All In: Canaan Smith on Tragedy, Faith and the Great American Country Song
One little-discussed, but striking part about Dierks Bentley asking his tour openers to jump in a freezing cold lake with him last January was how quickly and enthusiastically Canaan Smith agreed. The "Love You Like That" singer was was fired up — excited even! There's a reason for that. As it turns out, there's a very personal reason for it.
“I’m totally that guy,” Smith tells Taste of Country. “In most things, I’m all for it.”
“I feel like you live life more aware when you lose somebody. Life becomes more finite."
The title of his just-released Bronco album refers to the death of his 16-year-old brother Nathaniel. It happened nearly 20 years ago and the album's title track tells that story with no filters. Until six months ago, Smith says he couldn't put that experience and those feelings into words. Now it stands as one of the finest tracks on a sneaky-good debut album.
“I couldn’t tell my story like I want to without including that major pivotal part in my life,” he says.
Nathaniel died in a car accident. He was known for driving a Ford Bronco, among other things. The two were close, sharing a love of sports and a love of helping others.
“He came back from a mission trip in Mexico barefoot in the airport," Smith says, remembering a moment that took place just before the accident. "And we’re like ‘Why is he barefoot?’ And he gave his favorite pair of shoes to this kid who didn’t have any."
“That’s the kind of guy I strive to be," adds the singer.
On his left arm is a tattoo of a wild bronco, in memory of his brother, who was — like the 32-year-old singer — a wild spirit. On the other arm is an intricate letter "S." It's for "Smith," but also for his favorite Bible verse:
"The Lord is my strength and song, and he is become my salvation." ~ Exodus 15:2.
The Willliamsburg, Va. native literally wears his emotions on his sleeve, which can be difficult. Performing "Bronco" in front of live audiences proved to be challenging early on. He wasn't prepared for it at first, and only after some advice from Kristian Bush did things get easier. Bush told him how Jennifer Nettles struggled through Sugarland's "Stay" early on. She'd have an emotional breakdown in the middle of the song.
“Then there became this moment where she began to realize this isn’t just my story, this is a lot of people’s story," Smith recalls Bush saying.
“So when I’m singing this I’m singing it to help people heal.”
Other songs are just as personal. Bronco is filled with great American song titles. Tracks like "Stuck," "Mad Love," "American Muscle" and "Two Lane Road" just sound like great country songs. "Stompin' Grounds," written by Jaren Johnston and Lindsay Rimes, is one Smith can't wait for fans to hear.
“If somebody starts talking trash about your hometown, you’re gonna stand up for it, even if you hated being there," he says. "It’s like talking about family.”
The gold-certified lead single "Love You Like That" was penned about his wife just after they met. He says she holds him together. Of the 11 songs, Smith co-wrote eight with well known tunesmiths like Brett Beavers, Casey Beathard and Scooter Carusoe. His heart is all over the album.
So when Dierks Bentley says jump in, Smith responds, "Why not?" The Sounds of Summer tour also includes Maddie & Tae and Kip Moore, and since that cold day in January it's become known for a bubbling prank war, mostly between Moore and Bentley. Smith says he's staying out of it for now, but has a revenge plan should arrows start flying his way.
“There might be some Ex-Lax in some morning coffee or something ...” he jokes.
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