The Beat ‘N’ Track plays on this month with sophomore music business major Tristen Smith. He hails from St. Clairsville, Ohio, just east of the Ohio River, where his kind of guitar slinging, rock inspired country music is alive and well. With inspirations like country guitar gurus Brad Paisley and Keith Urban, Smith is finding his own way in country music at Belmont. And with his recent win at the 2012 Country Showcase, his path hasn’t led him astray yet. Vision senior A&E writer Dustin Stout talked with the sophomore to find out how the iconic KISS played a part in making him the “barbed wire country” singer he is today.
How would you describe your style of country?
My style of country is very edgy. I jokingly call it “barbed wire country” because although it is country music, it is edgy and has a classic rock element mixed in.
I hear your nickname is “T-Bone.” Is there a story behind that?
Well, “T-Bone” has been a nickname I’ve had for years. My uncles call me that and other names that are too brutal to mention in print. … Okay, maybe I lied about the brutal part. Back home in the Ohio Valley, it was my stage name. Since I’ve moved down here, I have dropped “T-Bone.” Now, I just go by the name Tristen Smith.
How did you get started singing country music?
I’ve been singing my entire life in many genres of music, but country music has always held a special place in my heart. It’s the music of America. I have been surrounded by musicians since the day I was born. I guess I got my love of country music from my father, who is a drummer and talented singer as well.
You have some pretty impressive skills on electric guitar. Would you say your guitar stylings help you to stand out in country music? Why?
Well, thanks. I do think my guitar stylings help me stick out in country music. The songs I wrote for the showcase were very guitar-driven and riff-based. No one really does that right now. There are also only a few artists out there who play lead guitar. It seems that there is only Brad Paisley, Keith Urban and Vince Gill.
So how did you get started playing the guitar? Why do you play?
I actually started on the drums. That was, of course, supported by my father who also played drums. Out of the blue, I decided that I wanted to play guitar. I was inspired to do that by my friend Mike who had this old red Telecaster that we somehow ended up with. I also wanted to play guitar because of Ace Frehley from KISS. His character was the coolest thing in the world—and out of the world—to me and I loved the way he played the guitar. When I first started playing, I didn’t love the guitar. It wasn’t until I met my second guitar teacher, Chris Chaplin, that I finally started to fall in love with the instrument. I don’t know where I’d be without him. I play guitar—and music really—because I love to play, and I believe God blessed me with the gift of music. I believe I’m meant to share it with the world and praise him all the way.
Do you have any idols as far as guitar gurus go? What makes them your idol?
I love a lot of guitar players, but I’d say my true guitar heroes are Ace Frehley of KISS, Neal Schon of Journey, my friends—Kelly Jones, Roger Hoard, Jim Miller—and superstar country slingers like Brad Paisley and Keith Urban. I love the way they all play the guitar. I wanted to play like them and discover myself along the way.
You could probably sing any genre you wanted. Why country?
I just love country music. It is by far my favorite genre. The music speaks to me because it’s real.
What acts are you digging right now in country music? Why?
I really am digging Brad Paisley right now. His guitar playing is truly incredible and his songwriting is great as well. I also love the new Eric Church album.
What was the last song you listened to? What do you like about it?
I’m such a KISS nerd. The last song I listened to is “Watchin’ You” off their “Hotter than Hell” album. I love the guitar riff and the attitude of the song. And plus, it’s KISS!
What direction is country music headed style-wise? What makes you different than all the rest?
Country is very eclectic right now—lots of pop influence, some rock influence and even some rap. I feel country needs to go edgier yet become more traditional to stay true to its roots. I’m still in my development as an artist trying to find my identity. Right now, what makes me different is my guitar slinging country music with the classic rock attitude. I’m also writing my own songs that have a message relatable to not only my generation but also everyone who listens.
Do you play around town? How does playing gigs help you to become a better musician?
I do get to play around town. I’ve played places like The Rutledge, 12th & Porter and Center Stage. I’ve mainly been backing other artists. Performing live definitely allows me to grow and improve as a musician and performer. I gain more experience and gain influences from the other musicians around me.
You just won the recent Country Showcase at Belmont. Talk about that experience. How did if feel to win as a sophomore?
Winning was truly incredible. I feel really blessed to have just been given the opportunity to perform, let alone win. There was a lot of talent in the show this year, and I am just glad that I was a part of it. I think everyone put on a great show, and I hope the audience enjoyed it.
Besides singing and playing guitar, you also write. What inspires you to write?
Well, I just started writing. In my entire life, I think I have written maybe 10 songs. When I write, it’s usually about what I’m feeling and what I know. Writing can help me work through problems, and it can allow me to project positive emotions onto others as well.
Songwriting is almost like a therapy session. It’s an opportunity to express your feelings, right?
Writing can totally be a therapy session! Not only for myself but also for anyone who listens to the song. Music is called the best medicine for a reason. Whether it’s to turn a mood around or enhance one, music has a healing power.
What’s your favorite song that you’ve written? Why is it your favorite?
Like I said, I haven’t written too many songs. One of my favorites so far is “Redline,” which I performed at the showcase. It has attitude, yet when you listen to the words, it’s a song about needing to slow down in our world of instant gratification.
Do you have any music available for fans? If not, do you have plans to release music?
Right now I do not have music available to the public. I’m in the process of writing new material and, in the near future, recording. I will keep everyone posted on my Facebook page and my Twitter account @_tristensmith_.