Musicians are often lumped into two buckets: Those who make it big, and those who don’t make it at all. However, there’s a third group that sits in between these extremes: The artists that get a taste of success and draw the spotlight for a brief moment, but can’t sustain the momentum and watch the light quickly fade from their careers. Bittersweet as it may be, however, that brief moment can leave an lasting impression on the people who hear it, leaving them scratching their head as to why things didn’t. These are the stories of the one-hit wonders.
Today’s installment of One-Hit Wonderings is brought to you by
RAID: Shadow Legends Sam Wilson, who points out that while these artists may leave an impression on their audience, it’s not always a good one:
Canaan Smith’s claim to fame is “Love You Like That,” a generic Bro-Country pick-up line that was released in 2014 but needed an entire year to reach #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. The song is so formulaic and soundalike that it’s a wonder it made any impact on the charts at all, and whatever lightning Smith caught in a bottle leaked out after the follow-up single “Hole In The Bottle” stalled at #23. Smith quickly disappeared from the radio (so much so that there’s been no trace of him on the Korner until now) and has only recently re-emerged from exile with a new album on a new label. So what caused Smith to flare up and fizzle out so fast?
After looking through Smith’s story, there appear to be some surprising similarities between Smith’s experience and Ty England’s Nashville stint fifteen years earlier. Mercury Nashville attempted to shove a square peg into a trendy round hole, and while the experiment worked just long enough to get a #1 song, the experience bothered Smith enough that when the roof finally caved in, he simply walked away and started making music the way he wanted it, regardless of its commercial potential.
England had Garth Brooks in his corner, and Smith had a similar arrangement with someone who was almost as powerful at the time: Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, better known as Florida Georgia Line. The three men were friends from their days at Belmont University, and Smith and Hubbard co-wrote the song “Black Tears” for FGL’s self-released EP back like 2010 (Jason Aldean would later record the song for his 2012 album Night Train). While Hubbard and Kelley may not have had a direct hand in Smith’s signing to Mercury Nashville, they certainly had an impact on the label’s vision for Smith, as “Cruise” would drop in 2012 and kick off the Bro-Country movement that would plague the genre for the next few years.
Bro-Country would kick off the careers of a number of artists (Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell, Chase Rice, Brantley Gilbert, Brett Eldredge, etc.) and supercharge the careers of others (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, Blake Shelton), and after Smith’s more-conventional debut single “We Got Us” crashed and burned at #44, Mercury pivoted to try to capitalize on the surging trend. “Love You Like That” checks all the boxes for the sound that defined the era: A deliberate tempo, heavy electric guitars, a token banjo, a serious tone that feels too dark to be romantic, an alcohol-marinated nighttime ride, references to both Tom Petty and “Fishin’ In The Dark,” continuously using the word “girl,” drawing the city/country dividing line…the list goes on and on. (The notable omissions are truck references and an in-your-face drum machine.)
The ploy worked long enough to earn Smith and his team a #1 song and an eventual album release in Bronco, but it failed to establish an identity for Smith beyond “just another faceless young white male singer off of Nashville’s assembly line.” It left him vulnerable to another shakeup in the genre’s sound, and by the time “Love You Like That” reached #1 in 2015, one particular artist was doing a lot of shaking.
A quick look at the Billboard county #1s in 2015 shows that the year was dominated by two men: Luke Bryan (who had already pivoted to a slicker sound with “Kick The Dust Up” and “Strip It Down”) and Sam Hunt, who exploded onto the scene with “Take Your Time” and “House Party.” (In truth, the seeds for this trend has been planted the previous year with Hunt’s “Leave The Night On” and especially Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down.”) This was the start of the Metropolitan movement, and country artists were once again faced with an “adapt or die” moment. Unfortunately for Smith, Bronco was built for the Bro-Country era, and without any real star power or name recognition, he would never again find traction on the airwaves. After some failed attempts to adapt and adopt the new sound (“Like You That Way,” “This Night Back”), Smith and Mercury parted ways in 2018.
So What Happened?
Much like Brooks did for England, FGL stepped in to fill the void left by Mercury, signing Smith to their own label Round Here Labels as their flagship artist. 2020 saw the release of a new single “Colder Than You,” and the difference between major label Smith and kinda-sorta indie label Smith was jarring:
Instead of a Bro-country purveyor with a “clean-shaven face and fitted leather jackets,” we got a slow, 6/8 track from a guy who looked like River Dave‘s next-door neighbor…and honestly, I think I like the change (“Colder Than You” is at least better than Thanos’s attempt at the same wordplay). So what led Smith down this path?
While Smith has been careful not to throw too much shade at his former employer while talking about his album (he calls them “a really, really great label…and a building full of people I love and felt loved by”), there’s a constant theme that comes up when discussing his new album High Country Sound:
“I just felt like I think I wanna take back a little bit of this ownership of my career, and just maybe hit reset for a second…Get back to why I moved to town in the first place, for great songs, and to do stuff without worrying too much about where we wanted to land.”Smith, as told to Gayle Thompson, October 2019
“It’s me fully embracing, kind of, who I am, where I came from, you know, and not trying to be anything.”Smith, as told to Amy Poulter, July 2020
“This whole album felt like a chance to make something that I truly wanted, which was extremely liberating…I really focused on having fun with it, and I didn’t feel pressure from anyone to do anything in particular—it all came from a place of my own personal love for these songs. Taking control and kind of steering the project in the way I wanted just made the outcome that much more special, and I couldn’t be prouder of it.”Smith, as told to LB Cantrell, March 2021
“It was just a digging deep and reaching inside kind of thing to find that sound that best reflects me and not just a sound that we think is cool or is going to work or going to compete…I had 100% complete freedom from start to finish.”Smith, as told to Annie Reuter, April 2021
The key here appears to be control: Smith grew unhappy with being a small cog in a major-label machine and with getting pushed in a certain direction, and wanted to reclaim his own narrative and make the music that he wanted to make, regardless of the public reception. On High Country Sound, he did exactly that, co-writing every track on the disc and self-producing most of them (he co-produced the rest with Hubbard and Kelley).
As an album, High Country Sound feels a bit scattershot to me, and includes some tracks that seem fairly radio-friendly and are occasionally even ripped straight from the Bro-Country playbook. It suggests that it wasn’t the kind of music Smith was making at Mercury that bothered him, but rather the lack of input or creative control over the career. Whatever he’s doing now, he’s doing it of his own volition, and sometimes that means more than earning success or validation. As someone who’s mashed together some seriously strange topics on this blog over the years, I can respect that.
However, despite Round Here’s partnership with AWAL, the label doesn’t seem to have the radio muscle of the major Nashville players (and in truth, the label seems to be focused primarily on metrics like streaming and download numbers), so barring a viral hit on the order of “Fancy Like,” we’ve probably heard the last of Canaan Smith on mainstream radio. However, Smith seems to be fairly content in his current position, and sometimes that’s all that matters. No matter what, he’ll always be a man with a #1 song, even if the rest of the world would rather forget it.