Singer-songwriter Nate Smith’s journey is a survivor’s story — one of grit, flexibility and determination. In addition to taking the always uncertain path of pursuing music, he’s weathered a divorce and losing everything in a devastating fire.
After growing up immersed in the music of artists from Elvis Presley to Garth Brooks, the California native moved to Nashville to pursue music in 2008. He inked a publishing deal with Centricity the following year, and came close to signing a recording contract with the CCM label Word Records. However, around that time, Smith was also enduring the sting of a divorce, prompting him to forfeit the publishing deal and return to California in 2011.
“I needed to be with my family and heal. When I left Nashville, I was heartbroken and felt defeated,” Smith tells Billboard. “I hadn’t planned on coming back to Nashville, ever.”
Smith turned to his backup plan of working as a nurse assistant, working night shifts at a hospital. Then, in November 2018, Smith’s home was one of the nearly 14,000 residencies destroyed as the Camp Fire raged through Paradise, Calif. Like so many others impacted by the Camp Fire, Smith lost everything. The devastation turned out to be a pivotal moment, and Smith determined to give Nashville another shot — this time, finding his place in country music.
He wrote the song “One of These Days” as a tribute to his community, while another song, “Wildfire,” gained traction on TikTok — leading to a new publishing deal with Sony Music Publishing in 2020, and a label deal with Sony Music Nashville last year.
Now, Smith is enjoying his hard-earned success, recently topping Billboard’s Emerging Artists chart. His searing “Whiskey on You” is at No. 21 on the Hot Country Songs chart.
“Country music allowed me the opportunity to be completely transparent with my life,” says Smith, who is managed by Kevin “Chief” Zaruk and Simon Tikhman with The Core Entertainment. “There’s something about having the ability to be open about life’s struggles that really has drawn me to the genre. Country music is a place I am so thankful to call home.”
While on tour in Virginia, June Country Rookie of the Month Smith spoke with Billboard about the success of “Whiskey on You,” getting a second chance, and why he called making his recent Grand Ole Opry debut “the best night of my entire life.”
You wrote “Whiskey on You” with Russell Sutton and Lindsay Rimes. How did that song come about?
It’s a “F—k you” song, in a way. Some stuff happened in my personal life, and I had a writer’s retreat during that time. After a breakup, it takes a while sometimes to get yourself back together and I thought about how I would feel in the next few months as I worked through it. It’s about the feeling of getting through to the other side of heartbreak.
When did you start singing?
My parents have some home videos of me singing around the house, and I’ve always loved music. Remember the movie Home Alone 2, and Kevin [McAllister’s] Talkboy? I had one and would sing into it. I don’t have those tapes anymore, because they burned up in the fire, but that’s how I first learned to record myself. I got a guitar at 13 and just naturally started writing songs. But I never really thought about being an artist, necessarily. I just always did it.
You made your first attempt at a career in Nashville when you were in your early 20s. What do you remember about that time?
It was definitely a big shock. I was lucky because I had some friends that lived here already, so I was able to move in with them. They were already doing music at a professional level, but I was still figuring out who I was, musically. I’m glad that I did that, because it gave me a little bit of a taste of what Nashville is and what the music industry is. That way, when I came back this time, I had a better understanding of how the industry works.
After you moved back to California, you worked at a hospital. Then the fire happened…
I worked the night shift at the hospital, and two hours after I left for the hospital is when the fire took over my area. For me, the whole thing became a second chance at life. That’s what inspired me to go for things.
When you came back the second time, what lessons had you learned that you brought with you?
I feel like if I was 23 and I had gotten the success and was on the road, I definitely would’ve made it all about myself. But now, I just care about the impact I’m making on people. That’s where my heart’s at.
In April, you made your Grand Ole Opry debut. What do you recall about that moment?
It was the best night of my entire life. It was so emotional, but one of my favorite things was when I walked out, before I got in the circle, I took my time. Everybody said, “Don’t rush it out there. It’s going to go by so quick. You won’t remember anything.” I looked for my mom and my dad, and I saw them and that lit me up so much. I saw my friends, I saw my producer, my record label, all my friends were out there, and I was proud that they were there. I was really grateful to be there.
Artists are expected to do so many things in addition to just making music and touring, including creating content. How are you learning to balance all of it?
You just have to lean into why you’re doing it. Like when I do my TikTok stuff, I’m leaning into the fact that this is helping me. I remember [Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Randy Goodman] said, “Do you want people to hear your music? Why wouldn’t you be using one of the greatest tools for music, which is TikTok?”
In addition to launching your Whiskey on You tour this month, you are also opening shows for Brett Eldredge. How are you gearing up for that?
We’ve got rehearsals all booked right now. I’ve got an amazing team around me that’s helping me sort all that stuff out, which is awesome. I love Brett Eldredge, man. I opened for him on The Good Day Tour last year, and getting to play with him again, I’m just stoked, because he is a friend of mine. His humility is incredible, and the way that he treats people like me, the new artists coming on a tour — you feel like you’re the headliner, is how he treats it.
What was the first concert you attended?
The first big concert I ever saw was Blink-182 in Sacramento, California.
What was the first country concert you ever saw?
I remember seeing Charlie Daniels at the Opry. I also remember seeing Garth Brooks for the first time, years ago, and that was special. He’s always been one of my favorites since I was a kid. I remember him flying around the room, and I wanted one of those flame shirts so bad.
Who would you love to collaborate with?
In country, I think it would be really cool to work with Carrie Underwood or Chris Stapleton. In pop, Lady Gaga and Adele are the two that come to my mind. Lady Gaga, after seeing A Star Is Born, I just feel like she’s so epic. Then Adele obviously is just the queen.