On an early summer evening, lyrics fill the room and speak to a bigger truth:
So take me back to Minnesota,
where the world spins so much slower.
Watch a sunset on the water.
Yeah, it’s everything I need.
Oh, the gold that I have been chasing
is in the wide, wide open spaces.
Lift me up out of my head,
hallelujah, set me free.
Take me back to Minnesota.
Hunkered down in a South St. Paul bomb shelter that doubles as a rehearsal space, Caitlyn Smith momentarily stops singing. The breezy song—the one titled “Back to Minnesota” on her forthcoming third album, the one about her home state, the one about coming back to where it all began—also stops. A sly smile covers her face as she sits, tequila in hand, deep in this mind-trip of a 1957 office building. She feels nothing if not fulfilled in this moment. Like, truly, sincerely happy. She feels a sort of stillness. It’s been with her for more than a year now. The sort of serenity she’d been in search of for ages. The kind that arrives when you’ve let life hurl you down its winding waterslide only to finally be cleansed by the pool waiting below.
Come to the surface and suddenly you can breathe.
Yes, that’s what Caitlyn Smith—the Cannon Falls native, the woman who has written songs for everyone from Dolly Parton to John Legend and is one of the most vocally talented artists in all of music—can do now.
“There’s nothing else in the entire universe that can replace Minnesota,” the singer-songwriter, and woman who chased down her dream and made it into reality, tells me a few weeks later.
Strangely, we’re not in Minnesota as she says this. We’re in Nashville, her adopted hometown for the past decade-plus. She flew in last night from Florida, where she had a show. Now it’s mere minutes before she’s set to open for Ashley McBryde in front of a sold-out crowd at the iconic Ryman Auditorium. The Grand Ole Opry’s “Mother Church of Country Music” is one of the most famous venues in the entire country—a place where country legends made their names. A hundred-plus-year-old country music mecca where you might as well be in commune with the ghosts of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.
This is Caitlyn Smith’s life now. The mammoth-voiced, versatile, classic-country-loving vocalist whose songs mix acoustic Americana with gritty blues swagger and punchy pop hooks is fast becoming one of the most buzzed-about singers in Nashville. Which is made all the more curious by the fact that she has no interest in living there anymore.
Smith, 35, has been coming to Nashville for more than half her life now. Recently, however, things changed. Sure, she’d steadily built herself a career there as a legitimate country artist. But she says she’d long felt she needed to escape Music City—that it was feeling ever more essential to return to Minnesota. Because every time she would, she says, “all the noise just started to turn off.”
With her career moving at a breakneck pace of late, Smith found herself yearning for the sort of quietude Nashville couldn’t provide. That’s why, in April 2020, right as the pandemic threw everyone’s heads into a collective tailspin, Smith; her husband, Rollie Gaalswyk; and her two young children, Tom and Louis, packed up and headed north. Back to her family. Back to where, as she says, she could “just tune it all out for a minute and have that balance. Be around people that ground me. Be around people that I connect with on a way deeper level than just doing music-business stuff.”
Smith still travels to Nashville often—once a month for roughly a week or two at a time. But it’s all business when she’s there.
“It’s way more transactional now. We come here; we do the thing that we need to do,” she says. “It’s less that I need Nashville now. I guess I just had to find what I want Nashville to be in my life.”
Minnesota, by contrast, is where she can just be. She’s been here full time for roughly a year now in a rental while her family builds their dream home on a 44-acre plot of rolling hills and wetlands shared with her brother-in-law’s family.
Here, she’s no longer Caitlyn Smith. Just Cait.
“Because,” she offers bluntly, “nobody really knows who I am in Minnesota.”
Then again, on November 13, Smith joins some of country music’s biggest names, including George Strait, Chris Stapleton, and Little Big Town, at U.S. Bank Stadium for a massive country concert.
“It’s really hard to put words to it,” Smith says. “It feels absolutely insane.”
Add to this the fact that Smith recently notched her biggest country hit yet with “I Can’t,” a simple, serene collaboration with the country band Old Dominion, and the woman who says she lives a rather anonymous life in Minnesota may not for long.
Not that Smith will believe any of that chatter. Spend enough time with the soft-spoken, endlessly charming woman, and it becomes abundantly clear that her whole trajectory has been about convincing herself that she belongs. Or rather, that she is entitled to live and dream and be exactly the person she wants to be. Because while Smith may put on the outward face that she was destined to be here in this moment, peel back the curtain and she’ll readily admit how her having made her life as a successful musician is still nothing short of unreal to her.
“Oh yeah, it’s a total mindfuck,” she says, standing backstage at the Ryman wearing tonight’s show attire of a white jumpsuit and pink chiffon cape and recalling how her career started with her busking in coffee shops and bars of Red Wing as a teenager. “It’s rare to be here. I definitely feel that.”
Caitlyn Smith loves Nashville. Don’t get her wrong. She’s been taking trips there since age 16. It’s where she got her first publishing deal—a contract to write songs for other artists—and her first record deal. But by the time she concluded her stint there, life had begun to feel like one giant bout of small talk.
“We were finding that to unwind and reset from being on the road, we didn’t want to be in Nashville,” she says. “It was too much work. There was no break. I mean, even if you’re at the freaking grocery store, you’re always running into somebody, and it’s definitely a music-business relationship.”
Periphery friends—Caitlyn had lots of those there.
But she also has no regrets. After all, she manifested her earliest dreams there. Smith, the oldest of two children of a paraprofessional educator mother and a now-retired police sergeant father, says she knew music was her life’s work early on. But she also knew that if she wanted to truly advance her career, Minnesota wasn’t the place.
“It became a gradual no-brainer,” she says. “I saw the songwriter community in Nashville, and I realized I could probably get a publishing deal there and make some money doing that.”
Her mom had one solid connection there, a manager. They’d take regular trips to Tennessee on weekends. She started making additional connections. She wrote some songs. Refined her craft. Meanwhile, back at home, she’d play any gig she could get: college parties, coffee shops, local dive bars. She eventually moved to Minneapolis but never wanted to get a real job there. So, she worked odd ones to support her burgeoning music career: at a church that paid her to teach and perform music; at the YMCA; and, of course, playing shows. By 20, she’d met her husband Rollie, also a musician, and three years later, they went to Music City together.
Once settled, she met with seemingly every publisher in town, played a showcase gig featuring some of her original songs, and before long received multiple offers as a songwriter. Less than a year after moving to Nashville, Smith scored her first official cut when Jason Aldean recorded her song “It Ain’t Easy” on his 2010 My Kinda Party LP.
As she shot through the songwriting ranks, penning songs for country greats from Garth Brooks (“Tacoma”) to Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton (“You Can’t Make Old Friends”) and Lady A (“747”), she began to get the itch to become her own person. Her own musician. An artist. She realized she’d quickly fallen into the habit of not writing the types of songs she loved—like the sincere and meaningful ones by her idols, like, say, Sheryl Crow or Carole King—but rather “what I thought would work on the radio,” she says. “It felt like I wasn’t doing what actually made me special and different.”
She’d vied for her own record deal for years and was tired of hearing no, so on a complete whim, she recorded some songs she’d written for herself.
The Starfire EP quickly topped the iTunes singer-songwriter charts. Her timing was fortuitous. Circa 2016, several other young female songwriting-focused artists like Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris, and Kelsea Ballerini were proving the naysayers—the ones who’d long shortchanged women in Nashville—wrong by landing major hits. Before long, the newly reformed Monument Records came calling for Smith.
Monument’s founders, songwriter Shane McAnally and manager Jason Owen, were blown away by her songwriting prowess and her overall outlook—and especially her huge voice.
“She’s far and away the best vocalist I’ve ever worked with,” says Monument Records general manager Katie McCartney, who worked with some industry heavy hitters in her old job as director of marketing and artist development for Universal Music Group Nashville. “Caitlyn’s voice is unlike anything I’ve ever heard in my life. She’s just the full package.”
Smith is the first to admit that before Monument, she’d thought her dreams of being a successful solo artist were over. But with her new label’s help, she released her 2018 debut full-length album, also titled Starfire—a collection of punchy, no-nonsense pop songs with a country edge—that quickly became a critical success. Cue late-night-TV performances. Interviews. Attention. Smith, meanwhile, was in shock.
“Dreams of all that stuff had already floated away,” she laughs. “I just didn’t think that that was for me anymore. So it was really interesting that when I let go of that all, it ended up coming true.”
Of course, that’s also when things got complicated—once she was successful, big-shot managers and industry people were itching to work with her. “Caitlyn Smith,” they told her, was “going to be the next big pop star.” For her next album she decamped to Los Angeles, teamed up with Rick Rubin protégé Christian “Leggy” Langdon, and hired Adele’s publicist.
“I feel like my management was like, ‘OK, we need to make this bigger. We need to bring her to the next point,’” she says. “Classic story.”
Unfortunately for Smith, her next album, Supernova, dropped in March 2020, right as the pandemic began, and made little more than a minor dent on the charts and with critics.
Not the outcome she wanted, but maybe not all bad in the end. Since then, she’s taken back control of her career, fired those managers, and is self-producing her third album. And amidst it all, one of Supernova’s singles, “I Can’t,” unexpectedly and somewhat belatedly took off on country radio.
Smith says she’s finally realized the only way she’ll be happy is to make the sort of no-holds-barred music that inspired her in her earliest days.
“I’m embracing the bumpy patches in the roads,” she says. “Because I’m like, We’ll get there, baby.”
And they’ll do it from here in Minnesota.
In the middle of the fields
where the rain falls soft,
we found a private place
to grow our love.
With sunset skies
on the milkweed stalks
These are lyrics from “Love Is a Home.” Smith sang it during that rehearsal in South St. Paul. The characteristically graceful number is one of the new tracks from her forthcoming album. And while she doesn’t perform it at the Ryman, she has the same ease onstage here, and it permeates the entire set. With only Rollie assisting her on keyboard, Smith effortlessly hits graceful notes (“Tacoma”), gets a bit gritty at times (“Contact High”), and makes the audience here at the storied venue swoon with “High,” another standout new cut.
Backstage after the show, celebratory tequila drinks are poured, longtime friends come calling, and for a moment, Rollie gets nostalgic about his wife’s journey to the present.
“Nashville has without a doubt changed our lives and trajectory,” he says. “But our people are in Minnesota.”
Smith, for her part, is amped from the gig and ready to make the most of this night in Nashville before she heads back on the road the next morning and, in a few days, back to Minnesota.
So off we go to Robert’s Western World, an old-school honky-tonk down the block from the Ryman. A round of drinks. Smiles. And before you know it, that night’s act at Robert’s, Sarah Gayle Meech, pulls Caitlyn onstage for a guest performance.
Seeing her up there, fully in her element yet completely at peace with where her life has taken her, reminds me of something she told me a few hours earlier at the Ryman.
“There are so many things that I would tell my 23-year-old self coming to Nashville,” Smith says as she thinks about herself and other young female musicians she sometimes sees at the airport carrying guitar cases. “I want to catch those girls and be like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to go chase what you think you need to be. Just do exactly what you want to be doing.’”
Smith has found a way to make that happen. “I’m finally getting back to who I am.” Now she’s ready to see what comes next.