Over the last couple of years, Conner Smith has steadily taken the country music world by storm as one of the buzziest young stars around. Initially blowing up on TikTok thanks to his college football anthem “I Hate Alabama” back in 2021, he has been on a quick rise to fame. Since then, there has been a clear growth trajectory in the 23-year-old’s artistic maturation. Listeners may find no better evidence of that than his new album Smoky Mountains. Though Smith has been putting out music for some time now, this is his debut record and a comprehensive portrait of what he’s all about.
Thomas Rhett is a longtime mentor of Conner’s, recently taking him on tour, and the young artist clearly picked up a lot from him. The entire project has a heavy TR influence, and it doesn’t seem too far off from something Rhett himself would release. There are strong shades of “boyfriend country,” small-town lifestyle songs, and aplenty of sentimental tunes about growing up, all topics that fall right within both artists’ wheelhouse. Even though the whole album has a similar vibe, it’s not like listening to the same song 12 times over; indeed, each track possesses unique qualities that separate it from the rest.
Of the 12 songs released, six of them had been previously released. This definitely steals from the excitement of the new album. Radio singles like “I Hate Alabama” and “Take it Slow” have been out since the fall of 2021, and after over a two-year gap, the window to throw them on “Smoky Mountains” really should have shut. While it’s nice to rediscover those songs, fans have waited too long for this debut for it to have this much filler. However, new cuts like “Meanwhile in Carolina” stand out as obvious future singles that were very much worth waiting for.
“Meanwhile in Carolina” serves as a prequel of sorts to Smith’s relationship with his fiancée Leah Thompson. It looks into the life of him and his future girlfriend before they met. Sincere to the end, as Conner’s songs usually are, this is an exemplary, heartwarming story that can resonate with listeners of any age. Zach Crowell absolutely shows out with this production, taking a sharp turn from the densely-layered beats he employs on Dustin Lynch and Sam Hunt songs. With an organic mix that just breathes with steel and soft brushes, everything about this song just works.
Hailey Whitters appears on the third track of the record, “Roulette on the Heart.” Though she’s mostly just singing backup here, Hailey and Conner’s harmony is a real treat, and the idea that they never know what they’re getting is “roulette on the heart” doesn’t feel trite when delivered with this much feeling. Smith is no stranger to creating new angles for his relationship songs; this concept has been done before, but Smith adds his wistful flair that makes this hook one of the most memorable on the record.
If there were one word to describe Zach Crowell’s production of the record, it would be ‘polished.’ From start to finish, the production is incredibly smooth, whether it’s tender ballads like “God Moments” or well-packaged small-town pride songs like “Boots In the Bleachers.” Smith has never had a rough-around-the-edges style to his music, and Zach accentuates the best parts of what Conner does and mostly avoids letting this record turn into a snooze-fest of radio fodder. The inclusion of slick guitar solos and slick bridges allows the music to individualize Conner and his band’s respective skills.
One of the biggest highlights of “Smoky Mountains” is how personal it is to Smith. In each one of these songs, the storytelling has genuine meaning to him or seems like it comes from personal experience. He’s a guy in his early 20s experiencing life for the first time, and he’s writing about the things that are real to him, whether that’s a chill weekend watching football with friends or coming to grips with the idea of putting down roots with a girl. Whether or not the listener actually relates to everything, it’s easy to put yourself in his shoes through these narratives, which makes them really compelling.
Much like Texan troubadours like Parker McCollum and Cody Johnson, Conner thrives by blending commercial viability with high-quality songcraft, and a lot of these tracks could certainly see success on the radio. “Baby, I” and “Heatin’ Up” are perfect for a windows-down car ride, which Nashville loves. That’s not a bad thing either; these two songs are sure to get your foot tapping along to the beat. The mid to up-tempo style fits right into Smith’s realm and is undoubtedly fun to listen to. These are songs that could be crowd-pleasers for the casual listener and don’t make you feel dumb for enjoying them.
While there are so many positives, this is by no means the album of the year. It’s not short on good songs, but there aren’t enough great ones to push it into the upper-echelon of country music. However, it feels like it’s just missing a couple of pieces to climb that hill, and a debut album of this caliber at Conner’s age is incredibly impressive. It is a clean-cut project that only continues to get better with more listens. All 12 songs work perfectly to tie the whole album together. Conner Smith had a couple of years to build his name before this LP, just now wrapping up his “Creek Will Rise” tour; when it finally came time to put out a full-length project, you could tell that he knew how he wanted it to sound. “Smoky Mountains” isn’t perfect, but it’s a very exciting moment for an artist you can’t help but root for.