Fall Arts

An Unconventional Music Path

Whitefish singer-songwriter Jo Smith will release her first full album, ‘Wyoming,’ on Oct. 21 after spending years in Nashville followed by a career change that led her to Somalia

By Maggie Dresser
Country musician Jo Smith in Whitefish on Oct. 13, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Growing up on a row crop farm in South Georgia, Jo Smith knew at a young age that she wanted a career in music. She had absorbed the passion from her father, which she said helped him through the trials and tribulations of working in agriculture, and she left for Nashville at age 19.

In the 14 years that Smith lived in the Music City, she landed publishing deals, signed with RCA Records and released singles. She was noticed by music publications like Rolling Stone and she was named to CMT’s Next Women of Country list in 2018.

“I just started paying dues and doing the deal and I had several publishing deals, several record deals – and I lost them all,” Smith said. “It was a roller coaster experience of the highs and lows.”

After nearly 15 years of hustling in Nashville, Smith was burned out. She stepped away from music, finished her degree in international politics at Vanderbilt University and took a job working for an American contractor in Somalia.

“It was a pretty crazy turn of events and it ended up being the best year of my life because for once I wasn’t trying to promote myself,” Smith said. “It felt very wholesome and rewarding instead of being in the entertainment industry where it’s all flash and it’s all self-promotion. To go to the absolute depths of the world where people were starving and killing each other and bearing witness to that … it was scary and it was sad, but it was also really inspiring.”

Since Smith’s one-year contract ended, she was commissioned into the U.S. Navy as an intelligence officer, got married, moved to Whitefish, gave birth to a son named Hazard and she will release her first full-length album, “Wyoming” on Oct. 21.

But if she hadn’t distanced herself from a professional music career in Nashville, she wouldn’t have been able to view life through the lens she currently looks through. Her time in Somalia, where she wrote reports for the U.S. Department of State Counterterrorism Bureau, was eye-opening.

Although music no longer dictated her life while she was in Africa, she played regularly at the compound in Somalia for a different audience that, to her surprise, already had a taste for country music.

Country musician Jo Smith in Whitefish on Oct. 13, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

“It was so nice to be in a place where appearances are the last thing on anybody’s list of importance,” Smith said. “It felt really good to just be loved and cared about strictly on how I treated people … I ended up playing country music more than I thought I would, and it really helped lift spirits and boost morale in the compound. It was nice to strip away everything else that had been attached to music and just play it for people that enjoyed hearing it.”

During her time in Africa, Smith met her now-husband and after their contracts ended, they returned to the states, eventually landing in Whitefish.

Since settling down in northwest Montana, Smith has returned her attention to music – but on her own terms.

“My biggest complaint about the way the record business works in Nashville is the attention span is very short,” Smith said. “They’re not interested in sticking with artists in the long-term.”

While she no longer has the financial support of a record label, Smith was finally able to record a full album after years of releasing singles in hopes that country radio might pick them up.

“I’m really proud of this record because I feel like these are songs that have withstood the test of time and just never got their day in the sun,” she said. “I don’t think that I ever would have gotten to release an album with a narrative and an album that was homogenous because labels just want to cherry pick.”

Smith has also immersed herself in the Flathead Valley’s music scene, participating in the Whitefish Songwriter Festival in September, collaborating with other local musicians like Hannah King and playing regularly at watering holes like the KM Bar and Gunsight Saloon.

In addition to the album, Smith will appear on a new show called Inside The Base, where country artists train with active-duty troops. In the episode, which airs on Oct. 29, Smith visits The Base at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

For more information, visit www.josmithmusic.com.

Album cover for Jo Smith’s “Wyoming.” Courtesy image

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