Over the past decade, Nashville's pop music scene has produced a crop of singer-songwriters who have given an extroverted spin to what can often be an introverted genre. Or maybe it's the other way around — such exemplary Music City singer-songwriters as Sarah Siskind, Katie Herzig and Mindy Smith write about their own lives in ways that are idiosyncratic and even experimental without losing the affability of pop. Over the course of four expertly realized full-length releases, Smith has attempted to erase the boundaries that separate Nashville's country and pop scenes. Smith's philosophical concerns are the product of deep thought, but her music has a reflective surface that can make it difficult to look inside.
Born in Nesconset, N.Y., on June 1, 1972, Smith came to Nashville in 1998 after stopovers in Cincinnati and Knoxville. Already an accomplished singer and an ambitious songwriter, Smith arrived in town ready to study her craft. "When I first came to Nashville, it was a lot more, like, you've gotta pay your dues," she says. "It was an unspoken rule, if you will. The writers' nights also helped me get over my fear of playing guitar in front of people."
Smith made the rounds, and Vanguard Records executive Steve Buckingham signed her to the label in 2003. Buckingham produced Smith's debut full-length, One Moment More, which appeared the following year. Featuring a crew of musicians that included guitarist Kenny Vaughan and keyboardist Steve Conn, One Moment led off with Smith's "Come to Jesus," which seemed to presage a career in Christian-themed music.
Although she'd been signed to a publishing deal by a Christian label ("It wasn't a good match," Smith says), the singer balked at becoming a full-fledged Christian artist. "I wasn't looking for a career in that at all," remembers Smith. "For me, it was an ethical thing, but I also didn't want to be pigeonholed as a country artist. I really did work extra hard to sabotage that whole point of view."
One Moment revealed Smith as a singer whose voice soared over textures that recalled the spare sound of country music and the pristine arrangements of folk. Still, Smith has never aspired to become a country artist. "I've embraced some of the icons of literal songwriting, and I listened to John Prine and Shawn Colvin," she says. "I'm a musical person, and I think lyrics are a necessary evil."
To appreciate Smith's records — including her more pop-oriented 2009 release Stupid Love — you have to immerse yourself in the sound of her big, sad, distracted voice. She's done a Christmas record that features her easy way with holiday sentiments. But Smith is an artist troubled by the way the world's promises are made to be broken. As she says, "I write what I've been going through, whether it's been a spiritual or a relationship conflict. Now that I'm old and I've done this long enough, it's like, 'Man, I just want to make music.' "