Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Country music outsiders earn industry acceptance

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TORONTO -- Dallas Smith is relatively new to country music, but after securing nominations for some of Canada's top prizes in the genre, he feels like he's finally where he belongs.

"It's a pat on the back, it's that invite to the party. I'm excited about it," said Smith, who has been nominated for a raft of Canadian Country Music Association Awards including single of the year, album of the year and male artist of the year.

It's heady territory for a musician who exclusively played rock before his 2012 country debut, the aptly titled Jumped Right In. Smith grew up surrounded by country music, and was influenced by his father's affection for classic rock. Mired in a musical funk in his mid-30s, Smith -- once the frontman for the B.C. rock band Default -- remembers quitting the band at what should have been a career high point, filling arenas on a cross-Canada tour and opening for Three Days Grace.

"The music industry, it's obviously very cutthroat, and it's very difficult on family with being away. And if you're not loving what you're doing, you need to either change it up or go get a day job," says the singer, who was born in Langley, B.C. "So that was the moment for me, at the back of the tour bus one day, I think it was in Montreal or out east, and I got really upset. I just really missed my family and I just didn't want to be there anymore, and I knew that was it for me, that I needed to make that leap of faith.

"It just got to the point where it didn't feel right anymore, and I didn't really believe in the band moving forward."

Smith had grown up listening to country music, and he was influenced by his father's affection for classic rock, a heavier sound that country has adopted over the years. He and Default's producer, Joey Moi, spoke about eventually doing a country project. At the back of the tour bus that day in 2010, Smith sent Moi a simple text message -- "country record?" -- and two weeks later, they were in Nashville.

The move to country is especially unusual because of Smith's childhood fear of singing in front of people. He says he stopped singing publicly at the age of six and only started again when he was 20, drunk at open mics, which bled naturally into he and his friends forming Default.

"(Moving to country music) definitely was scary. I had nobody else to blame a bad decision on. With this, I have to own every decision and every song that comes out under my name. And I had no idea how country radio was going to receive it. I was confident with the songs, but as an outsider, I had no idea if it would be received.

"There were always naysayers, (saying) 'Ah, the country community, they keep the doors pretty closed, they don't want outsiders coming in and getting on the format.' So that first day when we went to Canadian radio with (first single) Somebody Somewhere, it was a nerve-wracking day. All the work we had done putting the project together, and the emotional roller coaster of doing that, it all came down to that day to whether it would be added (to radio) or not.

"I remember sitting at the computer and getting all the emails from all the adds that day. I got emotional. I've never felt weight lifted off my shoulders like it was that day."

And now he truly feels like a part of the community.

"With the nominations, it really put the nail in the coffin -- I really feel accepted. I feel more at home than I ever did with Default. I'm having the time of my life, to be honest."

Tebey Solomon Ottoh, the Burlington, Ont.-born singer who performs under the single-name moniker Tebey, took the long way home, too. He signed his first deal at 15 and has made a name for himself as a songwriter, penning pop hits for boy band One Direction, British songbird Pixie Lott, R&B star Teairra Mari and fellow Canuck Shawn Desman.

But before even this side work, he was close to quitting music altogether for a different kind of life entirely -- a football career as a wide receiver.

"Man, it was pretty close," he said. "I got a bunch of scholarship offers from big schools -- I'm talking Nebraska, UCLA, Northwestern -- and I remember playing and looking out and I would see those coaches in the stands, watching me play. I came really close to playing football, but right about the time I had to make a decision, I got a record deal, so that put the football on hold."

Ottoh signed a development deal with RCA Nashville and released a single, We Shook Hands (Man to Man) in 2003. But when it failed to make headway on U.S. charts, he lost momentum, and was dropped from the label.

But rather than linger on the failure, Ottoh started working as a songwriter, to "avoid getting a real job." He eventually signed a new deal, with BNA Records. And now, after the release of his debut record The Wait, he's up for producer of the year and Rising Star awards at the CCMAs, which take place Sept. 8 at Edmonton's Rexall Place, and is working on a follow-up album, Two, which he says will be out this fall.

"I just worked my butt off and was able to have success as a writer, and I kind of came full circle over the last couple years," he says. "I would write songs for other people and would go out on tour with them to write and would watch them sing my songs to thousands of people and I had this urge to play my stuff, to get back to where I came from, which was being an artist."

The rise of both Ottoh and Smith only proves something of an anecdotal adage: that even newcomers to country music come grizzled with their own stories of struggles to tell.

"I've kind of been through the wringer, so to speak, at such a young age -- I'm only 30 years old -- so I've kind of grown up in the business," Ottoh says. "The ups and downs have definitely made me more prepared for where I'm at today and for the success I'm having right now, and also for the future."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 6, 2013 D6

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