“I always say that baseball was my first love and that music was my first passion,” says Conner Smith. The 21-year-old singer, who now finds himself in the musical big leagues thanks to some uncanny timing, played in the Little League World Series at the age of 12.
Smith signed his contract with Big Machine Label Group when he was just 19 years old, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed his arrival to bigger stages. He landed his first publishing deal — thereby making his formal entry into the music business — at 16
“My senior year of high school, I had a full publishing deal. I was getting paid to write songs, and I was the starting catcher on the baseball team,” the Franklin, Tenn., native shares. “I would go to school until about 11:30, leave to write songs, and come back to play baseball at 4. I never practiced my senior year. I’m thankful for my teachers and coaches that allowed me to do that.”
Smith’s passion for sports began when he was young. Both of his parents went to the University of Tennessee, and when he was a kid, his family had season tickets to Volunteers football games. He recalls making “that three-hour drive to Knoxville most Saturdays.”
On Oct. 8, Smith released a new song, “I Hate Alabama.” It’s a song about a girl, and how the narrator can’t detach the time he spent with her from his beloved Vols’ 15-year losing streak to her beloved University of Alabama Crimson Tide. (It’s also the first song that Smith has recorded that he didn’t write; Drew Green, Hunter Phelps, Lee Starr and Nick Columbia penned it.)
“This song is lightning in a bottle. It’s just a great song,” Smith says. “But also, it’s a song about college football. If you’re gonna put this song out, you’ve got to put it out during college football season or you’re missing so much opportunity.”
So, Smith gathered his band, recorded the song and made a video — then, he called his record label and asked for permission. When he posted the video to YouTube and Instagram, the viral reaction was remarkable.
That night, Smith got a call from BMLG founder Scott Borchetta. “He said, ‘We’re getting this song out next Friday,’” Smith recalls. “Which is still an unheard-of timeline, to get a song out in seven days. But thank God we did, because the next day, Alabama loses [to Texas A&M University] and the gasoline is poured onto the hot fire.”
Moments after the Aggies’ Oct. 9 victory, Smith posted a readymade meme celebrating his new song:
Coincidentally, the first date on Smith’s radio tour after releasing his protest to the Crimson Tide’s success was an Oct. 12 stop in Birmingham, Ala. He jokes that someone on his team must not have been looking at the calendar when they rushed the song’s release, but says his Birmingham audience greeted his performance of “I Hate Alabama” with unanimous approval.
“Now it’s a ‘damned if I do, damned if I don’t’ kind of thing,” Smith says of playing the song in front of an audience of Alabama fans. “… But this song ain’t about football. You know how you love a song, but it reminds you of your ex? That’s what this song is about. And that’s what I love about it. It’s a compliment to Alabama.”
Smith and his label team now see the pandemic-related delay of the beginning of his career as a blessing in disguise. “I’m so thankful for that period of time when I got to write and develop and figure out who I was and what I wanted to say,” he says.
“The first two songs that I ever put out were this summer,” Smith adds. “I’m a big believer in the Lord’s timing, and it’s been perfect, right down to releasing “I Hate Alabama” the day before they lose.”
Smith’s debut country radio single is “Learn From It,” co-written by Ryan Hurd and released early this fall. Another new track, “Why Can’t I Leave,” arrives on Friday (Oct. 15).
“We had that slated to come out then, but “Alabama” kind of skipped the line,” Smith explains. “We’re still on the road a bunch, but we’re hoping to release an EP early next year. But the plan is always changing.”
Meanwhile, Smith’s Vols will again try to end their drought against the Crimson Tide on Oct. 23, on the road at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium. Smith hasn’t seen them defeat Alabama since he was six years old.
“I don’t know if I remember that one too much,” he admits.
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