Over the course of nine albums, at a time when the music industry is undergoing a top-to-bottom transformation, Granger Smith has been building a career that is truly groundbreaking. With sold-out national tours, a social media following of more than three million, and YouTube views nearing 30 million, he has amassed an audience that is unheard-of for a purely independent, unsigned act. He has continually searched for new and innovative ways to connect with his fans and —one by one, room by room — built a national following, culminating when his last album, Dirt Road Driveway, debuted at Number One on the iTunes country chart.
Now, with the release of the 4X4 EP, Smith is taking the next step in a voyage that is both visionary and classically old-school. The EP, a preview of a full-length album coming later this year, was introduced with the single “Backroad Song,” which sold over 32,000 downloads in its first week of release and entered the iTunes Country Singles chart at Number Two, the iTunes Canada Country Chart at Number One and the Billboard Country Digital Sales Chart at Number Four.
“Expectations are raised with each album, but this one is different,” says Smith. “It shocked us when Dirt Road Driveway debuted at Number One — we kept thinking, ‘People are going to wake up and figure out that they’re following the wrong guy!’ But no one wants to take a step back, so this time there’s some pressure, and I embrace that, because it means you have a good business rolling.”
For the songs on 4X4, Smith also brought in producer Frank Rogers, known for his multi-platinum work with Brad Paisley, Darius Rucker, and Josh Turner. “Frank’s a smart guy,” says Smith. “He saw quickly what we were doing and who we were speaking to, and he understood that. He said, ‘I dig what you’re doing, I like the way you’re building your business model differently, and I want to be a part of it.’ “
“I have been a friend and fan of Granger’s for a long time,” adds Rogers. “He is honest, heartfelt, and down-right hilarious. I feel the sky is the limit for Granger, and I’m proud to be along for the ride.”
Smith earned the respect of a pro like Rogers the same way he is winning over fans, peers, and the press—with ten years' worth of music that is self-written, self-recorded, self-produced, and independently released. Those recordings have been backed up by relentless, grassroots touring, with Smith working tirelessly, night after night, to bring his songs to a constantly expanding, passionate and dedicated fan base. Not that he claims any of this was his original intention.
“When I first started, we were trying to go by the usual path, but it never came out that way,” he says. “Everything we needed, whether it was a booking agent or a video budget, we couldn’t get, so we just decided to do it ourselves and try to do it better. And we made some magic that way, and created something that wasn’t being done.”
Without the support of national radio, Smith has found alternate means to reach his fans. His YouTube docu-series, “Yee Yee TV,” gives fans an inside look at life on the road with his band and crew. He even has a regular weekly television segment, "Dip 'Em and Pick 'Em," on Inside College Football on CBS Sports Network.
So when he sees so many of today’s artists lamenting the state of the music business, Smith’s initial reaction isn’t entirely sympathetic, but he also knows that his approach isn't for everyone. “I’ve realized that it does take a certain personality to pull this off successfully," he says. "I enjoy the challenge of gaining listeners and fans. A lot of artists hate the business side, I just happen to love it.”
The most dramatic example of Smith’s innovative approach to his career was the creation of his beloved alter ego Earl Dibbles, Jr., first popularized through a simple monologue video, then given songs of his own and more and more attention as his popularity grew. The polar opposite image of the singer (who is actually a graduate of Texas A&M), Earl is given the spotlight on 4X4’s “City Boy Stuck,” but Smith is also aware that he can’t always count on the character’s novelty appeal.
“At some point, I know that Earl has some form of shelf life, and that challenges me to make the Granger side stronger and stand on its own,” he says. “Earl exists best as a black-and-white contrast against the Granger show. So it’s on me to make the best Granger music I can, and have Earl in small portions, enough to satisfy people and keep us rolling.”
In parallel to his music, Smith has also devoted his time to charity and activism work, focusing on numerous efforts for the military, including appearances in the war zones of Iraq and Kuwait and his annual (four years and counting) 100-mile Boot Walk. “It’s all been a journey for me,” he says. “I want to raise awareness and patriotism, something to keep our future generations able to chase the dreams that we can.”
“I know how important giving back to the community is, because this business is all about community, about the people who come to the shows. If that stops, my career stops — my career hasn’t been built up by a big machine pumping it out; it’s been built boots on the ground, practically going door-to-door. So we live or die on that community, and giving back to them is my livelihood.”
As his “Yee Yee Nation Tour” rolls on, breaking attendance and merchandise sales records along the way, Smith sees that this is his time. Breaking rules, defying trends, he is carving his own path, and is ready to catapult forward on his own terms.
“I’ve learned that it’s not about talent or work ethic,” he says. “A lot of guys have talent and work hard — that just gets you in the door. But after that, there’s so much strategy. My talent is just good enough to get me in the game. But then it’s up to you how you’re going to play.”
Granger Smith is playing to win. And as his challenges get bigger, so do his victories.
- By Alan Light: Rolling Stone, SPIN, Vibe, NPR, The New York Times; Bibliographies for: Tupac, Beastie Boys, Gregg Allman, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Prince; etc.