3/31/2016 by Tom Roland
The last 12 months in country music have featured numerous Cinderella stories, artists who seemingly stepped out of the shadows to claim a prominent place in the format. They include Cam, Chris Janson, Michael Ray and Granger Smith.
Smith self-released his first album in 1998 and -- thanks in large part to an alter-ego, redneck Earl Dibbles Jr. -- developed a big online following, though he was fairly anonymous in mainstream circles. A five-song EP, 4x4, finally nabbed a No. 6 slot on Country Albums after its release in May 2015, leading to a deal with BBR’s Wheelhouse label. His first single on the imprint, "Backroad Song," topped the Country Airplay chart dated Feb. 27, completing Smith’s Cinderella story and effectively changing expectations.
"We’ve had a No. 1 song, and you can’t settle for anything less on the second single or it’s considered a failure, right?" says Smith. "Challenge accepted. I don’t mind that at all."
Smith stands up to the challenge with "If the Boot Fits," a follow-up that appropriately leans on a fairytale plot. Released to radio via Play MPE on Feb. 22, the song has its own Cinderella story. It was one of the final two tracks recorded in December 2015 for Smith’s first Wheelhouse album, one of only two titles he didn’t write that made the final 15 on Remington (released March 4).
Smith wasn’t looking for material, and Downtown Music Nashville creative manager Danny Berrios wasn’t trying to pitch him a song when he sent the "Boot" demo to Tyler Smith, Granger’s manager/brother. Berrios was merely hoping to set up a co-writing session with Smith for the song’s three writers -- Jordan M. Schmidt, Andy Albert and Mitchell Tenpenny -- and "Boot" was intended to demonstrate their compatibility. "If the Boot Fits" was clearly a good floor model.
"It sounded like something I would write," says Smith, who put it on hold within a matter of hours.
Smith was not the target when the writers started working on the song in fall 2015 in Schmidt’s office at Florida Georgia Line’s Tree Vibez Music in midtown Nashville. And the 1950 Disney movie Cinderella wasn’t originally a reference point, either. Albert had served up the song’s title, and they originally tried writing it as a Jason Aldean-styleanthem -- presumably listing all the country credentials one would exhibit if the boot fits.
They weren’t too deep into the song when Schmidt and Tenpenny pushed to make the boot a metaphor for Cinderella’s glass slipper. Albert initially resisted but followed his co-writers’ lead once they convinced him they wouldn’t overdo the fairytale references.
"The thing about doing a Cinderella story is it’s obvious a guy has to cut it," says Schmidt. "And what guy is going to want to sing a song about Cinderella if it’s too much of a girly kind of metaphor?"
They set up the country twist in the opening lines, introducing the woman as "a small-town Cinderella" whose father wants her back home before the clock strikes midnight. By the time they hit the chorus, the glamour of Prince Charming’s royal palace had been reimagined as "diamonds in the sky," set between a couple of singalong "whoa-oh-oh" passages. Midway through that chorus, the melodic arc takes a surprising twist, as a series of three-note, syncopated phrases -- "Cross my heart, hope to die, pick a star, make a wish" -- changes the character of the sonic narrative.
"It keeps turning [the story] and turning it faster," says Albert. "That was just the magic of writing it. We weren’t planning on it, we weren’t thinking hard about it. It just kind of rolled into that."
In verse two, the singer focuses on his pickup truck, his version of the pumpkin carriage. "We didn’t know if we wanted to put the truck stuff in just because it’s everywhere," notes Tenpenny. "But there’s a reason it’s everywhere: It’s country. That’s why we decided to keep the truck in it."
Schmidt built instrumental tracks on his laptop as the writing session wore on, and Albert was already laying down the lead vocal for the demo before they decided on a bridge. They had a line -- "Let me show you how a country boy treats a lady" -- that underscores the singer as the good guy in the story. Schmidt offered a line about Cinderella kicking her boots off that finished it. The insinuation is that the singer wants her to be comfortable, but underneath it all is the possibility that it’s just the beginning of her shedding clothes.
"Take it however you want," says Tenpenny. "I think the way we wrote it, you can kick it off and we can go back and hook up, or you can just kick it off and relax. It’s all good."
Schmidt’s demo leaned on sounds that his Tree Vibez bosses, Florida Georgia Line, would appreciate, and when he turned it in, he suggested pitching it to Luke Bryan. By the time the FGL guys agreed, Smith already had it, and he asked for some alterations. The writers weren’t extremely familiar with him, so the assignment was tough.
"Granger wanted something that was a little bit more 'him,' whatever that was," says Albert. "Jordan, Mitchelland I wrote an alternate second verse for it, and he took a little bit of that, a little bit of the original version and a little bit of his own thing, and kind of combined it into what would eventually end up being the final product."
Co-producer Frank Rogers (Brad Paisley, Josh Turner) booked the Castle Studio in Franklin, Tenn., to cut "Boot" and one other song in December. Smith was out of town at the time, but they discussed ways to tone down the demo’s electronic vibe and "rootsify it," as Smith says. He recorded a scratch vocal in an appropriate tempo and key, and sent it to Rogers in time for the session.
"His brother was in the back of the room with his phone," recalls Rogers, "every couple takes, recording it and sending it out to Granger, wherever he was on the West Coast, and going, 'Hey, what do you think about this?' He would text me, 'Hey, can you try this on the bridge?' So he was kind of giving input long distance."
Guitarist Derek Wells invented a new intro riff, and Smith came back later to Rogers’ studio, the PoolHouse, to do final vocals. Because he was revamping the lyrics on the fly, the process required numerous attempts to make it less aggressive and more like the guy next door.
"He would sing it like 10 different variations of lines until we kind of brainstormed, 'OK, there it is,'" says Rogers. "It’s going for what the songwriters are going for, but it sounds more like the Granger brand."
Smith changed the tense from the third person to first, replaced a first-verse truck reference with a "long, slow kiss" and moved the prince and princess references around in the second verse, where he also played up Cinderella’s outfit.
"Cinderella has that very iconic blue dress," explains Smith. "My daughter loves Cinderella, so I know the story very well. I added in the blue dress, but made it cotton."
Tyler Smith had always seen "If the Boot Fits" as a potential summer single, so it became an easy choice to follow "Backroad Song." "That was at the top of the list for him, and I didn’t have an argument with it," says Smith.