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Granger Smith Is Taste of Country’s Hottest Artist to Watch in 2016

Berman Fenelus
Berman Fenelus

Granger Smith doesn’t technically chew tobacco, but he knows how to put a good dip in. For the encore of every live show, he throws on a pair of his high-school overalls and a trucker hat, cracks open an ice-cold silver bullet, packs a dip into his lip and returns to the stage as someone else: Earl Dibbles Jr. The alter ego was just something funny he came up with, an idea spurred by boredom one day four years ago at his parents’ ranch. But country fans proved hungry for the character’s country-boy hilarity. They wanted more.

Smith took the American flag and ran with it. In fact, the singer has not-so-quietly built an empire around Earl in the form of Yee Yee Nation, a following of gun-toting, truck-driving, boot-wearing, muddy and proud rednecks. The brand has grown to include original songs by Earl Dibbles Jr., music videos, merch and even a Yee Yee Energy drink in a camo can, which will hit shelves this year.

The shows sell out in minutes. Once at the stage, fans sporting similar overalls and white tank tops shout “Yee Yee!” in anticipation. Cell phones fly up at the sound of a shotgun being loaded: the audio cue for Earl’s big entrance. The setup is so boldly different than what else is out there, it’s no wonder Smith is on the fast-track to superstardom. Sure, his alter ego was born on the fly, but it wasn’t a fluke. The Texas A&M graduate and former Corps of Cadets member has always been business smart, and the redneck patois is just another strategy. Creating Earl Dibbles Jr. was a way to set Smith apart. It worked.

“Granger always says, ‘Everybody has talent in this business, it’s just about finding the backdoor to go in if everyone is going in the front door,’” says Tyler Smith, Granger’s manager and younger brother by four years. “We’ve always strived to do things differently. If this person was doing this, we’re doing the exact opposite until something sticks.”

Don’t confuse the country boy character for the real Granger Smith, though. Earl is an ambassador for a lifestyle that is relatable to many of Smith’s fans, one that has quickly and effectively made him one of the most recognizable faces in the country music community. Maintaining his Yee Yee brand has kept the singer on the road 200 days a year with a 12-piece crew for the past two years. Now signed to Broken Bow Music Group’s Wheelhouse Records imprint as its flagship act, the bus wheels will roll faster, harder and longer as Smith learns the ropes of being a mainstream, label-signed, national radio presence in 2016.

Back at his Georgetown, Texas ranch for 13 days — the longest consecutive stretch he saw home in all of 2015 — Smith is just Daddy. He sits down with us on an especially warm December day, his two young children underfoot, happy to have him (sort of) to themselves.

“I’ve increased my patience capacity,” Smith says, smiling down at his kids. “You have to — oh my god.” He admits his ever-growing ability to keep a level head is the most important thing he’s learned since becoming a father. Daughter London was born in 2011, followed by a boy, Lincoln, in 2014. “I think that helps with the rest of the business, too.”

In truth, the mild-mannered family man has always known patience. The attention Earl Dibbles Jr. earned him — including a weekly appearance on ESPN picking college football winners — boosted the platform for Smith’s original music, which long went unheard outside of his home state. He’d enjoyed a baker’s dozen of Top 10 hits on the Texas Music Chart — “Silverado Bench Seat,” “Miles and Mud Tires,” “If Money Didn’t Matter” and “Bury Me in Blue Jeans” all went to No. 1 — but it wasn’t enough.

The bars where Smith had become a regular were comfortable and familiar, but things seemed … dusty. He was having a hard time keeping the momentum going inside Texas state lines, but the fire inside him was burning hotter than ever. When he closed his eyes at night, he saw stadiums, but knew he’d need people to fill the seats. So he set out to bring his feel-good brand of country music to more fans across the country, venturing into uncharted territory and literally playing coast to coast, on his own dime.

“Finally I was like, ‘We’re doing everything. We’re gonna get s— done,” brother Tyler says, recalling the moment he gave up his own job to commit to their future shortly after college. Tyler knew no one could do it as well as they could; he knew his brother was a star, and he was determined to help see him through those stadium doors. So he took the reins booking, managing and promoting Granger Smith, making him a truly independent act. They launched Yee Yee TV, a video series of content captured on the road. Any label exec who might have been watching could see the steam begin to rise.

Smith says he was happy but surprised to find that some of the best fans were in California, that people would sing along to his songs in New York. He was able to shake off the “Texas Country Artist Granger Smith” title.

Last fall, Smith was tagged as an iHeartRadio On the Verge artist, which meant a rapid increase in national airplay for “Backroad Song,” his pop-country ode to rural wanderlust and the first single from his May 2015 EP 4×4. The song moved more than 32,000 downloads in its first week, bowing at No. 4 on the Billboard Country Digital Songs chart and netting the singer his first Top 10 iTunes single. Today, it sits at No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, besting established stars Tim McGraw, Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood.

Bobby Bones — iHeart’s national country radio personality — is championing Smith, just like he did for Cam, Chris Janson and Taste of Country’s 2015 Artist of the Year, Kelsea Ballerini. “I think it’s a great time for Granger to exist,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a really good year for the people that have genuine talent.”

“It’s going to be interesting with Granger, how well ‘Backroad Song’ does. I think it has the potential to be a No. 1 song, and I think if that happens, that would create such a huge story for him,” Bones says. “With Granger, he’s such an authentic guy … his music is very authentic. In a time when everything sounds exactly the same and it’s hard to feel something that’s real, he just comes across as real! And you can’t fake that.”

Bones believes the days of country party jams making up the Top 40 are behind us because so much new, raw country talent is pushing through, earning its place among the stars. The tides are finally turning for the underdogs, thanks in part to the deejay.

“I’m always looking for these guys that are … not being passed over, but that are just kind of part of the system. Sometimes these record labels just need a little kick in the butt of what real humans like,” he explains. “There’s a difference between traditional and authentic, who can actually sing and play and mean what they’re saying.”

There was never an official goal to get signed by a major record label, but the right one came knocking last summer, offering the option to send “Backroad Song” to mainstream country radio. Both Tyler and Granger say Broken Bow “got it,” understanding that what they’d built from the ground up was working. They didn’t want to change Granger, they just wanted to amplify his message.

“He’s the smartest artist that I know out there. He knows who his fans are and what to give them,” Tyler says. “We always say, ‘You gotta give ‘em steak, we can’t give ‘em salad.’ We used to give them salad for years and then we realized that they want steak — get with the main entree.”

Smith can confirm that fans are hearing it loud and clear. The “steak” of his live show these days is — no surprise — “Backroad Song.” But the response still blows the newcomer away.

“The group of people that will listen to country radio, it’s a different group of people than grassroots, we’ll-find-you-type listeners,” Granger insists. “I say [the opening line] ‘Barbwire! … and the crowd sings the rest of the entire song at full volume. As an indie, I never saw that extreme passion. It’s like they are about to laugh or cry at the same time.”

A fan near Nashville went as far as to call Smith his “country music Jesus,” referring to the way the singer relates to his audience with Earl and with his original music, and what his mainstream arrival will mean for the landscape of country music. But Smith demures from such superlatives. He’s not here to save anything — he’s just giving the people what they want. His sound is breezy, his lyrics are easy to digest. “Sometimes you can get lost in it trying to be too artsy or tying to be too deep,” Smith explains. “Maybe that’s what people are saying when they say ‘country music Jesus,’ because they can hear one of my songs and they can be that character very quickly.”

“I’ve never been like, ‘I’m going to save country!’ because guess what, it’s just always going to be here,” he says. “It’s going to have its ups and downs. It always swings back. Through the decades it’s always kind of swung this way and swung that way, but then it always kind of comes back to agricultural people. It’s their music.”

He’s somebody who tries to get better all the time,” says his wife, Amber. “He wants to make a better record, he wants to make a better album, he wants to make a better music video. He’s really competitive — and he’ll probably get mad that I say it, but he wants to beat everybody. He wants to beat everybody out there right now. He’s like, ‘I’ve got to get that top spot!’ which is great, because you need that drive. He’s just super, super driven.”

Granger met Amber, an actress, when she was cast as his love interest in his 2009 “Don’t Listen to the Radio” video. 2016 marks their sixth wedding anniversary. Amber still oozes giddy admiration for the man she describes as hardworking and passionate — a “simple guy, but a guy with good values.” When she says it was love at first sight for both of them, you believe her.

When he’s home, Smith puts the same focus into his family that he does into his music when he’s on the road. He and London go on regular Sunday daddy-daughter dates to Cici’s Pizza. You’ll find him exploring the yard with Lincoln, teaching him how to plant trees and run the tractor like a good country boy. At night, as exhausted as they are, Granger and Amber make a point to catch up on the latest Netflix series (they try, and sometimes fail, not to cheat and watch ahead when they’re not together).

“There are hard days, of course. I miss him,” Amber admits. “You know, we miss him a lot, but I knew what I was getting into when I married him. I just believed in him, and I knew he was going to take off. There are servicemen and women who don’t get to see their families for a year, so two weeks or a month … I think I can make it. We have hard days — I’ve got two little kids, and some days are hard — but it’s not all of them.”

Smith FaceTimes with his family every day (“if they’re in the mood,” he clarifies, motioning to his daughter). “I can see firsthand through other artists and people who don’t have that support system … It’s so difficult,” he observes. “Honestly, I don’t know if I could do it. I don’t know if I could do it if I didn’t have support from home. [Amber] knows when I’m in the middle of nowhere and I’ve been traveling and I haven’t slept and we’re in the middle of a meet-and-greet. She knows, she’ll send me a text and say, ‘Thank you for working so hard for us. We can’t have this life without you.’ It’s like, OK — it gets me going again.”

This year will find him going again, like every year before it, but with more gasoline on the fire — Smith’s touring schedule has him in Colorado, Utah, California, Minnesota and Ohio in the next two months. This summer he’ll be on the country festival circuit, capping off in August with an appearance at WE Fest in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.

Now in his 30s, Smith has literally been chasing his dream for half of his life. That’s good news for new fans, who can unwrap an already full catalog of music from an artist who has never wavered from his easygoing, from-the-heart style. And they’ll get to know Smith even better when his first major-label record is released this spring.

“I’m really excited about this album,” he says. “This one has some of the deepest Granger stuff, the most stuff that, thinking about it, makes me want to cry. I’m not a crier.”

Smith lost his dad unexpectedly a few years ago, and the album touches on that, as well as his relationships with his wife and children. Also beneath the cover of the 15-track release is the quintessential “light-hearted, fun stuff that’s going to be real good for our live show,” plus a new Earl Dibbles Jr. song. “I look at my albums as little diaries of my life. This new album is definitely a diary.”

“The goal was that you can listen to it and walk away and say you know who this guy is now,” Smith says. “‘Backroad Song’ tells that story. So if you like the song, then you can really get to know who I am from the album.”

Berman Fenelus
Berman Fenelus

Perhaps Granger Smith took the back road to fame, but it was always on the map.

“The first time I saw George Strait at Texas Stadium in 1995 is when I saw that environment,” he remembers, thinking back to the moment he knew. He was a teenager. “I saw the lights go down, and I saw the energy from that stadium. When he walked out and the lights hit him and this kinetic energy in the stadium just erupted, I thought … Okay, that’s what I need to be doing.”

Smith is fresh off of the iconic Grand Ole Opry stage as he looks to the year ahead. He touts the performance as a bucket-list moment, but not just for him — for his grandma Mini, too.

“She’s a little socialite already, she’s about to turn 90,” Smith shares, lighting up as he talks about her, Nettie Faye Smith. When his family flew to Nashville in November to watch him make his Opry debut, Mini was there. Smith says it’s because of her that he developed an early love of country music.

“She knew everybody and acted like they were her friends. Like Bill Anderson and Connie Smith, John Conley — she would just grab their hand and talk, whisper in their ear about a song or a hit that they had in 1973,” he says of the action backstage. “They just ate it up. I hope that I’ll be able to play the Opry many times in my career, but I’ll always remember that first one when she was there.”

An album on the way, an eventual second single and a laundry list of new bucket list items set high expectations for Smith, but he acknowledges that some — okay, most — of the pressure is self-inflicted.

“A lot of people have told me from the label, ‘Just so you know, it doesn’t normally go this fast, so there is a good chance the second single really won’t move this fast.’ But even though they say that, in my mind I’m going to be thinking, ‘Let’s go!’ That kind of pressure is what I’ll put on myself, I’m sure.”

Smith still sees that stadium when his head hits the pillow, but he keeps his feet planted firmly on the ground.

“Success is doing what I love and being able to have a family and provide for them while doing what I love … and keeping everybody happy,” he says, eyes fixed on his little girl. “That makes me happy, and I feel like I’m successful.”

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