When God's words finally flowed, they fit a melody that had been stuck in her head for months. "Child, when life don't seem worth livin'/Come to Jesus and let Him hold you in His arms," Smith sang in a whisper. Four years later, "Come to Jesus" became the first single off her twang-filled debut album, One Moment More. "It wound up being a huge blessing from that really crappy time in my life," says the 32-year-old Smith, who opens for Mary Chapin Carpenter this Sunday at Playhouse Square.
Divine intervention is nothing new to Smith. The adopted daughter of an Akron-born minister and his choir-director wife, Smith spent her childhood singing spirituals in a church on Long Island. Before her mother died of breast cancer in 1991, Smith worshiped her mom's voice. "She poured her heart out every time she led Sunday service," says Smith, whose aunt and uncle still live in the Akron area. "My mom was a ham, and I am too. Sharing music was just so much a part of her."
After her mother's death, Smith bolted for Ohio and enrolled at Cincinnati Bible College. She's the first to admit she was more interested in jamming with the alt-rock band she founded than in hitting the books. "It seemed like a good place to get things sorted out, even though I was a lousy student," Smith remembers.
Smith dropped out of college halfway through her sophomore year and moved to Knoxville, where her father had relocated his ministry. In the city's nightclubs, Smith would drag out an acoustic guitar that she was still learning to play, prop it on her knee, and sing her originals. When her dad remarried and uprooted again to North Carolina, Smith put $300 in her pocket and headed for Nashville. "I'd never even heard of Nashville before," she says. "But once I found out what a great music town it was, I packed my bags, and I was there."
By day, Smith worked as a coffeehouse cashier. At night, she hit every songwriter's workshop she could. While Smith was "couch-hopping" from one fleabag apartment to another, producer Steve Buckingham heard her demo and recruited her to record Dolly Parton's "Jolene" for a Parton tribute CD he was putting together. "I'd been in Nashville for years, and I'd been down so many different roads and knocked on so many doors," says Smith. "Now I'm blessed, doing the same stages as my heroes."