How a ‘God-Slap’ Set Newcomer Dan Smalley on His Best Country Road
Dan Smalley will tell you he shouldn't be here. The country newcomer is a married man with two young kids and an honest career writing and singing country songs, but that life — this life — was an E string away from never happening (the high E string, if you're tuning the standard six).
Growing up, the traditionalist bounced around with his mother and Air Force father, until his parents split when he was 10. After taking a scenic route from southern Ohio, he settled with his mother's side of the family in Shreveport, La. Smalley doesn't lament a troubled childhood or even express regret, but as he describes his raising, he leaves enough room between the lines for interpretation.
"My dad was fresh out of bootcamp. My mother was fresh out of her first divorce, with my older sister ..." he'll say about how he came into this world, later holding high memories out on the waterways with his two grandfathers.
"Last time I drank alcohol, a buddy dropped me off in front of my house and I went to get in my house and I couldn’t get in, so I kicked the door in and it just wasn’t my house."
His father was a vocalist in the Air Force and sang everything from Merle Haggard to Les Miserables. His mother appreciated Motown music and the oldies, but both left him alone to discover his own favorites, something he did with aggression after digital streaming sites like Pandora became popular. One need only explore his Songs That Inspired If I'm Being Honest playlist on Spotify to see who moves him. Hank Williams (Jr. and Sr.), John Prine, the Judds, Willie Nelson, Alan Jackson, Al Green ... Smalley is an old soul who went to school on the greatest once he decided country music was his calling. Bill Withers' death hit him hard earlier this month.
“He feels like a gift to us,” Smalley says, comparing him to Prine.
If I'm Being Honest is Smalley's debut EP on Big Machine Label Group, a label he's been signed to since 2018. Few albums are titled so appropriately. The opening track is a pleasing country love song with a little grit that finds Smalley waiting for his girl to return home. Think Montgomery Gentry "She Couldn't Change Me" in a #MeToo era.
The next song, "Lucky," is the song that sticks.
“That whole first verse, those are all true stories,” Smalley says.
"There’s scars on my heart, scars on my head / And one right here where the bullet hit," he sings before the chorus.
“Last time I drank alcohol, a buddy dropped me off in front of my house and I went to get in my house and I couldn’t get in, so I kicked the door in and it just wasn’t my house," Smalley says, with a Southern calm you only find from men who've lived through a few things.
"The man that owned the house shot me with a 40 cal (.40 caliber) in the chest and the arm. I was pronounced dead on the scene and they revived me on the way to the hospital. And that was it for me. That was the God-slap."
That was 5-and-a-half years ago, long enough for Smalley to own his mistakes and recognize that his songs and stories may inspire someone else to change course before a gun fires.
"Ever since I just completely put down alcohol and made that decision and made that commitment to just change as a person — and it wasn’t so much changing as a person, it was changing one little thing, just taking that out of the equation — and it fixed everything in the world,” he says, laughing.
It's not totally accurate. While he did move to Tennessee with his wife Heather and their two kids (age 8 and 5) two or three years later, his past still haunts him. Or maybe it's just who he is. Smalley says he was in a self-deprecating kind of mood when he wrote the title track "If I'm Being Honest" in June or July 2018. Lyrically, he shows a lot of cracks in the facade.
"If I’m being honest, what you see ainʼt what you get / The voice that I put out there ainʼt the one thatʼs in my head / I’m a lot less polished than most of my friends think / But if I’m being honest, I’m just barely keepin' clean," he sings to start a song as a little steel and acoustic guitar support him.
So he doesn't have it all figured out yet, but he has his priorities straight and knows his poison. Which is to say, that's all of us.
See More Great Modern Songs for Country Traditionalists: