Nashville-based artist/singer/songwriter ERNEST is capping off his biggest year yet.
In 2020 alone, ERNEST (full name: Ernest Keith Smith) has written eight charting hits on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, including five top 10s and his first career No. 1 on Country Airplay with Morgan Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown.” On this week’s Country Airplay chart (dated Dec. 12), he has his handprint on three tracks: Chris Lane’s “Big, Big Plans” (No. 2; a new peak), “More Than My Hometown” (No. 7) and Sam Hunt’s “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90’s” (No. 30; matching its peak).
After signing his first publishing deal seven years ago, the Nashville native says his hard work has finally started to pay off. “[Nashville] really is a 10-year town,” he tells Billboard. “It’s been awesome and humbling.”
ERNEST is also gearing up for his own single, “Cheers,” out today (Dec. 11) via Big Loud, along with its official music video. The track, which he wrote with Henry Agincourt Allen, Emi Dragoi, Jordan Schmidt and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley, is ERNEST’s first release since dropping his debut nine-track LP Locals Only in October 2019.
And that’s just scratching the surface. Next year promises to be perhaps even bigger for ERNEST, thanks to a number of yet-unreleased songs he wrote, including 11 off Wallen’s upcoming Dangerous: The Double Album, due Jan. 8 via Big Loud and Republic. “I’ve got some bullets loaded for after we drop ‘Cheers,’” he says. “I hope to be sprinkling music throughout next year.”
Below, ERNEST reveals how he wrote Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown,” what it’s been like to make music during a pandemic and his future endeavors.
How did you and Morgan Wallen connect?
Morgan has been one of my best friends for the last four or five years. We’ve just kind of gotten in a groove writing well together. And he’d probably say the same about me, and HARDY. We just enjoy hanging out and each other’s companies. Me and Morgan actually played against each other in the high school state baseball tournament, junior and senior year. They won junior year, we won senior year.
What has it been like to write and release music during a global pandemic? With all the stay-at-home orders, have you been writing even more than usual?
Man, everything’s been flipped on its head for everybody in every industry. I was supposed to be on tour with Sam Hunt this year. And I went from being super bummed to actually being thankful, because I’ve had way more time to write songs and just do things I wouldn’t normally do. I picked up golfing, for example.
But we just write songs all the time. I think there are seven songs that I got on Morgan’s album that wouldn’t have happened if quarantine wasn’t a thing — it just came from [having] nothing else to do other than write songs. So I’ve tried my best to find the light during these dark times and [songwriting] has helped me in that regard.
What was it like in the studio recording and writing “More Than My Hometown”? Was there something that inspired that song?
It’s funny, of all the songs I’ve written with Morgan and HARDY, that one I probably had the least to do with — other than the fact that we wrote it in my room at Big Loud. I was having a good time that night — we were partying, it was a late-night write. Most Nashville sessions are from 11am to 3pm, and I think we started that song at like 8pm in my room at Big Loud. And dude, it was just a party. When HARDY sang, “Ain’t that a map dot shame, man, to think that,” I about punched out a wall. I was like, “Ah, it’s so good! Map dot shame!”
In that moment, you guys must have felt like you had something special there.
Oh, for sure. It was the same feeling we felt when we all wrote “This Bar” for Morgan too. When you’re just out with your buddies, it’s not like you’re keeping tabs on who’s doing what. We really are just hanging out and writing songs. And same thing goes for his last title track, “If I Know Me,” which I think was the first song we all wrote together. For that one, Morgan was getting me a beer in Joey Moi’s studio and I was playing Xbox and he was like, “You want another one?” I said, “Well, if I know me.” And then we were like, “Let’s just f–king write that.” No-pressure writes are the best.
You’ve really been a part of Morgan’s career from the very beginning. What has it been like to work with an artist at the early stages of his career, and then see his profile rise and rise before they blow up?
Man, it’s so cool. I’m just happy to be along for the ride, whatever my piece of the puzzle is. And man, I just sing and I’m happy with it. But just being friends with Morgan is great, because he is a good ol’ boy. And I think he has one of the greatest voices in country music. So to have a little piece of that is awesome. I also have so much fun watching him go and figure this s–t out on the fly, because life’s happening fast for him and I think he’s handling it better than I would at this rate. I’m happy for him.
You first appeared on a Billboard chart in 2016 with Florida Georgia Line’s “Dig Your Roots.” How has your approach to songwriting changed since then?
It blows my mind that that was five years ago. What I’ve learned over the past five years, just from continuing to write with great writers and be given more opportunities to be in rooms with the best of the best, is storytelling and how to put furniture in a verse. I think just repetitions and doing it every day has helped too.
How did “Cheers” come about?
I wrote that song with Brian [Kelley] and Tyler [Hubbard] and Jordan Schmidt and King Henry, who does a bunch of production with Diplo. We met while working on Diplo and Morgan’s song “Heartless.” King Henry had the track and it felt to me like a nostalgic type of beer commercial anthem, where it’s a “let’s all come together”-type of vibe. And I think it came out perfectly. I love that song.
When you’re writing a new song, how do you decide whether to keep it for yourself or give to another artist?
The majority of the time, if I’m writing for another artist, I’m writing with that artist. Like Sam [Hunt] will call me up and then I’ll go in and we’ll write together for one of his projects. But if I’m the only artist in the room, it’s pretty easy for me to guide a song down my brand. When me and Morgan bounce songs off each other, he can make a song his own with just his voice, and it’s the same with me. During the writing process, I know pretty early on whether it’ll fall into my brand or not. And I’m the least possessive songwriter/artist because I’m 100% fine with my friends cutting a big song and I recognize that that just helps me. I’m not necessarily precious with songs.
Joey Moi has such a legendary history on our charts, with 26 Country Airplay No. 1s as a producer, including several songs you’ve written. He also produced “Cheers” and your solo album Locals Only. What kind of role has he played in your career?
Joey is like a mentor, a brother, a sensei — all those things to me. He and [fellow Big Loud partners] Seth England and Craig Wiseman saw me at my purest form when I first got introduced to Big Loud back in 2013 or 2014 by the Warren Brothers. My songs at the time were just immature because I was 21 or 22 years old, but they saw through that. And Joey has just taken me under his arm, and he uses certain lingo in the studio that has stuck with me — I can always hear Joey’s critique when I’m writing songs. You cut a lot of corners when you know what the producers are going to end up saying to the artists when they get to the studio. He’s one of the greatest coaches and teachers there is, period. And a great friend.
Chris Lane’s “Big, Big Plans” is your latest single that’s climbing the charts. How did that song come to be?
Chris is my brother, too. I tell people all the time that I’m the luckiest dude in country music, being able to work with all these guys. Country music has taken me under its wing. Me and Chris are polar opposites, but we get along like nobody’s business. Me and Jacob Durrett started writing “Big, Big Plans,” and I showed Seth [England] the verse and chorus after we had written it. Seth was like, “Hey, I think Chris is going to propose next month. You should bring Chris in on this and make it his.” Chris heard it and was like, “Yeah, dude. I think I’m going to propose to this song.”
So we brought Chris in and customized that second verse and bridge, and, boom, it worked. It’s taken a long time to get to where it is [on the charts], but it’s still gaining. If it goes to No. 1, that’ll be my second No. 1 in a year and that’ll be awesome. If that happens, I’ll take my parents to Logan’s Roadhouse.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.