Corey Smith, the $4 million self-made musician, on what matters most

You may have caught the Washington Post article this weekend on Corey Smith, the country, folk-rock musician who grossed $4 million last year, and $1.7 million the year before that, through ol' fashion D.I.Y. The love of Smith's soulful Americana music, on the reluctance to grow up, drinking misadventures, family, spread through fans and not the machinations of any record label. Inspired by Smith's success and what I heard of his music, I reached him by phone in Philadelphia as he's beginning his four-month tour across the country.

Some quick facts, Smith was a high school teacher before becoming a musician full-time. He generates buzz by making himself available to fans after concerts, getting in that face-time and building connections. He and his manager Martin Winsch built their strategy, in part, by studying "The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution," and concentrated on building a following in the South--namely college campuses in Smith's home state of Georgia. (You can catch one AASU co-ed's restrained gushing over Smith in this interview on YouTube.)

What advice do you have for people who want to ditch their 9-5 jobs and follow their dreams?

Be responsible. "Don't quit your day job" is a pretty tried and true statement. For me, I didn't quit teaching until I knew I could raise a certain amount of revenue. The most important thing is getting your priorities straight, asking yourself what is most important. For me, that's being a family person, following my dream wasn't the most important. Family came first. When I got my priorities straight, I came from a less selfish place. You get to the point where you realize you're not following the dream for yourself, but to provide for your family--it's about everyone else, really.

I dropped out of college when I was 19, 20 and played pick-up gigs. I didn't want to play cover gigs and got really frustrated. Few years ago, when I was 26, 27, I stopped teaching. It was a careful calculated move. I was making more money at music than I was teaching. It got to the point where my day job was costing me more money, in opportunity costs.

In songwriting, do you have any traditions or rituals that help you?

I try to read a lot. I read a lot of inspirational stuff: Emerson, Thoreau, [religious scholar] Huston Smith. Gets my brain working. When I'm at home, I focus on my writing in the morning, get in the bathtub, and just get my journal out and chill. I really write best when I'm at home, around the wife and kids, when everything I care about most is closest to me. That's when my head is the clearest.

How much time a week do you spend writing songs and practicing your music?

I write, tour, produce. It's kind of a cycle. I'll set aside time writing, "for the next two months, I'm going to focus on writing." When I do that, I have a regiment of 2-3 hours a day focusing on writing. I might write a little bit on tour. I try to stay focused on what's most important at a given time. On tour, I focus on staying healthy, staying in shape. Now, I look at every show, sound check, which can go on for hours, as practice. Definitely when I started out, I spent hours and hours practicing.

Mr. Bryant taught me art in high school, drawing, painting. One thing he told me, these guys I respected as a kid, Eric Clapton and the others, he said they practiced 4-5 hours a day and that always stuck. There were times I'd stay up all night and play.

Playing in front of an audience is a different type of practice. When I was still teaching, I'd go to Atlanta, play three hours, then go home, take a shower and go teach. All the time up on stage is really valuable practice time.

What's been your strangest inspiration for a song?

"Bitch Slap": I was in a Mexican restaurant in Athens, [Georgia]. There was a family sitting nearby, with a college-aged son and his girlfriend. Another girl walked in and starts beating the crap out of him. The cops had to come it got so bad. ["Bitch Slap"] never made a record, it's just not that good. It's one of those things that's funny, so I play it in a live show and tell the story. But it's not the kind of song that's gonna stand on its own.

What's the best thing a fan ever said to you?

Anytime a fan tells me that my music's had a positive impact in some way, all of those moments remind me of why I do what I do. I do this for the same reason I taught high school: to try to have a positive impact on the world.

As you grow, and try to break into new markets, how do you handle it?

It's definitely not easy. What's good about it, is it keeps me humble, keeps my ego in check. I can play to 4,000 people one night, then 70 someplace else. It keeps me humble on just playing the music, performing the best I can perform. If it were easy, everybody would be doing it. It's my job, just like everybody has a job to do. Do what you gotta do.

What's your recommended playlist of songs for the crazy time we're going through now?

Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man), by Randy Newman [Good Old Boys] is my favorite record right now
Diamond on the Soles of Her Shoes, by Paul Simon
Theme from the TV show Good Times
I've Got You, by Dwight Yoakam
Money, by Pink Floyd
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