This article originally appeared over at The Niagara Wire in a shorter format.
Grady Smith is a former music writer with more than a fair amount of experience. Starting at Entertainment Weekly in 2010, Smith has also written for Rolling Stone and The Guardian, where he garnered a huge following for his country music columns. He left in February 2016 to pursue other interests, but on March 7, 2017, he uploaded an album reaction video to YouTube. “What’s up guys? I haven’t been on YouTube in a long time,” Smith says to the camera (nervously) before releasing his 23-minute video. Today, Smith sounds much more confident and has sharpened his YouTube skills to gain an even bigger following than before.
“I started out as a box office writer at Entertainment Weekly,” says Smith. “I had a blog all through college called the Box Office Junkie, and it was all about how much money movies were making. I wasn’t a critic. I was more like a financial analyst of Hollywood. That was my passion and why they hired me. Country music came out of left field. They needed someone to do an album review for Jake Owen, as their usual permalance writer for country music reviews, Mikael Wood, had taken a job elsewhere. They wondered if anyone else could take over. I wouldn’t say it’s what I was passionate about at first, but I found that anything I wrote about country music would get some pretty good traffic. Over time I just learned there was an audience for critical reviews in country music.”
As for why he started a country music YouTube channel, Smith says, “I don’t think I’m that different from most American readers. I found I wasn’t reading as many articles. Instead, I started watching more YouTube reaction videos because I enjoyed how much I could relate to them at times. I was very resistant to that coming from the writing side of things, but as I became more honest with myself, I just said ‘gosh, I actually really like video content!’ ”
Of course, Smith still sees the importance of well-written, critical reviews and interesting writing about music in general as well. “I just think YouTube offers something unique to the music conversation, and that’s the fact that you can actually hear the music,” he says with a laugh. “Having that audio component is so much fun.”
What was merely an experiment when Smith launched his first reaction video to Lauren Alaina’s Road Less Traveled album in March 2017 has turned into something more.
“There’s very few people covering country music on YouTube, so I’m hoping to help fill a void.”
As for how it’s different from writing, Smith says there’s pros and cons to that difference. “It’s a less torturous process. As a writer, you’re always looking for that perfect phrase. Sometimes you find it. Then of course people love quoting that line, because it captures their thoughts so well. I do miss how articulate you can be with writing as well as having more time to ruminate on music. I’ve definitely misinterpreted lyrics when trying to formulate my thoughts live on video. It’s a skill I’m still trying to craft.”
Smith is also trying to improve his Twitter skills. “People often seem trapped in their own perspectives on Twitter. They have their world view and have a weird way of imposing it on the world.”
“One thing I like about YouTube over Twitter is that people are much more rational. They listen to you and understand your facial expressions and the tone of your voice. They are a lot more understanding in receiving nuanced opinions.”
As for what goes into making his videos, Smith says, “If I put up a ten-minute reaction video, I’d say there’s a good four to five hours of work put behind that. From making sure I have a neat setup to getting my microphone and webcam ready, there’s a lot that goes on in the process.”
“First I make the video, which can take anywhere from 15-20 minutes, then import it into iMovie. After that there’s a lot of editing. I then export it and, finally, upload it to YouTube. Even while it’s uploading, though, I’m always thinking about what’s next. I’m trying to experiment with thumbnails and video styles, too. Plus, I also promote it on social media afterward. It’s mostly just promotional work, and at the end of the day, it’s just a silly video.”
Obviously, fans think of them as more than just silly videos. In July, Smith’s total subscriber count jumped to 5,000 and is currently still rising. “My goal is to always make it look casual and fun, because it is.”
Smith is also cognizant of what fans might want to see out of his videos.
“I’m a chart nerd, and that goes all the way back to my box office days. A lot of times, if something is doing really well, that becomes more interesting to me. I’m interested in what other people are interested in, so I try to find out why they’re interested. That’s where it all starts. I’m a bit of a populist when it comes to entertainment. I don’t look at an act like Nickelback and say ‘oh, they suck because they make bad music the masses listen to.’ Instead, my approach is to say, ‘all the masses seem to like this band even though the critics don’t.’ I’d rather figure out why that’s the case.”
Smith also shares love for pop artists such as Twenty One Pilots, Taylor Swift and AJR. “I think all three of those acts are real lyric nerds and have really interesting turns of phrase. They understand the value of fun in music. My 11th grade English teacher, Ben Hale, used to say, ‘good writing is onomatopoetic.’ He meant that the sound of the sentence reflects the emotion of the sentence. We used one example where a girl was hyperventilating. In the sentence, she said ‘I can’t breathe. What’s happening? This is too much.’ You could feel tension build up through the way those sentences were structured. I use that example to say all three of those acts are good at making the music work for what their lyric is and enhancing it.”
“I think pop production can be extremely fun in the way it takes you to another world. It’s really escapist and exciting. When you take lyrics as good as the ones they write and match them with this super thrilling production, it’s hard to beat that.”
Going back to country music, however, Smith says, “I think the industry is in a healthier place than it was five years ago. The problem with bro-country was never that it existed. It was that it was the only flavor available. It’s like going to an ice cream shop and being told all they’re serving is chocolate ice cream. That’s good and all, but where’s the variety?” Smith made his first YouTube video five years ago, when he criticized this trend in a humorous manner. The satirical video, titled, “Why Country Music Was Awful In 2013,” went viral. Today, it has over 4 million views.
“We also have a lot more variety in terms of the sounds we hear on the radio. Artists like Aaron Watson, Jon Pardi and Midland are bringing a western sound to the format. Meanwhile, we’re also getting a balance with a mix of pop and R&B country music.”
“One problem that persists, however, is not having enough female artists on country radio. I wonder if it’s a problem that can be solved. I also wonder if we just shouldn’t abandon this traditional paradigm of thinking that country radio is the ultimate entity in country music. I respect, say, what Kacey Musgraves has done and just side-stepped radio.”
Musgraves, despite selling better than many radio acts, has only one Billboard top ten country hit. In June and July, she toured with Harry Styles (of One Direction).
“I get, though, that this is a business, and it’s hard to address this issue when the products we’re talking about are actual people. The whole conversation is so loaded that people, myself included, don’t know where to start with it.”
Finally, Smith says he doesn’t try and define country music. “All genres are just marketing terms anyway. I love that there are differences in the various genres, but I think it’s a little rich to claim country music as this historical lifestyle or protected as if it’s a nationality or something.”
“That’s part of why I ended my column at The Guardian. I didn’t feel passionate enough defending country music like that anymore. I think there’s room for everything. I think country music is a confusing genre because ‘country’ is also how we describe a certain kind of people. It’s a loaded name for a genre because it’s theoretically supposed to represent a certain demographic of people.”
“I used to be conflicted about the name of the genre because I’d think, ‘well, these are these fake, city-slicker cowboys claiming to represent this rural life.’ I felt like it was condescending to people who are already often ignored in the American conversation. I’ve changed my mind on that, though. Now I think of country as a mostly acoustic sound and a genre that cares deeply about lyrics. Beyond that, though, I can’t define it super well.”
Smith’s plan for the future is to keep growing his YouTube channel and churning out quality content. His channel can be found online here.