Joanna Smith’s laser focus as a country singer/songwriter was born out of one simple fact – music was engrained in her soul from a young age, and nothing was going to get in the way of a dream that for her is more of a destiny.
“I want my music to do for other people what artists like The Judds, Dolly Parton, George Strait, K.T. Oslin and Keith Whitley did for me,” Joanna says with the respect and reverence of a true student of music. “Their music transported me to another place.”
Reverence for tradition, a healthy respect for the present and a desire to make her mark on the future have all led to now, to a deal with RCA Records and sitting side-by-side with acclaimed producer Buddy Cannon (Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire) making country music with themes like heartbreak, forgiveness, and even good ol’ fashioned murder.
“The songs are undeniably country, but are relevant to today,” says Joanna in her thick Georgia accent. “They’re fun, but at the same time, they have a depth and maturity to them. That’s a tough thing to accomplish, but I think we did it.”
Upon hearing cuts like cautionary first single “We Can’t Be Friends,” the yearning “Favorite Sin,” and the someone-left-the-gas-on murder ballad “Broken Dishes,” it’s hard to disagree. The songs feel born out of the booze-soaked, neon-lit honky tonks where Joanna honed her performing skills and where she filled a notebook full of ideas for her songs.
But before Nashville, honky tonks and the pursuit of a dream, there was home in Crestview (Unincorporated) Georgia. The daughter of a farmer, Joanna remembers fondly the first time she let the world know where she was headed. When she was five, her mother entered her in the Little Miss King Cotton Horse Show Pageant. Joanna did her interview, and the judge asked, “Now Joanna what would you like to be when you grow up?” Without skipping a beat, she blurted, “Well I already am a country music singer, a professional country music singer, I just don’t get to get up on stage much.”
Fast-forward to the end of high school, and the decision to enroll in her parents’ alma mater, Auburn University. Her dreams of a music career never faded, and after her freshmen year, she moved to Nashville and threw herself into her songwriting. She quickly landed a steady gig at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the Broadway mainstay she calls her “training ground.”
“I didn’t want to be a hairbrush singer,” says Joanna of her desire to sing with a live band in front of a live crowd. “I wanted to be the real deal, like Reba McEntire and Tammy Wynette. When I moved to town, I was determined to learn about broken hearts and honky-tonkin’. And that’s what I did.”
Perhaps surprisingly, she also learned a little about foreign affairs. Nearly burned-out by the nightly grind of playing for tips, Joanna applied to Vanderbilt University and was promptly accepted, majoring in International Politics. But then RCA Nashville came calling. “That same semester I got my record deal,” she says with a can-you-believe-it laugh. “I took a leave of absence from Vandy and really want to go back, but right now, I’m focused entirely on my music.”
While it might have been an easier path to country success had Joanna relied on her natural good looks and Southern charm, she is adamant about never taking shortcuts—and about being taken seriously. “The import thing for me is to not just have hits, but to do it in a way that allows me a long, solid career. And I think you do that through people viewing you as an all-around artist,” she says. One who not only writes his or her own material—as Joanna has done with phenomenal fare like “Broken Dishes” and “Daisies”— but who can recognize an excellent outside song as well.
Such is the case with “We Can’t Be Friends.” Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Shelley Skidmore, Joanna’s first single is a game-changer, a sultry ballad warning against the dangers of a seemingly innocent night out between former lovers.
“That song is undeniable. It completely grabbed me the first time I heard it,” she says. “It just resonates so much with people, especially when I play it live.”
The live show is Joanna’s comfort zone, where the singer and her guitar connect one-on-one with an audience. The way she sees it, an artist pays their dues on stage. “My dad told me one time, ‘You know, Jo, this has been a long road, but I’m so proud of the way you’ve traveled it.’ And I’m proud too, proud to have played the honky-tonks and done it the old-fashioned way.”
Joanna pauses to reflect on her journey so far, a smile on her face. “If I make it into the big leagues like my heroes, I’ll have had to fight, scratch and claw every inch of the way,” she says. “And I think that’s a good thing. It’s authentic.”
Which perfectly sums up Joanna herself. Be it in voice, on stage, in word, or on record, she will always be, like Reba, Martina, Loretta and Tammy, the real deal.