The road to his second album was a rocky one with the release of a couple of singles that didn’t match the success he had achieved early on. That prompted Smith to take some time out and discover who he was as an artist, and he changed record labels becoming the first artist to sign to Florida Georgia Line’s Round Here Records.
After testing the waters with a number of one-off releases starting in 2019, Smith is back with new album ‘High Country Sound’, which is a reset and a second chance.
I caught up with Canaan to talk about his journey to rediscovering himself, find out how having creative control of ‘High Country Sound’ gave him confidence, and to discuss the importance of staying true to his roots…
Your new album ‘High Country Sound’ is out and it’s amazing. I feel like this is the first time that people are hearing what you’re really capable of. From the moment ‘Grounded’ starts, this feels very much like a reset and I know you put this record together without any pressures or constraints. What was that like for you?
Man, thanks for all the words first of all. I can feel your genuine love for the album, which is everything to me. You saw me in my best form over in the UK sitting on a stool with an acoustic singing songs from my heart. I know that you knew that was in me and that was the deepest part of me. It’s equally rewarding for me. I feel like this has been a moment of just digging deep and considering the future more for my family and my legacy, and thinking about that versus the moment. I’m not trying to compete with being cool or staying young or any of that stuff or having hits on radio even, that isn’t even a filter of mine right now even though I’d love to have songs on the radio.
I would just say that this album came from a place where it was never aimed at that kind of target. It was more aimed at using the gifts that God gave me as a songwriter and channeling my love for that kind of Country music and giving myself, like you said, a coming home reset moment. I’m putting a flag in the ground for what I’d like for people to think of when they think of me as an artist and a songwriter. Choosing the songs through that lens, it started with just whether or not it was something that spoke to me. Beyond that it became a framework that was really natural for me to live within where I knew which songs I wanted to record on this album. I was never on the fence really about any of it. It started with me and my love for it.
I produced it too which has been another opportunity to just make sure that it came out the way I wanted it to and there’s a huge responsibility with that that’s accompanied by fear at times. I’m responsible for the way it hits people for better or worse. I’m just thankful that I had a team that blessed me to go do that and and gave me their blessing to go and start all over in a way. It’s not super typical to have this opportunity this late in the game. I feel really blessed to be able to have the opportunity that I have here with this album. I think it’s by far the the best version of me that the world has heard yet and seen yet, and also the truest form of myself as a human, let alone songwriter and singer.
‘High Country Sound’ is testament to why there’s still a place for the album in the landscape of modern music. Lots of artists say that no one listens to albums any more and I would counter that with the fact that not many artists are making decent albums. That’s absolutely not the case with ‘High Country Sound’, which ebbs and flows perfectly from start to finish. How much time did you spend on the sequencing?
I gotta give God all the glory on that. I’ve been writing setlists for 15-20 years and slaving over ’em and sweating over ’em. I knew I wanted to start with ‘Grounded’ because it it sets the tone for bringing it home and paying homage to where I came from and saying thanks to the people that played a role. From there it just came. I had all the songs written down and then I just started moving them around at what would make sense after ‘Grounded’. I didn’t sweat over it and once it was there, I didn’t change it either. It was just literally the most effortless attempt in sequencing. I honestly think God had a perfect plan for this moment in my life, and even down to the sequencing of the songs on the album. I didn’t come at it from the same way I do a live show setlist. Something just compelled me to put them in that order. I don’t know what to tell you. (laughs) That’s just what happened.
You solely produced 8 of the songs on the record and production wise, it’s a huge step away from the sound that people heard on ‘Bronco’. I can hear a lot of the traditional Country influence in there and a fair amount of 90s Country too. How important was it for you to make sure that tradition ran through the production?
It’s equally important to the songs that I chose. It was just everything. When I moved to Nashville, I was wearing a cowboy hat and starched Wrangler jeans singing the truest Country music I knew. A lot of people don’t know that about me. It’s so funny man, when I fell in love with Country music those were the sounds and that’s what the production was for music at that time. It’s really, I think, just me going back to what I loved about Country music initially and what drew me in, (I was) just not even worried about anything else. Not worried about if it’s going to compete with anything else on the radio or in the landscape of what’s happening. It was more about just what’s my favourite kind of music, Country music in particular? What is my favourite thing about it? And it’s fiddle and steel and guitars, and that’s it.
We didn’t even track with electric guitars. We tracked the whole band with just me on acoustic, another guy on acoustic, bass, fiddle, steel and drums, and that’s it. It was important for me to make sure that the songs could live at that level without any electric support behind it because I knew that the strongest version of myself and the way it all began for me was with a guitar. I wanted the songs to live up in that form and then we lifted it once it was done. In that respect we took it one further and added some electrics here and there just to give us some of that classic barroom version of Country and some of that testosterone that you hear in ‘Catch Me If You Can’.
I think it channels the parts of Country music as it sounded when I fully dove in and committed to my love for Country music. It sounded like this record does in a lot of respects, but it also pays tribute to Virginia and the birthplace of Country music and the way it sounded in the mountains of my beautiful home state. I think you hear a lot of that Appalachian influence in the instrumentation as well, some dulcimer and mandolin and banjo to support the fiddle. I find it to be a cross between George Strait Country from his glory days, a cross between that and the birth of that mountain Appalachian Country sound that came from Virginia. I feel like I’ve covered both bases there. It was natural and it’s also exactly the same place I started and the same place that was my launch pad, that passion for what I was hearing when I fell in love with Country music.
Having gone through this process of truly finding yourself and your sound, and hearing the early word from people like me who are raving about the record, this must give you confidence moving forward. When it comes to looking beyond this album, do you now feel more confident about what you want to do and the music you want to make?
Yeah, I feel like I’m just starting now. I really feel like it’s the first of many albums to come. I don’t regret any thing from the past because I don’t think that that’s ultimately giving God the glory for what his plans were. I think some missteps here and there, or some misfires or near misses, however you want to say it, have all led to this and to me finding myself. I didn’t know the importance of that, I guess, or I didn’t even know that that was missing until I took a break and stepped away. It was a full circle moment with BK and Tyler (from Florida Georgia Line). When I moved to town wearing the cowboy hat and singing these same kind of songs, they were tremendous believers in that version of Canaan because we knew each other way back when.
For me to jump ship where I was and start over with them, I think it has been just such a critical, necessary change up because God used them to remind me I don’t need to be anything but myself. My strongest version of that is the most honest, straightforward storyteller with his guitar, singing about what he knows, and painting pictures. I needed reminding that that was what I loved too and that it didn’t matter what was cool, or trying to have hit. Digging deep instead of reaching for something else is what ultimately got me back here. It’s been a full circle friendship from those guys to take me in and whether they knew that, and I’ve told them 100 times, but whether they knew they were doing that in the moment as it happened or not, I don’t know. They absolutely have been an instrument in the whole homecoming. It’s been really special man. I feel like I’m here now, I know what I stand for, I know what I want to say and what that sounds like. I’m sure there’s so much more to live. I’m gonna be inspired by my life. I’m here. COVID has been hard for the whole world but it’s also been a chance for me to grow up and come home.
I guess the biggest lesson you’ve learned here is to keep control of what you’re doing because when you do, you produce an album like this…
Thanks, man. Thank you.
I’m already excited about the next record because I feel like ‘High Country Sound’ has given you so much more confidence, that what comes next will be another step up…
I’m feeling the same way. I’m already stacking them up honestly. I’ve already got a list going with the new ones we’re writing and setting some aside for me. It’s feeling good and I definitely just can’t wait for people to hear it and digest it as a whole and take time with it. I want people to know these songs came from a place where I feel like… there’s intentionality behind these songs and what I’m saying. I think the longer you live with it the more it has to say so I want people to digest it and and know that this is just the beginning.
Then we need to get you over to the UK again…
I cannot wait. Can you imagine how exciting those shows are gonna be? I know that they love this version of me, the authenticity that we all experienced together on stage every night when I was on tour with The Shires over there, and then on my own over there. That was still some of the best moments on the road in my career so far and I’m just ready to get this out and them to know that they played a role in that too. Whether your audience knows it or not they were a big part of me rediscovering the simplistic version of myself that this album represents so I’m thankful for that
I know your UK fans are excited about you coming back. They also want to now if this album is going to get a vinyl release, which to be honest I need in my life…
I want to do it ! I’m not sure if that’s in the plan but it’s not out of the plan either, we’ll see what happens.
Canaan Smith’s album ‘High Country Sound’ is released today on Round Here Records. Watch the music video for ‘Colder Than You’ below: