Country Gold: ERNEST Creates A Sound All His Own
ERNEST performs at the Crawfish Music Festival in the Mississippi Coast Coliseum Grounds in Biloxi, April 23, 2022. Photo by Devin Flannagan

It was one of those high velocity tropical storms, blowing across the Osceola Heritage Park. The 2021 Florida Country Thunder Festival in Kissimmee was getting blasted with the kind of tempest that stops festival shows, causing full-on evacuations. But songwriter/developing artist ERNEST, whose total joy onstage at the Wisconsin Country Thunder earlier that summer had impressed Troy Vollhoffer, was undaunted.

“As this storm was overhead,” country festival promoter Vollhoffeer remembered, “ERNEST was visiting on my coach. We started talking about the storm, and I couldn’t believe it when the kid told me he was willing to go out there [during the storm] and perform an acoustic set to ‘Let the people know that the music won’t stop!’

“While I applauded his enthusiasm,” he continued, “I couldn’t let him go out there while it was still dangerous. However, the minute we got the all-clear, as the crew was restoring power, sound and lights, ERNEST was at the front of the thrust, just him and his guitar, no PA, belting out hits as our fans started to trickle back into the site.”

In a world of bright-eyed kids who’ll do anything to stand out, it’s important to remember that ERNEST – or Ernest K. Smith, as he’s known to his good friends at BMI where they send him massive checks for airplay royalties – had far more to lose. A top Nashville songwriter – known for Sam Hunt’s “Breaking Up Was Easy in the 90s,” Kane Brown’s “One Mississippi,” Morgan Wallen’s record-shattering “More Than My Hometown,” “Wasted On You” and “Dangerous;” Diplo’s “Heartless” with versions featuring Wallen and Julia Michaels; as well as Jelly Roll’s first No. 1 and Song of the Year contender “Son of a Sinner” – that kind of peril isn’t necessary. Indeed, it might even be a little foolhardy.

ERNEST performs at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa, as part of Morgan Wallen’s “Dangerous” Tour April 29, 2022. Photo by Devin Flannagan

“There were show delays, and show delays,” ERNEST explains. “The equipment was soaked, but I wanted to go out there, to let those fans know there would be music. I said to Troy, ‘Just let me go out with my acoustic guitar …’ I took one D.I. (direct input) chord and a microphone, went out to the end of the catwalk with my guitar, and just played.”

That off-handed moxie serves the blond who looks like the teddy bear Gregg Allman well. Taking a guitar to 5th grade to play for the kids out in the hall, he was built for free range entertaining. Over the years, whether playing a beach bar to five or six people, grueling Saturday afternoon gigs at Gringo’s “where the guys are watching sports and you’re just wallpaper,” to 43,598 fans at Texas Rangers’ stadium as part of Wallen’s insane country posse, ERNEST has worked hard to connect – whether euphoria, intense sadness or some other feeling – in a tactile way.

This year, ERNEST is going to be busy. After a run through Australia and New Zealand, the likable blond will be joining Wallen for a veritable pupu platter of America’s venues. A core sample: a triple play at Boston’s Fenway Park, a double at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, two nights at Oxford, Mississippi’s Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, a single at Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium and Jacksonville, Florida’s VyStar Veteran’s Memorial Arena, as well as select festivals including Cadot, Wisconsin’s Country Fest, Ft. Laramie, Ohio’s Country Concert and Three Forks, Montana’s Three Forks Jam.

ERNEST performs at EXIT/IN on March 21, 2022 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Seth England, manager and Big Loud label chief, recognizes the power ERNEST’s clarity affords. “Ern thrives on live. It feeds him creatively and keeps him inspired to write more and more prolific music. He also knows that even in this digital world, nothing sinks into a fan like a live connection.”

It took ERNEST a minute to find the “thing” that truly connected for him musically.
Ultimately, it came down to honoring his roots. ERNEST, rarest of all unicorns, is a born Nashvillian. He was washed in the old school way of country music –– not by trade,but osmosis. As a kid, he and Sony/Tree Publishing’s CEO Donna Hilley’s grandson Mitchell Tenpenny had a duo – that rapped.

Passive exposure to those old guard sounds subliminally absorbed into “his kind” of country. Absorbed to the point where the cleverly lamenting “Flower Shops,” which features Wallen, is poised to go No. 1.

Flower Shops (The Album): Two Dozen Roses is a bouquet that throws back to the ‘80s when the male country stars were in their 40s, often pushing 50. Those men sang with a different kind of knowing and sadness, a deeper way of fileting the moment that struck the likable young man who grew up on hip-hop, junior college baseball and health challenges from a heart attack suffered while afflicted with a viral infection, in a way most 20-somethings miss.

For ERNEST, the more he wrote, the more he considered the music he was making. And then…

“The pain in the songs did it for me,” he says, trying to dial in on his sound. “When I was going down the rabbit hole, I got addicted to the raw feelings I’d hear. When you hear ‘I Don’t Go Around Mirrors’ and ‘I’m No Stranger to the Rain’ and especially [George Jones’] ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ it’s so simple, and you know it will live forever.

“I’m lucky to have had enough success as a writer, I can make the music I want – and I do see it as a challenge. By writing so many songs for so many different people, I’ve found my space. And it’s refreshing, because with Midland, Jon Pardi, the landscape country has right now, I’m raising a cold beer to country music… I’m able to bring my fanbase and the people I tour with to this style.”

Austin Neal, who runs the Neal Agency, recognizes the challenge and opportunity a distinct sound allows. “How you build the show, which Ern has done a great job to create high energy moments even with a more classic country set makes the difference. There’s no substitute for getting out there in front of fans… to see his personality and the scope of his catalog as both a performer and songwriter.”

ErnAtJoes 12 Credit Delaney Royer 2 1
ERNEST plays Joe’s on Weed St. in Chicago Nov. 17, 2022. | Photo by Delaney Royer

Sharing Neal’s perspective, England adds, “Ern naturally comes from a place of honesty – you can hear that in his songwriting, as well as moments he takes listeners and fans behind his songs … His point of view is rooted in simple musings from his personal relationships and friendships, oftentimes inspiring the hooks and lyrics.”

England stresses getting ERNEST in front of the fans. “It’s so important to super-serve the hardcore fan in the live experience; by joining Morgan on his ‘One Night At A Time Tour,’ he’s reaching over one million fans in 2023 in four countries and more than 50 major cities.”

Whether he’s holding down his own headlining shows or landing between Bailey Zimmerman and Wallen, he knows how to swing around a pedal steel part in a lament like “Comfortable When I’m Crazy,” play up the hilarious in the almost Hawaiian-feeling “Drunk With My Friends,” work a shit-kicking singalong “Anything But Sober,” his breakout “Flower Shops” or inhabit the elegant, George Strait-evoking “What Have I Got To Lose,” which features Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Dean Dillon on Flower Shops.

He’s also making some surprising believers. When touring with Wallen, the pair have taken to passing out roses during their “Flower Shops” moment. At Los Angeles’ Arena (Sept. 24-25, grossing $4.6 million on 28,683 tickets), it brought the house down. As Neal recalls, “Wiz Khalifa caught the flowers. There is a picture of pure joy felt in that moment that kind of tied that whole experience together.”

Fluent in Eminem, Drake, Lupe Fiasco, John Mayer, Metro Boomin’s Heroes & Villians and Waco Tron, “the bass hits really deep,” ERNEST realizes his own place is equally defined. “Locals Only [his 2019 debut] led me into being intentional about the music. I like to story-tell, pull people’s emotions – happy, sad, whatever. Sad steel guitar and ice-cold Coors? Absolutely.

“I’ve been the guy who runs out of apologies, but I’m a good guy who’s made mistakes. I’ve been both people, ’cause both sides of the coin is what’s real. Not everybody writes those things, and that’s good by me because very few things make me feel like a steel guitar.”
Hitting the heart hard, even with music that goes down smooth, isn’t for trend chasers. ERNEST knows that; knows authenticity is critical.

“Pyro doesn’t fit in my set like it would for HARDY,” he concedes. “I’ve got to put together a 45-minute set, and a 30, that packs enough energy to get people ready. You learn fast what’s not gonna work. The first five (from Flower Shops) I’d love to just run out and do, throw in ‘Son of a Sinner.’ I am pretty intentional, especially with this sound.

“I want to give people what they signed up for. Maybe these records inspire the kids (to dig back into classic country).

“You know, I went to the CMA Awards my junior year of high school. Scalped a ticket in my little suit coat and watched from the nosebleeds. It was the year Kid Rock did that ‘Summertime’ song, and Lil Wayne came out and played guitar. I thought, ‘It would sure be cool if I could do that.’ No plan, no nothing.

“But it’s like Dean Dillon’s speech at the BMI Awards: ‘Every generation, there’s a bunch of cowboys going out and making music for the next generation.’ Maybe that’s us. We’re in it and we’re just getting started.”

ERNEST’s Influences By Osmosi