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Unsigned artist keeps buzz growing 

Corey Smith packs the house wherever he goes

Until you've seen him live, Corey's Smith's people don't want you talking to him. With over 2 million hits on his music on MySpace, Smith has gotten to be a big deal in a short time. But even though he's being touted as the number one unsigned country artist in the country, management's request is not due to the artist's ego. "In order to really understand what's going on, you have to see the live show," Smith says, "because it's at the live show that you can really see the connection that the fans have with the music."

It's not unusual to see an arena full of fans howling along with their honky-tonk hero of the moment. But it's not an everyday occurrence to see clubs and theaters across the country packed to capacity with fans who show up hours before a gig to catch a glimpse of a former schoolteacher, then spend the entire time he's onstage on their feet singing with him.

Smith's former profession schooled him in the art of connecting. As a teacher in his hometown of Jefferson, Ga., a small town near Athens, Smith often used his songs as a teaching aid, playing his music in class for his students on Friday afternoons. "At first I didn't think the kids would dig it," Smith says, calling from his home in Jefferson. "I'm 10 years older than them, at least. I'm coming from a different place." But his ruminations on his own struggles growing up hit a chord with students. "A lot of times kids who didn't necessarily like country, even black kids who listen to hip-hop all the time, I still connected with them," Smith says. "They would make comments like, 'Mr. Smith, why are you teaching? You should be out there playing music.'"

Smith discovered that songs like 2004's "Skin of My Teeth" connected with a young audience with lyrics that told of a man with Saturday night habits trying to save his soul on Sunday morning. "When I'm out drinkin', I wear a cross/ I'm not really a righteous man, oh but I'm not lost/ And when I meet my maker I know he's gonna smile at me/ And I'll make it to heaven by the skin of my teeth."

Though he's often classified as country, it doesn't quite fit. He's more at home in the folky singer/songwriter vein, which has brought comparisons to Robert Earl Keen and Todd Snider. Smith says that while he shares a common thread with Texas singer/songwriters, most of his audience was commercial country music fans until they heard him. "When they come across my music, they heard something different from that, but was coming from the same place," Smith says. "It wasn't the polished, commercial brand of that type of writing, it was a more raw, down-to-earth version and I think they perceived it as being more authentic or real than a lot of the stuff coming out of Nashville."

Because of songs like "Carolina," some have called him the southern equivalent of Springsteen: "Me and you in a midnight blue, '82 Camaro/ Crossin' over the Hartwell bridge movin' fast as she would go/ Windows down, radio up, we were singin' 'Freebird.'"

Smith says that a lot of people say unless you come from the Jersey shore, you don't really get Springsteen. "A lot of people say that about my songs," Smith says. "You don't really get 'em unless you're from there."

Some of Smith's songs are bittersweet, like "21," with it's 26-year-old protagonist reminiscing about longing to be 21 when he was a teen, looking at it from both sides now and still wishing he was 21. Or "I'm Not Gonna Cry," a farewell to a small town high school which has become the theme for graduation parties all across the country.

Currently, Smith doesn't do either "21" or "I'm Not Gonna Cry" in concerts, preferring instead to chronicle the ongoing saga of his life experience as with his latest, "Hard Headed Fool."

There's a lot of musical personalities peeking out from under Smith's hat -- a glimpse of John Prine, a taste of James Taylor and a hint of Paul Thorn.

But Smith isn't trying to be anybody but himself. "Once I quit teaching, I realized those kids looked at me as a role model," Smith says. "I had to succeed because I wanted to send that message to all those kids. I want them to be able to say yeah, he followed his dreams and followed them the right way, and was successful."

Corey Smith plays Amos' Southend on Feb. 2 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15 advance, $18 day of show. Rayen Belchere and Joe Rush open. All ages.

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