Every day, Brent Smith reads the tattoo stamped atop his left hand.
“Your pain is a gift,” the ink reads, reminding the veteran rock frontman that for all the mistakes he’s made — failed relationships, struggles with addiction and substance abuse — he still has the ability to channel his anguish into messages of strength for millions of fans.
“We write songs because it’s cheaper than therapy,” says Smith, who as lead singer of the immensely popular rock band Shinedown has pumped out a list of searing singles over the past 20 years, merging the sounds of grunge, metal, southern rock and pop. “I’ve never been afraid to say how I feel,” he adds. “Even if I’m talking about dark subject matter, I’m always trying to empower the listener — to say that it may be difficult, you may have to struggle, but you can hold on to hope and understand that life is never going to be perfect. It’s not meant to be perfect.”
Since 2003, the Jacksonville-based foursome — Smith, drummer Barry Kerch, guitarist Zach Myers and bassist Eric Bass (the latter two having joined the band in 2008) — has enraptured rock listeners with an unparalleled run of rock radio hits: all 27 of the group’s singles have reached the Top 5 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart, with a record-breaking 16 No. 1s. Enduring tracks like the poignant “45,” incendiary “Save Me” and transcendent “Second Chance” — which climbed all the way to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2008 — remain modern rock staples. This week, the band tops Billboard’s Greatest of All Time Mainstream Rock Artists listing, finishing ahead of peers from the last 20 years like Three Days Grace and Disturbed, as well as classic rock staples like Van Halen and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Now, as Shinedown prepares its seventh studio album and plots a new tour for fall 2021, we caught up with Smith, as he unpacks the importance of rock radio to his band’s success and what power the format still has, while also breaking down some of Shinedown’s most iconic tunes.
Your band has notched 16 No. 1 singles! Are you even able to process how Shinedown has commanded this chart more than any artist or band in the last 40 years?
I honestly take it extremely seriously, as Zach and Eric and Barry do, as well. The thing about terrestrial radio, for this band specifically, is that we knew early on — right around 2002, 2003 — how important terrestrial radio was going to be for us. A lot of that has to do with Bill McGathy, our manager of the last 20 years, and also the fact that we have been on Atlantic Records for the last 20 years, and continue the relationship, because Atlantic Records to Shinedown is family.
As soon as we hit the road with that first album, we just never looked back. We said yes to everything we could possibly say [“yes” to] for rock radio — especially mainstream radio, which some people call active rock, and alternative radio as well. We tried our best to always be honest, and to give radio everything that they needed, and everything that they wanted.
In turn, they helped us out so much in the first beginning stages of this band. Now, I look at it 20 years later, and our relationship with rock radio is still very, very strong. Now, granted, you have to understand that the music is what does the talking. The songs are what matter, and the records are what matter.
But a huge reason why we have our audience is terrestrial radio, and the mainstream rock chart. They have just been such a huge supporter of ours over the last two decades now. The amount of gratitude I have, I don’t even think I can put it into words.
In the almost 20 years since Shinedown began, the rock listener base has fractured many times over due to streaming. Do you think a band can still build a career off the following rock radio and the Mainstream Rock chart leads to?
100%. Absolutely. You can’t kill rock n’ roll, and there’s a reason for that. You also, if you have this ideology, these terms of like, “rock is dead,” that’s wrong. Rock n’ roll is not a genre of music. Rock n’ roll is a way of life. And rock n’ roll is a community. It’s a spirit. If you go back to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when N.W.A was inducted. And when Ice Cube got up to the podium, the very first thing he said was that rock n’ roll is a spirit. Rock n’ roll is bigger than all of us.
If you’re a younger band and you have an active rock radio station or a mainstream rock station in your community, nine times out of 10, even in 2021, they still do locals nights, and they’ll do local band nights. It’s usually on a Saturday or Sunday. And they’ll carve out a time to play local music in that area from local bands. And because that still has a lot of power to get people, the charts and those radio stations — yes, they can still break a band.
Do you still listen to your own local rock stations?
I do, but here’s the thing about me. I am a bonafide gypsy. My mother has always said I had a gypsy heart from the time I turned 18 and I was an adult, I was gone. I used to have a home base in California, half my heart still belongs to California, but I haven’t owned a home since 2016. That’s when I sold my house. I’m usually on the road 280 days out of the year to begin with.
But I spend a lot of time in Florida, because my son lives in Florida. And so WJRR, they’re in Orlando — and 98ROCK in Tampa and what have you, but JRR in Orlando — I still listen to them when I’m in Florida, and they do locals nights and they’re always giving a lot of attention to the local scene. They usually do it on Sunday nights, but yeah, I still listen.
Let’s flashback to some individual tracks, beginning with “Fly From the Inside” and “45” — the first two singles that launched everything. What was it like at that time, after grinding for years, to finally be gaining traction?
With “Fly from the Inside” being the first single, I remember being on the interstate in Jacksonville, crossing over into Jack’s Beach. It was right at 5:00 — so, 5 O’Clock Drive. I was coming across the bridge and 107.3 Planet Radio opened the show with “Fly From the Inside.” I had to pull the car over just because I was freaking out. It wasn’t the first time that I heard myself on the radio — going back to locals night and stuff like that — but this was different. This was like, you work your whole life to record your first record, and there it was, the first single and I was hearing it on a national radio station and it was just mind-blowing.
And then “Fly” was interesting because we kind of went directly on the road. We started in summer festivals, and then we were transitioning into the question mark of “45” — because the music video, MTV wouldn’t play it, because of the language in the song. I remember there were other things on MTV that were kind of suspect, you know what I mean? It’s like, “Why are you giving us flack about this?”
But at the time, nobody knew who we were. They were starting to know who we were, [with us] finally getting that song out there and it really starting to generate a buzz. And then, lo and behold, we had this kind of — I don’t want to call it an accident, but it wasn’t planned by any stretch of the imagination. All of a sudden, [our cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s] “Simple Man” happened. That’s the beauty of the universe, man. I always say the universe is real. And for whatever reason, that took us to a different plateau as well.
Two years later, in 2005, “Save Me” becomes your first Mainstream Rock No. 1 and it stays there for 12 weeks. It’s also your first entry on the Hot 100. What do you remember about the recording process?
“Save Me” was one of the very last songs written for the album Us and Them. We had most of the record ready. It’s funny too, because I said a moment ago — you get your whole life to do your first record, and if your first record is really successful, you’ll get about six months to do your second record. [Laughs.] That’s exactly what happened. The chorus of that song and the first verse are the same part that I wrote when I was 16 years old, actually.
Our producer Tony Battaglia heard me kind of just messing around with it one day. He was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, what is that?” I was like, “That’s nothing.” He was like, “It’s not nothing. Play that again.” I showed it to him and he literally stopped everything, kind of called everybody back in the next morning. That night, me and Tony sat there and kind of hashed it out.
Another three years go by and the monster ballad “Second Chance” becomes your first Hot 100 Top 10 and one of the widest-reaching rock songs of the last two decades. How did it happen?
To this day, that song is still a very unique anomaly in music — especially if you go back and you look at the history of that song, when it was released and how long it stayed where it was, and how it kept crossing genres and formats. It started obviously at rock radio; it went to No. 1, it stayed at No. 1. Then, it crossed over into alternative radio, got to No. 1, stayed at No. 1. Then, it crossed into Hot Adult Contemporary, it spent 18 weeks at No. 1 on Hot AC, and then it crossed to Top 40. I will never, for the life of me, forget that moment in time.
I mean, that was a year from when it began and where it had gotten to, crossing all these formats. Probably the most amazing thing was one of the most famous DJs in modern history, Casey Kasem, when he signed off the air after 37 years of being in radio, the No. 1 song in the country was “Second Chance.” That was the last song he played. That’s insane, and also very, very humbling.
Because the thing about that record in particular — not only “Second Chance” as a record, but that album, Sound of Madness — it was a transition in the band that had to happen. That’s when we brought in Eric Bass and Zach Myers. Had it not been for those two individuals, Shinedown would have not continued. We were in such a situation at that point in time where there were a lot of people that thought that the band was over. And then when that album came out, we toured that record for 36 months. We played over 444 shows in that span, and went all over the world. That record, it was life-changing for us.
Your latest single and latest No. 1, 2020’s “Atlas Falls,” has more of a pop bend, as have your last two albums: 2015’s Threat to Survival and 2018’s Attention Attention. How have you managed to maintain the Shinedown sound while still evolving?
“Atlas Falls” was born out of a crisis, which was the pandemic. We wrote that song during the studio sessions for our fourth album, [2012’s] Amaryllis, and it didn’t make the album. We just did not have room for it. When the pandemic occurred, we reached out to an organization called Direct Relief. We created a t-shirt, which was inspired by “Atlas Falls” because “Atlas Falls” was this symbol of not only humanity, but this symbol of, I believe, that human beings, we are at our best when we need one another and we needed each other very much over the last 15 months.
Going back to the evolution of everything, we always firmly stayed with the ideology of one producer for each record. We’ve worked in so many different studios, worked with a lot of different engineers, male and female producers, different types of songwriters and things of that nature. And we have a fan base that allows us to be ourselves. They’ve given us a platform to allow us to evolve. We just try to not make the same record over and over again, not write the same song over and over again, but it does truly come down to the songs, which have to be great.
While Shinedown has been very commercially successful and reached a global fanbase, does it bother you that many hard rock bands like yours generally don’t receive much critical recognition?
It’s always nice to be recognized by your peers or by the people that are in your industry. But inside of that, we don’t do this for recognition per se, and we don’t do it for awards. We do it because we have something to say. Just because people choose to not put us in certain mainstream publicity pieces, or if we’re not linked with certain artists during award seasons and things like that, it doesn’t necessarily bother us.
I see bands that we’re close with and they kind of have a chip on their shoulder about it. And I’m like, “Hey man, I wouldn’t worry about that so much.” At the end of the day, this band that we’re in, it only exists because of the audience and because of the fan base, and from a global standpoint. And whether they’ve been there from day one and know everything about us, or they’re just finding out who we are, we take that seriously. We only have one boss. It just happens to be everybody in the audience.
You guys just announced a huge tour for the fall. What does it mean to finally hit the stage again and what comes next for Shinedown?
First of all, we’re humbled by it. Last year, myself and Zach (Myers), with our side project Smith & Myers, we actually played 23 shows. Ten of them were drive-in shows, and then 10 of them were in a bus, the back half of the year.
As we were moving into 2021, we were already gearing up to release the machine again, which is obviously Shinedown. We’re working in Charleston, South Carolina, on Shinedown [album] No. 7 with our bass player/producer, Mister Eric Bass, in a brand new studio that we built part of last year and part of this year. That’s up and running.
The dynamic of being able to go out and play these shows and to finally getting a handle on the virus, it’s extremely emotional for a lot of people. The goal was to get back to touring as soon as possible, and as safely as possible, because people need that release. They need to be able to be together again. You’ve had so much brutality with negative news. Music is a saving grace for a lot of people. I know it is for me. I think it’s what’s going to give people back their confidence.