Mindy Smith still carries a trace of her native Long Island accent.

Though she's plied her trade as a singer and songwriter in Nashville since 1998, speaking such words as "dog" and "coffee" brings out her inner New Yorker. In those moments, it's hard to imagine her as a decorated Americana and pop performer.

Sure enough, it took some time for Smith to break into Music City as a newcomer. She got there by way of Knoxville, where she and her father moved after her mother's death from cancer.

"I really put my nose to the grindstone," Smith, 39, says of her early days in Nashville. She only fit in "once they got to know me, once they got past the 'let the new person sing' type thing. You have to pay your dues, definitely."

Smith will perform a free show 8:30 p.m. today at Abilene Christian University's Moody Coliseum as part of the university's 2011 Summit.

In 2003, Smith launched into notoriety with her cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene," which appeared on a tribute album to the singer. Parton enjoyed the rendition so much that she contributed vocals to the track, appeared in its music video and went on to perform the song live with Smith. It definitely wasn't a traditional way for Smith to jump-start her career.

"It still boggles my brain a little bit," Smith said.

But within the next year, Smith proved it wasn't a fluke. Her original devotional "Come to Jesus" cracked the Billboard Adult Top 40 in 2004, and its parent album "One Moment More" reached No. 2 on the Billboard Heatseekers chart. The Americana Music Association named her the year's top new/emerging artist.

Since then, Smith has released three more well-received albums on Vanguard Records and appears on the soundtrack to this year's "Our Idiot Brother." She's working to release "at the minimum, an EP" of new material in early 2012.

Although she goes through dry spells like any songwriter, Smith says music really is all she knows. Even today, she continues to draw inspiration from the early stages of her career, when she had to earn her place on stage.

"I think you have to go through those sorts of things as an artist," Smith said. "There has to be some kind of conflict or struggle. If it's too easy, where can you draw your inspiration from?"

© 2011 Abilene Reporter-News. All rights reserved.