When the University of Georgia Bulldogs won against the University of Alabama Crimson Tide in the National Championships on Jan. 10, giving the team its first college football national championship title since the 1980 season, some football fans had just the theme song to celebrate Alabama’s defeat — country music newcomer Conner Smith’s viral hit, “I Hate Alabama.” The song went viral on TikTok in October, thanks to lyrics like, “I hate Alabama/ I hate crimson red/ I hate how they yell ‘Roll Tide’ when I got a Braves hat on my head” (though in the song, it’s actually a broken romance that has him seeing red).
“This whole football season has been wild, to watch this song do what it has done,” says 21-year old Smith, who is signed to Big Machine’s The Valory Music Co. imprint. “The Lord’s timing is perfect and that was true with this song. We put out this song on a Friday and the very next day, Alabama lost in football for the first time in two years. That is what made the song explode. So now anytime Alabama is playing, the song gets some love. After the National Championship Game, I think the streams doubled.”
Singer-songwriter Smith didn’t write “I Hate Alabama” — Nick Columbia, Drew Green, Hunter Phelps and Lee Starr did — but the anti-Alabama sentiment clearly resonated with Smith, who grew up in Nashville and is a long-time University of Tennessee Volunteers fan.
“After I heard this song, I knew we needed to get on it quickly to capture the football season,” Smith says. “I grabbed my band and producer, and we recorded the song. We posted the video on Instagram, and it immediately took off. [Big Machine Label Group president/CEO/founder] Scott Borchetta called me that night and said, ‘This song is coming out next Friday.’ So we had all hands on deck to make that timeline. It was cool to see everybody work together on it. And big props to BMLG for getting behind this song and the vision we had for it.”
Following up the song’s success, Smith released the track “Learn From It,” a musical list of childhood mistakes and the lessons he’s gleaned from them. Both “I Hate Alabama” and “Learn From It” are included on Smith’s six-track debut project Didn’t Go Too Far, which came out Jan. 14. Smith is a writer on five of the tracks.
Smith chatted with Billboard about the success of “I Hate Alabama,” co-writing with and learning from Nashville’s top songwriters, and making his debut project.
How did you first hear “I Hate Alabama,” and why did you want to record it?
So “I Hate Alabama” is the first song I’ve recorded that I didn’t write — and this song was sent to me by one of my good buddies, Hunter Phelps, who wrote the song. He knew I was a big Tennessee fan and thought I would like it. My producer and I fell in love with it right away and knew it was special. Just as a song, it is so well written, and this story really felt like lightning-in-a-bottle type of song. I feel so lucky this song made it’s way to me and I got to make it mine.
You were into music from a very young age. What was the first song you remember learning how to play and sing?
The first song I remember performing was “Big Star” by Kenny Chesney. For my fourth birthday my parents gave me a pawn shop guitar. I immediately started strumming and singing it for the lucky crowd of my 4-year-old friends. Kenny Chesney has always been my favorite.
Your mother, Jennifer Vickery Smith, has worked as an entertainment reporter and you grew up listening to interviews she did with artists and songwriters. Who were some of the artists and writers whose music resonated with you early on?
Most of her interviews were long-form discussion with songwriters. I remember sitting in her office as she edited her interviews, listening to people like Neil Thrasher, Craig Wiseman, Kelley Lovelace and Tom Douglas talk about how they wrote what they wrote, and how they got to where they were. That’s where I really decided, “All right — I want to do that.” Her being near the entertainment industry really helped make that dream seem like an attainable reality. Both of my parents were so supportive of me in this dream because they saw it as a reality. It’s so cool to now get to live that dream, and write with these same people I grew up idolizing.
You signed with performing rights organization BMI at age nine. How did you end up getting signed at such a young age?
Clay Bradley with BMI had heard this story about me and invited me to come play some of my songs I had written. I think he could tell I knew what I was doing, and had a gift for it. He just really believed in and encouraged me, and was one of those boosts I needed to send me on this path. He asked me to sign right then, so I became the second-youngest to ever sign with BMI, other than Michael Jackson.
You were co-writing with heavy-hitter writers in high school. How did you balance school with music?
In my junior and senior years of high school, I was going to school until about 11:30 a.m., then I would go write songs in the afternoon, then come back to play baseball at 4 p.m. It was busy and exhausting, but at the end of the day, it felt like good training for balancing life as an artist. I’m super thankful I got to finish high school with my friends, finish out the baseball season and senior year, and just do life. It helps with songwriting — being able to live that life and then write about it — and it helps that I grew up in Nashville. Everyone understood what I was leaving to do, and my coaches and my publishing company helped me make it all work.
Your first project, Didn’t Go Too Far, just came out. What was it like working with Zach Crowell on the project?
Zach and I have a really special relationship. Zach and I started working together when I was 16 years old. He found a video on Instagram of me singing [Keith Urban’s] “Cop Car,” a song he wrote. Over the last four or five years he and I have worked so closely on building my career, in every way. He is one of the most prolific producers in the city of Nashville, and I have so much trust in him every time we get in the studio and start to bring a song I wrote to life. We often laugh that I’m closer to his daughter’s age [who is seven] than his, but Zach has definitely become one of my closest and most trusted friends.
Another track from this project, “College Town,” is a solo write. How did that song come about?
I wrote it by myself on a Southwest flight in like 30 minutes — the whole thing. It started as me wanting to write a song for my live shows. We have gotten the chance to play in these college bars and towns over the last year, so those shows are what inspired this one. I decided to throw my own story in this song because I think that’s what makes this journey. I’m 21 now, and would be a junior in college if I had gone — but instead I’m getting my “college experience” through traveling to these college towns for shows.
“Learn From It,” which you co-wrote with Daniel Ross, is all about gaining wisdom from life experiences. You grew up around the industry in Nashville. What are some of the biggest career lessons you’ve learned from your experiences so far?
I’ve learned that people can only work as hard, and care as much, as you do. There is no level of talent that will get you anywhere if you’re not willing to work for it. Another thing is the town of Nashville is such a community; it really matters to be a person people respect and trust and want to succeed. If you work your butt off and treat people the right way, I really think there is a place for you to succeed in country music.
You are joining Thomas Rhett’s 2022 summer tour, and he has been a longtime supporter of you as a writer and artist. How did your working relationship with him start and what have you learned from him about songwriting and music?
So TR and I really met kind of naturally. I think he had heard about me through some mutual friends we have, which then led to him hearing some songs, which then led to us writing a few. He and I really connected on so many levels as artists, and writers, but mainly as humans, and the way we see the world. What I’ve learned the most from him is how to be a good human and balance family, and a career without losing who you are.
What is the most recent song you listened to?
“Love Takes Time” by Jonathan Hutcherson.