Payton Smith may only be 20 years old, but his talent and maturity find him in the same category as many seasoned country artists. The rising singer/songwriter and highly-impressive self-taught guitar slinger, who draws comparisons to the likes of Keith Urban, became hooked on music at an early age.
After making frequent trips back and forth from his home town of Houma, Louisiana, to Nashville, Tennessee, Smith and his family permanently relocated to Music City so he could pursue his craft full-time. In 2018, he performed on a small stage at CMA Fest, where he caught the attention of Big Machine Label Group President/CEO Scott Borchetta. Before he knew it, he had landed a record deal with a team of people who stood by his artistry.
Since settling in Nashville, and finding his own brand of country music, Smith’s career has continued on an upward trajectory. In February 2020, he made his official Grand Ole Opry debut and even earned a standing ovation with his debut single, “Like I Knew You Would.” The tune, which impacted country radio March 9, appears on his 2019 self-titled EP, produced by fellow Louisiana native James Stroud (Chris Young, John Anderson). Following his recent successes, Smith has continued to acknowledge the musical icons who have indirectly shaped him as an artist. His latest work includes a cover series titled, It Started With A Song. The series features him putting his spin on songs by artists like Urban, Chris Young, Brad Paisley, John Mayer and more.
Smith is scheduled to bring his high energy and distinctive set of vocals to the stage as an opener on Chris Young’s Town Ain’t Big Enough World Tour. However, like most artists, his touring schedule is at the mercy of the on-going coronavirus pandemic. The confident newcomer, who has been sheltering in place at home, caught up with Country Now to talk about his musical journey, current four-song EP, and upcoming projects.
Find out more about Payton Smith in our exclusive Q&A below.
Melinda Lorge: Have you always known you wanted to be a country singer?
Payton Smith: Growing up, I always wanted to play music. There wasn’t anything else I wanted to do. I can remember singing all the time when I was a kid whenever I listened to music. Then, I picked up the guitar and started learning it at age 10, and it just felt like breathing. It was so natural, and it felt like that is what I was put here to do. So, country music is pretty much all I’ve ever wanted to do my whole life.
Lorge: You play all the guitar parts on your self-titled EP. What drew you to that instrument the most?
Smith: It’s another form of communication. I think it’s another form of creating a melody inside of a song. Depending on how you play the guitar, it can make you happy; it can make you sad. It’s another form of communicating, and I think there are other instruments like that, but there’s certainly none in my opinion like the guitar that makes you feel that way.
Lorge: Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
Smith: Keith Urban and Brad Paisley are huge guitar influences for me. I love the kinds of records Keith makes, and the amount of energy he puts into his live shows. But, I grew up listening to a lot of different music in my household. My mom would play ’90s country music like Garth Brooks, Brooks & Dunn, and Reba [McEntire], and dad played AC/DC and Pearl Jam. Eric Church was also a huge influence on me, especially from a songwriting standpoint. And, John Mayer too. He’s a great guitar player, and he loves being all about the melody, which I think is cool.
Lorge: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Smith: The first song I ever wrote was called, “All Your Fault.” I was 13 years old when I wrote it. So I started young, but I wasn’t pulling from my own experiences with writing a love song at that age. The more I wrote, the more I found myself loving the alliteration and balance of words. I found that to be my niche. I love how words flow and the way they can bounce around. So I believe I grew to know what I wanted to do. It took a while to figure that out, though.
Lorge: You’re originally from Louisiana. How did you navigate your music career when you moved to Nashville?
Smith: I came to Nashville on a family vacation when I was 14. I wanted to play at the Bluebird [Cafe], but it was closed. So, I decided to play in the hotel lobby, where we were staying. I played for about three hours, and there were probably about 30 to 40 people there. One person was a session player. He played on a lot of records. He told me he wanted to introduce me to a couple of people in Nashville. So the next day, I went in to meet a guy named Buddy Cannon, who produces all of Kenny Chesney’s records, and then Universal Music Group, and so many other people who I look up to in this industry. So I ended up going with Buddy Cannon because he’s such a great song guy. He found songs like “Anything But Mine” and “There Goes My Life.” So it was about two or three years of me coming back and forth to Nashville with my parents. My family was so supportive of what I was doing. And, then when it felt like things were going in the right direction, my mom, my dad, my three brothers, and I made the move. But, it always felt like home from the first day we started coming to Nashville. I don’t even know how to describe it. It just has this feeling of belonging, you know?
Lorge: Does the musical talent run in the family?
Smith: I don’t think my two middle brothers want anything to do with music because they’re around it all the time. But, my 10-year-old brother is picking up drums. He’s starting to show some rhythm and influence. So I’m excited to see where that goes. Nothing would thrill me more than to see him pursue music, and I could always use an extra drummer!
Lorge: Can you tell us about your recent EP?
Smith: Some of the songs on there date back from 2017 to three months before we recorded the actual EP. I enjoyed the process of figuring out what we wanted to record. It was a mixture of having a team of people that I trust who know great songs, and all of us agreeing on those songs. And, then also playing those songs live. Seeing people’s reactions after hearing those songs live was a really big component in deciding what songs to cut. I never want to get tired of playing a song. So I always try to give a song at least four or five months to know whether or not I’m still into it. If I am, then there’s a good chance I’ll cut it. So that’s sort of how we picked songs for the EP. I went in to record with James Stroud, who is also from Louisiana. He’s so much about the rhythm. So we love talking about that and syncopation inside the production of songs. When we went into the studio, we wanted to cut [the EP] commercial, but also very raw. We wanted to capture that live energy. So on a couple of songs, I remember we all stood up while playing on our instruments to get that energy and the feeling of playing live. That’s how we approached the EP. We wanted to have that feeling but also have fun.
Lorge: One of your songs on the EP, “92”, pays tribute to the ‘90s era of country music. Why was it important for you to highlight that time?
Smith: Growing up, my mom always played ‘90s country music. I loved the rhythm,the songwriting and the way that music always made me want to dance. There’s just something about songs like Brooks & Dunn’s “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” and Dwight Yoakam’s “Fast As You.” They have a spirit about them that, to me, is unlike any other genre or period of music. I wanted to write something that has that feel as if it were written in the ‘90s. So my co-writers and I spent two hours listening to ‘90s country music in our co-writing session. We listened to “Ships That Don’t Come In,” and “Don’t Take The Girl,” and all of these great ‘90s country songs. I think there will never be another time in country music like the ‘90s. It was so special, and I love it so much.
Lorge: What’s the inspiration behind “What It Means To Lose You”?
Smith: One of my co-writers came in, and he was singing that chorus. We sat in a studio, and I had this drum machine rhythm going. Then, I picked up the banjo and started picking that riff on the song. I jammed to that riff for about an hour and came up with a melody. I feel like music is always trying to say something, and that’s how I start writing. I usually start with the music first. Then, whatever I want to say comes from the music, and whatever the vibe or mood is. So that’s where that song came from. It had a bit of a darker tone to it. It had a real emotional attitude to it. The lyrics weren’t my experience because I pull from a lot of other people’s experiences, like friends and people I know. And, I think when you haven’t yet lived something, you can still pull from somebody else’s life as inspiration.
Lorge: What’s your favorite song on the EP?
Smith: “Like I Knew You Would” is my favorite song on there. When we wrote it, we knew, right off the bat, there was something special about it. You rarely walk out of a room, where you’re like, ‘Okay. I think we just wrote something incredibly special.’ Then, when we started playing it live and started to see people singing it by the second chorus, that was another indication. We wrote it three months before we went in to cut the EP. So it was one of the last songs we wrote before we went into the studio. As the year went by, people started reacting to it even more on all of these streaming platforms. Then radio was like, that’s the one! So, it’s great to see a song come full circle from the day we wrote it to now as my first single out to country radio. It might sound cliché to say that the single is my favorite one, but even if it weren’t the single, I probably would still pick it as my personal favorite.
Lorge: Have you found more time to write songs while in quarantine?
Smith: I have. I’m currently building a studio in my house. It’s getting to the point where I can now record drum loops, guitars, and vocals. I can also write a song with somebody on Skype. And once that’s done, I can begin building a track for it. So when I’m not trying to do live videos on Instagram, or trying to encourage other people during this time, I’m usually writing. I think I wrote three times yesterday, so we wrote three songs. I need to keep that period of spirit going during this time, and never let that burn out.
Lorge: I bet you can’t wait to get back out on the road.
Smith: Yes! I miss it. But, it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only one who misses it. I think that first show back is going to be an emotional one for all of us. And, it’s interesting because this time has allowed me to reflect and to plan out what we’re going to do when we return to the road and figure out more ways on how to connect with people. So, I’m missing the live energy and that connection with people. But, I think that’s something that we’ll never take for granted again after this.
Lorge: What’s next for you?
Smith: As far as music goes, we have a lot planned. I don’t know if we’ll do an album soon, though. I like the idea of dropping new music every couple of months. I think that’s a good strategy in 2020.
Fans can keep up with Payton Smith on Instagram.