Newly minted star Caitlyn Smith comes home to Cannon Falls

Caitlyn Smith performs at PledgeHouse at SXSW
Caitlyn Smith performs at PledgeHouse at SXSW in Austin, Texas. (Nate Ryan | MPR)

Even as she found success as a Music City songwriter, Caitlyn Smith slowly let go of her own teenage dreams -- of signing with a label, playing live on national TV, having her voice ring out on the radio to folks back home in Cannon Falls, MN.

With the Monument Records release of her acclaimed album Starfire this year, though, everything has shifted. It's all actually happening for her.

"It took me letting go of a lot of dreams to actually get to the place where they really started coming true," she said this week, gearing up for a trip back to Minnesota and an April 20 concert in her hometown auditorium.

She's played the annual Cannon Falls benefit concert a few times before, but this performance will be different, coming after rave reviews for Starfire, attention-getting live performances on Jimmy Fallon's "The Tonight Show" on NBC and public radio's "Live from Here with Chris Thile," and in the middle of her first headlining tour.

"The last few months have been quite a whirlwind. It's been so many mountaintops," she said, her accent leaning a little towards Minnesota at times and then back to Tennessee. ""But there's truly nothing like coming home, and looking out in the audience, and seeing neighbors and friends and people that I grew up with."

Before making Starfire, Smith had some major "cuts" as a Nashville songwriter -- writing songs for and with stars like Garth Brooks and Meghan Trainor, and even a duet for Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, 2014's "You Can't Make Old Friends." Still, some folks back home would keep asking, "When will we hear you on the radio?"

"I never took it as a knock or anything, I always took it as, 'You're excited for me to do my own thing,' which I loved," she said.

Growing up in Cannon Falls, where she sang in church and rode her bike everywhere, felt a little bit like "Pleasantville," Smith said. "It is a tiny little one stoplight town of 4,000 people. It has kind of this old school downtown strip, with your bakery, your antique store, hardware store, and two bars. I think there's three now. It's just a cute, quiet little town," she said. "It was such a beautiful place for me to start singing."

Still, she got out of town quickly -- entering the Minnesota State Fair's talent contest every year and winning when she was 15, singing a song she wrote herself. After that, her parents decided she could use her college fund to pay for recording an album. She sings about heading out of Cannon Falls bound for the Twin Cities once she could drive in her song "St. Paul," "in a beat up Wrangler with a console full of burned CDs, blew out my speakers with the same three Wilco tracks, half a tank to get me there and half a tank to get me back."

Smith made a few indie albums and played gigs at places like the Turf Club, which gets its own mention in "St. Paul," before heading down to Nashville when she was 23. Things didn't work out exactly like she'd planned. Record companies wanted to record her songs, but they didn't want her to sing them. Her voice -- which has a soulful, goosebumps-inducing quality -- might have been amazing, but her sound wasn't quite country, and also wasn't really pop either. "I had so many years where I went around to record labels and tried to get a record deal and tried to make it happen. And it just didn't happen," she said. She ended up signing a publishing deal to work as a staff songwriter instead.

In "This town is killing me," Smith sings, "Nashville, you win. Your steel guitars and broken hearts have done me in. I gave you my soul, 'cause I wanted it so bad, and now I just wanna go home." She did go home for awhile -- moving back to Minneapolis with her husband, fellow songwriter Rollie Gaalswyk. It ended up being a good decision, even though they kept making trips down to Nashville.

"Coming home gave us the strength and the courage to then move back again. It gave us venues to play and try out and in that season of coming home we started playing with the band we play with now," she said. "I feel like coming home enabled me to truly find my voice, which was pretty cool."

In 2013, "The Voice" winner Cassadee Pope released a version of a tune Smith and Gaalswyk wrote together, "Wasting All These Tears." It became a Top 10 country hit, and the pair felt they were ready to move South again. "That opened the door for us to be able to come back down and for it to be a little easier for us to do our jobs in Nashville," she said.

Hits kept coming. Brooks asked to record her song "Tacoma," (which Smith also sings on Starfire), later telling Billboard about her, "No offense to anyone else, she is definitely one of the top female vocalists I've ever heard in my life."

Smith realized that it was time to prioritize recording her own songs, and released an independent EP in 2016. "I decided, I'm going to not think about making a record for radio, or try to get a record deal. I'm just going to make a record that I love. And that became my goal and my focus," she said.

Then things started really happening. A song Smith wrote with Trainor and Justin Weaver, "Like I'm Gonna Lose You," ended up going four-times platinum with John Legend singing with Trainor on the track. Fellow songwriter Shane McAnally and manager Jason Owen were working to restart Monument Records over at Sony Music Entertainment, and they asked her to become one of the first artists to sign with them. While recording Starfire, she also found out she was pregnant.

"Now, I'm so thankful that I get to be able to do this as my job, and that I get to do it with my family," she said. "My husband plays in my band. Our one and a half year old son Tom comes on the road with us. It's morphed into a dream that is more magical than I could have ever imagined."

Now, she's looking forward to her hometown show. "I love coming home. This is going to be a really, really fun treat for us," she said. "We are going to be doing a tribute to our Minnesota icon, we are going to be doing a Prince song in the set, which I'm very excited about. We might throw some new songs in there as well."

Event information

Caitlyn Smith: April 20, 7 p.m.
Cannon Falls Auditorium
820 Minnesota Street East
Cannon Falls, MN 55009
Tickets: $35

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