole. There’s always hope on the other side of it, and I hope that is the take away for other people with ‘Lucky.’
Do you ever find it difficult to showcase that kind of vulnerability when you perform that song live?
I wasn’t comfortable with it at first. I wasn’t for ‘Lucky’ when we wrote the song. My co-writer demoed the song and had me sing it. He, sort of, had to force it [on me]. He said, ‘Hey, this is your story. Listen to how good the song is. We wrote this together, but this is your story. People need to hear this.’ And, when we started playing it live, we got a reaction from everyone on my team, and everyone in the crowd. When it comes to artistry, in my opinion, if you don’t step out of your comfort zone, then you’re not actively reaching and trying to grow. Accepting ‘Lucky’ as a song that I will play for the rest of my life is something that I’m okay with now, but it was a bigger pill to swallow because it’s so honest and a lot to put out there. But at this point in my life, I don’t have anything to hide, so getting to play it on stage now and getting the reaction I get now is a therapeutic experience.
Your wife seems like a big motivation when it comes to some of the lyrics in your songs. What was her reaction when she heard your current EP?
She’s over the moon! We’ve been waiting for this for a long time, as a couple, and as a family. My kids couldn’t be happier about it. My wife, at this point, she’s in it for the long haul. I can’t speak for her, but I’m pretty sure she’s proud of me. I am proud of us as a couple seeing how far we have come. We sold furniture when we moved to Nashville, and we moved here with nothing. We lived on lawn chairs for the first few months. We sacrificed a lot to get here, and the fact that it’s starting to pay off makes us proud.
Aside from your EP, I saw you shared a song on social media called “The Coronavirus Blues.”
Yea! So, “The Coronavirus Blues” was a stream of consciousness at the time. It was one of those things that I had to get off my chest. They’re building two homes next door to us right now, and taking out our view of the night sky. So that’s where the inspiration for it came from for a majority of the song. I was like, ‘Man. I’m stuck inside, and I can’t even go out right now because these guys are out there beating on wood, and it’s no fun to be around.’ So that song resonated with a lot of people.
It seems to have more of an upbeat melody in contrast to the subject content.
Well, I think there are two ways that you can be go about life. I might sound cliché, but you can either be the glass half empty [kind of person] or the glass half full [kind of person]. As bad as times can get, there is always a bright side, and it could be worse. If you’re still alive and breathing to talk about how bad it is, it can get worse. So I try to embrace all aspects of life and be present for it all, and learn a little bit from the bad and grow in the good. I think those are all points I’m trying to make as an artist and as a person. And, these are messages I want to put out there in the universe.
What’s next for you?
We’re supposed to be getting out with Willie Nelson and Carrie Underwood, and a few other artists later this year. I’m excited to get back on the road as soon as we can get out there. And then [we will be releasing] more music. We have a pile of songs that I can’t wait for the world to hear! I couldn’t be more proud of the team I’m with. The journey, up to this point, has been adventurous!
Fans can follow Dan Smalley on Instagram.
Melinda Lorge is a Nashville-based freelance writer who specializes in covering country music. Along with Country Now, her work has appeared in publications, including Rare Country, Rolling Stone Country, Nashville Lifestyles Magazine, Wide Open Country and more. After joining Rare Country in early 2016, Lorge was presented with the opportunity to lead coverage on late-night television programs, including “The Voice” and “American Idol,” which helped her to sharpen her writing skills even more. Lorge earned her degree at Middle Tennessee State University, following the completion of five internships within the country music industry. She has an undeniable love for music and entertainment. When she isn’t living and breathing country music, she can be found enjoying time outdoors with family and friends.