Austin, Texas – As people tend to do on the last day of the South by Southwest Music Conference, Caitlyn Smith was breathing easy.
She had already played four gigs in the five-day festival, with one more noontime set to go. She’d be home in Nashville to see her 1-year-old son that night. And for once, she didn’t have to worry if she would leave SXSW with any kind of career buzz.
That’s because Smith, 31, had already earned rave write-ups from Rolling Stone and the New York Times and landed on “The Tonight Show” in the weeks leading up to the buzz-centric Texas music fest.
“Coming to SXSW is a way to emphasize that we don’t want to just be put into the Nashville box,” Smith said as she kicked back in a lounge area outside Austin’s famed Waterloo Records store, where she performed in the parking lot last month.
The Cannon Falls, Minn., native has been entrenched in the Tennessee capital for eight years, primarily as a songwriter-for-hire. Her writing credits appear on albums by Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Jason Aldean, Meghan Trainor and many others. She even co-wrote a No. 1 pop hit, “Like I’m Gonna Lose You,” which Trainor recorded as a duet with John Legend.
Newly heralded as “the voice everyone in Nashville is talking about” by Southern Living magazine, Smith is now breaking out under her own name. She and her guitarist husband Rollie Gaalswyk — also a Nashville workhorse and Minnesota native — will spend at least the next six months on the road, either headlining large clubs or opening for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill or Sheryl Crow.
“We’re turning into quite a little gypsy family,” beamed Smith, who usually takes their toddler, Tom, on the road.
Smith’s widely acclaimed new album for the legendary Nashville label Monument Records, “Starfire,” offers a genre-blurring blend of rootsy country, soulful pop and straight-up rock. Her tunes are as likely to get played locally on country station K102 as adult-pop outlet Cities 97.
So far, though, 89.3 the Current is the one station to give “Starfire” a lot of spins, leading to a sold-out Turf Club show in January. Even that modest amount of local support means a lot to Smith, who included a love letter to the Twin Cities on her new album (the twangy rock tune “St. Paul”), and who returns to Cannon Falls’ high school auditorium Friday for a concert benefiting a local senior center (a gig for her grandma).
“Especially since Rollie is also from there and all our family is there, Minnesota still really feels like home,” Smith said. “But clearly, Nashville is where I need to be right now for my career.”
Part of a songwriter wave
One of the standout tracks on “Starfire,” the all-acoustic ballad “This Town Is Killing Me,” recounts the couple’s years of eking out a living and being repeatedly turned down by Music Row machinery: “I gave you my soul because I wanted it so bad / And now I just want to go home,” she sings over a dramatic string arrangement.
Of course, Smith has few complaints now.
“I don’t feel at odds with Nashville at the moment,” she happily conceded. “But I still love singing that song because I still remember every detail in that song, and I carry those moments with me.”
Songwriters-turned-stars like Smith are something of a hot commodity in Nashville now. Two other fast-rising names, Chris Stapleton and “The Middle” singer Maren Morris, also served time working behind the scenes as writers-for-hire.
“Songwriting was a way to find a home in Nashville and make some money to tide us over,” Smith said. “For me, though, I really started to miss the stage and singing my own songs.
“Everybody has their own path, but I think people like Chris and Maren always wanted to be an artist, same as me.”
She conceded that she was “even ready to give up on the whole record-label dream and release records independently.” It wasn’t until she self-released an EP in 2016 — using some of that Trainor song money — that she was approached by Monument, whose historic roster includes Parton, Roy Orbison and the Dixie Chicks.
The songs on that EP would go on to make up about half of “Starfire.” Monument let Smith finish off the other half as she saw fit.
“I just went in and made this record my way and didn’t think about what a label would want; I just wanted to make what I think is good music,” she recounted. “When you think about classic Monument artists like Dolly and Roy Orbison, they’re really genre-less, and that’s what I aspired to be.”
From the North Country
That aspiration started at a young age in the scenic river town 45 minutes south of the Twin Cities, also the home of the famed Pachyderm Studio where Nirvana recorded.
The daughter of a Cannon Falls police sergeant and a school district administrator, Smith began singing at coffeehouses and fair events in her early teens. She worked her way into Twin Cities venues such as the 400 Bar and Turf Club and made a strong impression at the Mad Ripple Hootenanny songwriter round-robins performing in a duo called the Cates, with future Excelsior shop owner Erin Kate Duininck.
“She was amazing even then, and they always brought the room to a hush,” recalled Hootenanny host and music scribe Jim Walsh. “People loved her and responded with real emotion.”
After graduating from high school, Smith was given a choice by her parents, Jim and Staci: spend her college fund on school or on making a record. She chose the latter, using the album as a calling card as she began traveling back and forth to Nashville a few years before she finally moved there.
“It was tough to leave, but it was a clear choice career-wise,” recalled Smith’s husband, who moved with her to Nashville in 2010, the year after they married.
A native of tiny Pillager, Minn., with his own singer/songwriter credentials, Gaalswyk added, “She always had a good idea the type of artist she wanted to be, and that’s really what she became. She just had to be pretty determined about it.”
Now that she’s on her way, Smith said the hard effort makes her success feel all the greater.
“I had started to let go of a lot of these dreams that have come true this year,” she admitted. “In a way, it took that letting go for it to all come to fruition.”
She laughed about her parents back in Minnesota finally feeling satisfied that her college fund wasn’t wasted, although her dad seemed even happier about another investment made on their teenage daughter.
“When I was on ‘The Tonight Show,’ I of course had a huge grin on my face,” she said. “My dad was watching and said, ‘I paid for those teeth!’ Thanks for the braces, Dad.”
Smiles all around.