Just over a year ago, Clayton Smalley picked up his guitar after a long hiatus from music just to learn a few songs to post as covers on YouTube. Fast forward to late August of 2019, and he has written/co-written ten songs, flown to Nashville to record 4 of them for his upcoming EP, Whiskey Sunrise, and released a debut single, “Ride of Die”.
Smalley, who in his twenties put music on hold to raise a family, has now had his music played on more than 40 radio stations around the country thanks to syndicated radio show New Country Brew, and is also receiving spins in the UK on CMR Nashville, Europe’s #1 country radio station. However, had you told him any of this when he picked his guitar up again, he admittedly would have called you crazy.
Hear from Clayton about his long road to releasing “Ride of Die,” learning the music business on the fly, his experience of recording in Nashville, what listeners can expect from Whiskey Sunrise, and more!
Pro Country: Who were your biggest musical influences growing up?
Clayton Smalley: First and foremost, I’d have to say George Strait. He’s always been my favorite artist. I’ve also always loved Keith Whitley, Reba McEntire, and Earl Thomas Conley; all the older stuff is what I really grew up on and still enjoy listening to.
PC: When did you realize that you wanted to pursue music as a career?
CS: It was a culmination of things. In my mid-to-late teens, I started doing karaoke. I started playing guitar soon after that. I had met a guy that played and was willing to show me some things, and that’s when I really wanted to start doing it. I met my wife and had my daughter, and that changed things a bit. But I’ve always loved music, and always thought it would be cool to do as a career.
PC: You played music when you were younger, but put it on hold to raise a family. What is it about today’s music format that made you believe it wasn’t too late to pursue music?
CS: When you’re younger, you think you can do everything. Then you have kids and realize the enormity of it [laughs]. My wife and I really wanted her to stay home and raise the kids, and that meant I either had to find a really good paying job or work two jobs. When you’re doing that, you barely have enough time to sleep, let alone play music, so it just naturally faded away. As the kids got older and started hanging out with friends, I found myself with more time on my hands, and that’s when I started getting the fire back and wanting to play again.
I started getting back into music by putting covers on YouTube. I picked up the guitar and started learning songs, and it just kept rolling from there. The way you can connect with people on social media now really excites me. It seems so much easier now. I write with my co-writer, John Griffin, on FaceTime. When I first started playing, that wasn’t even a possibility, I would have had to go to Nashville. I also didn’t realize how easy it was to get music out there on all of the streaming and download platforms. Now it’s just a matter of finding your audience, which is why it felt like it was a good time to do this.
PC: Was the more modern way of music promotion and songwriting something that came with an adjustment period for you where you’re learning on the fly?
CS: I don’t know that I had all that much planned when I was in my twenties other than just wanting to play. It’s really been over the last year and a half when I picked up the guitar that I’ve had to learn all of this. I didn’t expect any of this to go the way it’s gone, and that’s what fuels the thought that you can still do this later in life. I just wanted to get out and play again, and had no expectation of having a song on Spotify and iTunes and all of those outlets. If you had asked me that a year and a half ago, I would have told you that you were crazy.
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with the “Ride of Die” single?
CS: Mostly just excitement. There was no nervousness about it. For me, it was just exciting to see my music on the same streaming platforms where I listen to music. All of the streaming and promotion parts of it are new to me, but it was mostly excitement to get it out there!
PC: What went in to the decision to release that song first from your upcoming Whiskey Sunrise EP?
CS: The main thing we talked about was wanting to get something out there that’s upbeat and fun. We wanted to have it out there for the end of summer. That’s one of the two upbeat songs on the EP, so we wanted to get one of those out first.
PC: You took your first trip to Nashville to record in July. How did your actual experience match or differ from anything you had perceived about Music City beforehand?
CS: The only preconceived thought I had was that I was going to be in the studio all the time [laughs]. We were only there for a few days, so I figured I’d be in the studio for the whole time. We did plan to play a writer’s round at The Nashville Palace, so that was the one thing that we had on the agenda. I was amazed how there was live music playing everywhere all the time. That was the coolest thing for me. We went out to breakfast one morning, and they had a jazz band in there, which I thought was really cool! Playing The Nashville Palace was a dream come true. I never dreamed that I would be recording in Nashville, let alone playing there.
I also got to meet Randy Travis that night. We had seen him twice earlier in the night, but he had big crowds around him. When we were at The Palace, I got the opportunity to meet him and shake his hand. As a songwriter, that was really awesome. He’s another huge influence. “I Told You So” is one of my favorite country songs of all time.
PC: What can listeners expect to hear from Whiskey Sunrise when it is released?
CS: People can expect to hear well-written stories. That’s what I’ve always loved about those influences that I mentioned. George Strait has always been good at telling stories in his music from the performance aspect of it. Reba McEntire is one of the best storytellers in country music as well; whenever you’re hearing one of her songs, you’re there with her. That’s something I wanted to bring to the table. The EP doesn’t sound really old school, but it sounds a lot more country than what’s being played right now [laughs].
PC: You are also the lead singer for Nebo Road, who recently opened for Ned LeDoux. What can you take away from opening for a major act like that that you can use in your own career?
CS: The biggest thing is how cool Ned was. He took time before we went on and talk to me for a while. He asked about our music and how we were doing, and I thought that was really cool. He’s really big in this area because his dad was huge here. When he found out that we were the openers, him and his whole band came and talked to us. That’s who I am as well, I like to talk to people who are enjoying the music. Other than that, the thing I loved about it was being able to play songs like “Whiskey Sunrise” for crowds of that size. It was awesome to see their reaction to it.
PC: What are your plans for the rest of 2019 and beyond?
CS: We’re planning to release the EP in late October. We might release another single before that as well, possibly a duet I did with Belinda Charlene, who’s a great Swedish artist. That connection came through John.
The main thing for me is trying to book stuff for the winter. Next year, it’s time to start writing the next project [laughs].
PC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
CS: Like I said before, I never thought I’d have an EP coming out and be a co-writer on four of the songs on it. The biggest thing for me has been hooking up with John Griffin. He’s a great songwriter. One of the songs on the project is a song that he wrote over 15 years ago, and it’s one of my favorites. It’s a story about marriage. Most of the guys he’s worked with are younger, so he didn’t feel like they could really tell the story, so he told me this song has been waiting for me [laughs]. I was honored that he let me do it. The song is called “More Right Here Than Wrong.”
I also want to say thanks to my friends, family and fans who are supporting me! I never thought I’d be doing interviews like this or having original music played around the country and overseas. It’s so unreal!