"You can tell when something's real," says the man known simply as Big Smo. "You can tell when it's true. And I think what's made us successful and gotten us this far is that we're just real people, down-home country folk who really love to make music, and people see that."
That success has been as hard won as it is impressive. What began as two friends—Smo and Orig the DJ—experimenting with samples, beats and lyrics in a makeshift home studio has turned into four independent CDs and hundreds of tour stops before over-the-top crowds from mud parks in Florida to night clubs in Vegas. He and his band—Orig, vocalists Alexander King and Haden Carpenter, guitarist Travis Tidwell, bassist Eric Flores and drummer Ryan Peel—have opened for Brantley Gilbert, appeared at 2012's Bamajam on a bill with Kid Rock and Jamey Johnson, and rocked the crowd at 2013's CMA Music Fest in Nashville. Perhaps most impressive, though, has been the phenomenal success of their breakthrough indy hit, "Kickin' It In Tennessee." Its video, a slice of real life shot on a shoestring at Big Smo's 32-acre Middle Tennessee farm, has earned well over five million YouTube hits.
Now, with the release of his major-label debut, Kuntry Livin’, the man known as the Boss of the Sticks is poised to take it all up a very big notch.
It was that homegrown video, "Kickin' It," that turned the tide, bringing Big Smo to the attention of Warner Bros. senior vice president and head of radio promotion Chris Stacey.
"The moment I saw Big Smo on YouTube," says Stacey, "I knew he was something special. I grew up loving rap music and loving country music, and Big Smo is the first artist that I have ever seen that seamlessly combines the two. Big Smo is for the kids with the jacked-up trucks and camo hats that love Jason Aldean and Brantley Glibert—but also bump Lil Wayne."
Big Smo’s growing legion of fans would agree. His is the story of a country boy catching fire in a digital age, where musical cross-pollination is everywhere, where Nelly teams up with Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line, and Ludacris joins forces with Jason Aldean, who’s "Dirt Road Anthem" was the best-selling country song of the year. Big Smo's rise has been fueled by high energy and relatable lyrics, a band with the ability to rock a crowd, and the studio savvy to capture that lightning in a bottle. Big Smo owns that place where country, Southern rock and hip hop come together, where the beat rocks the story and the story rocks the beat. An early review put it this way: "If Kid Rock and Run D.M.C. had a love child, he would be named Big Smo."
The added reach and clout of the label deal comes with something Big Smo values even more—freedom to do it his way.
"The most important thing," he says, "is that when we went from being independent artists to being on a label, we didn't want to lose control of who we are. That's why the label called us—because of who we are, not because of what somebody made us. They said, 'We'll let you drive. We like the way you steer.' I was like, 'Cool. I won't let you down.'"
Produced by Jon Conner and Orig, Kuntry Livin’ sums up everything that has brought Big Smo to the forefront. The beats are pulse-pounding, the vocals passionate, the guitars electrifying, and the subject matter—well, that's pure back-country reality. It includes the boots-on blue-collar anthem "Workin'," the country-as-cornbread celebration of roots, "Who I'll Be," the work-hard-play-hard life sketch, "Down in the Backwoods," and the love-gone-wrong tale, "Cover My Eyes."
Working with Big Smo on individual tracks are producer extraordinaire Michael Knox (Jason Aldean), songwriters Casey Beathard, Rhett Akins and Jim Beavers, singers Josh Thompson and Shelly Fairchild, and musicians including Charlie Worsham, Jimmy Stewart, David Yudkin and Lynyrd Skynyrd's Peter Keys.
Big Smo's story begins on the farm he grew up on—the farm that is still home. His first memory, in fact, is "sitting on the tractor with my father. I can still remember the smell of the fresh cut hay and how blue the sky was. I had a great life as a child and as a teenager. I had hard-working grandparents and even harder-working parents that had great family values. My father taught me everything it was to be a man and he became not only the best father to have but my best friend."
He played drums and keyboards as a boy, took up trumpet in middle school and was part of the drum line in high school.
"I was always into music," he says, "and on the side I was always writing, whether it was a short story or these crazy movie ideas."
He began writing poetry in high school, "expressing the side of me I didn't really want to share with everyone else. It was where I could put down how I felt inside. My thoughts, my feelings, my emotions, they would explode onto the paper."
As with so many of his generation, he heard music from both sides of the fence, rural and urban, country ("with an outlaw vibe") and hip-hop, and both stirred his soul, as did the Southern and classic rock he heard as a teenager.
"When I listen to the music we make today," he says, "I see all those things in everything we make. The elements are all there and it's working. People love it because they can relate to it."
Not long after he got out of high school he met Ray Riddle, who was just learning to be a DJ and who would become Orig the DJ.
"He had this Technics turntable." says Smo, "and he was learning how to sample pieces out of a record. I thought, 'That's so cool.' I really dug this kid, his enthusiasm and where his heart was when it came to music. It was like watching an artist paint a picture."
Soon, they were writing together, learning every aspect of the process from the ground up. They played an early song for some friends, who loved it, then started the long process of gathering and mastering equipment and writing and performing original songs.
"To this day," he says, "Orig and I are in the studio working late all the time and we're still as tight as ever. Our moms look at both of us as sons."
The two began making the one-hour journey north to Nashville, paying for the chance to play in tiny clubs--Kung Fu Coffee was the first--and giving away CDs they made at home and labeled with Sharpies.
"People got into what we were doing and before long we had our first paid gig," he says. "I'll never forget it. We piled our equipment in the car and drove to Georgia and we got there and they gave us three hundred bucks and a case of water. We were like, 'What? All we did was show up and they haven't even seen us yet!"
Soon they were taking what they'd learned and the contacts they'd made and putting on shows of their own, with Orig as DJ and Big Smo as host. They learned Photoshop and other programs and designed their own flyers. They began producing their own CDs, which got increasingly sophisticated, and began touring all over the southern U.S., booking their own shows and traveling in a converted church bus.
They learned everything they could about the possibilities inherent in the Internet, and were off and running.
"YouTube became the place for seeing what was happening," he says. "That opened the window for independent artists to share with the same amount of people that you had to wait on MTV or CMT or BET for in the past. This was your 'reach out and touch somebody' opportunity."
They took full advantage, and that road, of course, led to Warner Music Nashville, where the back woods met the power of full-scale national promotion. At bottom, though, is the same wide-ranging love of music and the same bootstrap mentality.
“We were raised on Waylon and Willie, Johnny Cash and Jerry Reed,” he says, “and we were raised on the Beastie Boys and Dirty South, so it’s not a surprise that’s who we’ve become. And that’s the place a whole lot of fans are, loving not just country but hip-hop as well. They’re country people who love to party and have a good time, and love that hip-hop beat and that country story telling. I’ve always followed my heart about the music, and it’s connecting to a lot of people.
“I wouldn’t trade away anything about the way we did it, because we learned it from the bottom up,” he says. “We paid our dues. I enjoy knowing that’s where we started and here’s where we are today.”
All of it comes together on stage, which is where Big Smo says he is most at home.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve come across in my life,” he says. “When you’re on stage and your fans are in the crowd and they’re singing along and they know the songs and you’re there to give them the best you are, it’s an exchange of love and enjoyment you just can’t beat. No matter how chill I am backstage, when I hear ‘Dueling Banjos,’ it’s like a light switch. I’m like, ‘It’s time.’ I just go out there and unleash whatever that week held for me, taking all my emotions and fueling them into my show.”
It’s an approach that has thrilled countless fans who have followed Big Smo from the Internet to some of the music world’s most exciting live shows, creating back-and-forth energy he is as excited about taking forward as his fans are.
“I could play a show every night for the rest of my life,” he says, “and I’d be the happiest man on earth.”