For every star Music City churns out, there are 100 other artists struggling to break through. Even many of the success stories have rough beginnings, like Chris Stapleton, Margo Price or Maren Morris, all of whom began to make a dent not on stage but as songwriters for others. Add Caitlyn Smith to that group.
Although Caitlyn Smith has been singing on stage since she was in elementary school, her first steps in Nashville came by writing hit songs for the likes of Meghan Trainor and John Legend (“Like I’m Gonna Lose You”), Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”), James Bay (“Hear Your Heart”) and Lady Antebellum (“747”). Yet every time she pitched her own album to any label in Nashville that would hear her out, she’d hear crickets. Eight years after moving to Nashville, Smith stopped caring about trying to please labels and recorded an EP for herself.
Because the music business is often a paradox, the Starfire EP struck gold on Spotify, leading to a record deal and a bourgeoning new career path for Caitlyn Smith.
“It was a lot of ‘No’ from every label in town, and a lot of ‘No’ from Nashville,” Smith said. “I got to the point where I didn’t think that the record label thing was ever going to happen, and I was just going to make a record because I wanted to. That’s what got me to write Starfire and record it. I was just doing it for myself and had kind of given up the dream, in a way.”
Smith grew up in Cannon Falls, Minnesota—a small town an hour south of St. Paul. Her father was a police officer and her mother a special needs school teacher.
“They’ve always cultivated an incredible atmosphere in our home, full of music, and full of fun hobbies,” she said. “They were always so supportive of me singing. We had a little music room in our basement with musical instruments for me and my brother. They were never pushy, but always creating a great culture to just have fun, which was awesome.”
She started singing and playing guitar when she was 8, and her talents didn’t go unnoticed around town. When she was 15 she won a talent show at the Minnesota State Fair with an original song.
Her parents’ friends started asking them why Smith hadn’t recorded any of her own material yet. They offered up her college fund to instead make a record.
“It wasn’t like they were giving me the money; they made me pay it back,” Smith said. “So I had to work. For me, it was really like my college. It was the best way for me to learn how making a record works, and then, how recouping that money works.”
At 16 she started travelling back and forth to Nashville to learn the ropes.
“I paid it back within two years, and they fronted me money for my next indie record at 17,” she said.
In 2010 she and her husband, singer-songwriter Rollie Gaalswyk, moved to Nashville full-time and she landed a publishing deal, which would mean she would write not for herself but for others. One of her first successes was “Wasting All These Tears,” a song Smith and Gaalswyk co-wrote. The Voice winner Cassadee Pope recorded the tune, which would become a Top 10 hit.
“I saw that you can have a great voice, but if you don’t have great songs, you’re not going to have much of a career,” Caitlyn Smith said, explaining why she initially changed her focus. “I took that opportunity to really just become a student of songs and write, write, write, write. Then songs started getting cut, which was kind of unexpected.”
A few years into living in Music City, she recorded an album, trying to guess where she would or should fit into the city’s music scene, or on the radio. But labels flatly rejected her. None of those songs were ever released.
Following the success of “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” she had some extra spending cash, and decided to use that to make another record, but this time she would be making what she wanted for herself, not what she thought others wanted to hear.
She named 2016’s Starfire EP after her dad’s 1963 Guild Starfire guitar. She’s not a gearhead, but considers herself a “word nerd” and liked the way the name sounded. It contained half of the songs that would comprise a full-length album of the same name.
The EP (and the LP) begins with “Before You Called Me Baby,” a slow-building rock song with a blues progression and Clapton-esque solo. She and her husband wrote “Do You Think About Me” together after speaking to a roommate who had just gone through a breakup. The song spares no details.
The standout acoustic cut “This Town Is Killing Me” is a teeth-baring statement on the brutal nature of the music business in Music City: “I scream my lungs out/ Confess my secrets, all my sins,” she sings. “But they don’t give a damn/ ‘Cause if it don’t sound like the radio/ Pass.”
Another choice line: “They buried my granddad without me/ ‘Cause I was on the road/ Some one-off show in Tupelo/ And I can’t take that one back.”
She wrote the song after one particularly tough night when she was singing an emotional song on stage and no one seemed to be paying attention. At least two artists asked her to record that song, and she had to turn them down.
“I knew that that was my song, and my song only,” Smith said. “I needed to be the one to sing it. It was just too much my story, and too perfect.”
And then there’s “Tacoma,” a soft electric ballad she and songwriter Bob DiPiero wrote together in less than an hour. Caitlyn Smith had never visited the Pacific Northwest city prior to writing the song. She was looking up directions to DiPiero’s studio when her iPhone directed her to the West Coast instead.
“I saw that on my phone and I thought, ‘That’s a beautiful title,’” she said. “It just kind of sparked this sad little melody, and the song was birthed from that. So, thanks Steve Jobs.”
“Tacoma” was a song with which Smith felt an instant connection, and she was never going to give it away to another artist. But then Garth Brooks came calling.
“I couldn’t bring myself to tell him ‘no,’ because he’s just my hero,” she said. “I thought, ‘He can record it, I could still record it, and it will be just great.’”
In all, Smith recorded 10 songs and was fully intending to release a full-length album. Then she and Gaalswyk found out she was pregnant with their son, Tommy, and decided to make it an EP, letting it “bubble and see what happens.”
The record topped iTunes singer-songwriter chart and Monument Records, whose artist roster includes Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison and the Dixie Chicks, quickly signed her. The LP followed less than two years later, in January.
It includes added tracks like “Scenes from a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday,” an observation on the lives of diner patrons, the weeper “House of Cards,” the poppy and nostalgic “St. Paul” (a city with which Caitlyn Smith is very familiar) and the smoky, piano-led “Cheap Date.”
The record was well-received, further increasing Smith’s profile. Her hometown of Cannon Falls dedicated a day in April (when she returned home to play a benefit show for a senior center) as Caitlyn Smith Day.
“Isn’t that the craziest thing ever?” Smith said. “That was one of the most special things that have ever happened.”
She and her husband are expecting their second child in November, which means she will be eight months pregnant when she performs with Amos Lee in Sacramento on Oct. 2. She’s spent all summer touring with several acts, including Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Sheryl Crow. While she’s likely to take a break from touring, she’s already writing songs for her next record.
And Smith has no plans to stop writing for others. Her goal is to write a song for Adele—“hear[ing] her voice singing one of my songs; I think I would die”—but writing itself is the goal, not just a destination.
“It feels like Christmas anytime someone else wants to record a song,” she said. “I will write songs until the day I die.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.