Song Review: Conner Smith, “Learn From It”

To paraphrase an old (though perhaps not-so-wise) friend of mine, if you say what everyone else is saying, you’ll just sound like everyone else.

The latest creation of Nashville’s faceless young white male assembly line is Conner Smith, a Nashville native who signed with Valory Music over two years ago but is only now getting any radio airplay with his debut single, “Learn From It.” At first glance, this is a song that at least starts to move away from the current Music City meta and tries to offer something to the listener that they can think about and use. Scratch the surface, however, and this ain’t Eric Church’s “Some Of It”—instead, it’s a barely-veiled “I’m so country!” song, plowing the same old ground, bringing up the same old boilerplate scenes, using the same old sounds, and wrapping them in the same old forgettable package and hoping we won’t notice. It’s yet another failure of the genre to launch an artist’s career, and if Nashville is serious about fixing what ails the genre, fixing their development pipeline is a good place to start.

The number of songwriters in Nashville may be dropping, but based on what I’m hearing these days, there are only three or four guitars in town too, so naturally that’s all we get here too. This is the same spacious, arena-ready guitar-and-drum mix that most everyone is leaning on these days, and the one notable deviations from the formula is *sigh* Grady Smith’s favorite clap track and the token 2010s banjo rolling along in the background of the chorus of the bridge. (There’s all of one audible steel guitar riff in the whole song, which begs the question of why it was even tossed into the mix in the first place.) The upbeat party vibe of the song also feels like an awkward fit as the song goes through all the mistakes the narrator made and supposed learned from (“Woohoo, I got yelled at for stealing beer!”). A true lessons-learned song requires the sound to set a more-serious tone to drive its message home, but instead we get the sort of light, ephemeral mix that encourages you to ignore the writing entirely. Everything about this arrangement suggests that the people involved haven’t learned anything from the last decade, and that includes how to put together a sound that properly supports the subject matter and convinces people to tune in.

Smith’s voice is what I imagine Jake Owen would sound like after he shouted himself hoarse for an hour, but while it’s not necessarily bad, it’s certainly not ear-catching or interesting either. As is the case with most artists, there aren’t any technical issues here (the song plays it pretty safe and doesn’t push Smith to show any range or flow), but Smith falls woefully short on the charisma front and simply doesn’t convince the listener that he’s actually learned anything from his experiences. Instead, he gives off the aura of a clueless dudebro behind the mic, one who’s merely survived his mistakes and hasn’t taken any lessons away from them. He tries to claim his actions are from “the days when we were young and wild,” but he lacks the maturity and presence to make the audience think those days are actually behind them (he still sounds pretty young and wild as he’s singing). The truth is that this is just a bad song for a newer artist like Smith (seriously, if Valory wants him to sing a party song, just give him a freaking party song and let him lean into it; the result can’t be any less memorable or interesting than this), and makes me think that the label (and every other label, honestly) needs to fire their entire A&R department and rebuild it from scratch.

The writing here is less of a head-fake and more of a Bro-Country song in sheep’s clothing. In theory, the songs talks about how the narrator has learned from the many mistakes they’ve made and become a better person for it, but it fails at both ends. For one thing, the song doesn’t actually mention what lessons the narrator learned, and instead focuses exclusively on the narrator’s mistakes (the bridge mentions “the raisin’ hell does the raisin’ up,” but doesn’t give you any sense of how it happens). This isn’t a song that’s meant to teach you anything—it’s a song for reveling in shared experiences, and said experiences have been shared to death over the last few decades (wrecking cars, jumping fences, drinking beer, getting sick from chewing tobacco, etc.). There’s also a healthy dose of “country” buzzwords here (on top of what I listed before, we’ve got the usual small towns, Friday nights, and how “growing up with nothing to do makes you play with fire a little”), which doesn’t help the song distinguish itself from its peers. The truth, of course, is that the song wants to blend in more than stand out, and make you forget about it thirty seconds after it finishes. It succeeds a little too well.

“Learned From It” is less about what the narrator’s learned and more about what Nashville’s learned about pushing new artists in the current musical climate: Take no chances with the sound, lean on the same ten phrases no matter what the song is supposedly about, and put non-entities like Conner Smith behind the mic regardless of how limited their abilities might be. The result is a forgettable, disposable track that leaves no trace of its existence the moment it ends. Smith might actually be a decent singer, but in the current system he has no way of demonstrating that: The formula is set, and any deviations must be minimal and easy to see through. Complaining about it is about as useless as complaining about the Splatoon 2 meta, but I’m going to keep doing it anyway. Call it a lesson I haven’t learned just yet.

Rating: 5/10. Get a head start and forget this one before you hear it.

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