One of the unofficial tenets of the Athens music scene, if not Athens in general, is that it's a community that not only encourages suspended adolescence, but that rewards it. This is part of the reason why it's an anathema to the townie set that the music of someone like Corey Smith resonates with anyone—let alone so many.
But the fact is that Smith's music is more indicative of the state of mind in the “real world” than all the Elephant Sixes, Wild Rumpuses and hardcore house shows combined. And resonate it does, to the tune of millions of dollars via a plethora of sold-out shows every year.
It's not hard to see why. A Jefferson native, Smith's easygoing tunes are easy on the ears and easier to party with. Ever since he released his debut album, Undertones, nine years ago, his most popular song has been “Twenty-One,” an ode to underage drinking and carousing.
While the tune itself is catchy enough—there's really no material difference between Smith's acoustic strumming and plaintive vocals and the content of tons of appropriately cool indie-rock releases—the lyrics are earnest, sentimental and, occasionally, uncomfortably drippy. He sings of being underage, sneaking into Clayton Street bars, flirting with college girls and wishing he were older. Then, blammo, he's a few years older and feeling the weight of adulthood, and he wishes he were younger.
It's the oldest story in the world.
Indeed, Smith's music is not revolutionary, nor even all that revelatory. Drinking, partying and remembering is a major trope (see “If I Could Do It Again” and “Maybe Next Year”), and when he busts out of that theme, he finds himself writing self-proclamations of open-mindedness, like “I Love Black People” (yep) and sic 'em sing-alongs like “Every Dawg.” The promo track from his newest album, Live from Chattanooga, is titled, simply, “Party.”
People get into music because it reaches and speaks to them. It's a natural thing to be drawn to art that expresses how we feel about ourselves. Smith isn't the first guitar-slinging reinforcer of collegiate partying, but he is among the most popular of the last decade. And while large audiences are never strictly an indicator of quality (see: McDonald's), they provide solid evidence of accessibility and popularity.
Given all this, it's fair to ask why critics should bother to engage Smith's work any more than absolutely necessary. Simply put, underneath all the schticky odes to spring break and gettin' rowdy, there exist nuggets of hard, cold reality. There are gems hidden among the filler, lyrics that speak of real working-class roots—"Twenty-One"'s story of feeling pressured to lie about being a pre-med student who drives a BMW, for instance—that aren't really all that different than the work of, say, John Cougar Mellencamp.
In full context, as Smith sings about feeling like an old man by the age of 26, existing somewhere "in the grey of middle class and middle age," songs like "Twenty-One" are incredibly sad—nowhere near the lightweight nostalgia trip they’ve been set up as.
Right there, in that realization, is where you can find, and even appreciate, Smith and his audience. For many in perpetually youthful Athens, 26 isn't really an age to worry about. But for most out there, those working honest jobs and grinding out complex lives, it's an age that can really weigh on you.
The crowds at Smith’s two Athens shows this week will feel just as strongly about his performances as did anyone who flipped over Jeff Mangum earlier this year. Don't get me wrong, we critics reserve the right to criticize this local boy's music in the future—hell, next week even!—but for now, I think I can just about see where he's coming from.