Anatomy of a Hit: Canaan Smith Nearly Lost His Deal Before Finding His Breakthrough Song

By Phyllis Stark, Nashville

 

Record-label staffers naturally celebrate every No. 1 they get, but when the chart-topper is one they have spent an entire year working — including two weeks in which it fell off the chart entirely — the victory is particularly sweet.

Such was the case with Mercury Records Nashville’s recent success on Canaan Smith’s “Love You Like That,” which hit the summit on the July 25 Country Airplay Chart in its 49th week. As previously reported in Billboard Country Update, it tied labelmate David Nail’s “Let It Rain” in taking the second-longest ride to the top. (Chris Young’s “Voices” holds top honors, with 51 weeks.)

 

Ironically, “Love You Like That” wasn’t supposed to be Smith’s “second chance” single. Mercury previously worked just one other title from the singer, “We Got Us,” which peaked at No. 44 in 2012, meaning no album was released behind it. In the wake of the Universal/EMI merger, Smith was close to being dropped, according to Mercury vp national promotion Damon Moberly. But after the artist met with Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan, the executive gave Smith another chance after seeing his drive and work ethic. So Smith recorded some new tracks and went out to radio with Mercury staffers and a four-song sampler that included intended single “Take You There.”

But Smith was in the middle of a fertile songwriting period, and during his set on a small stage at the 2014 CMA Music Festival he played a song he had just written, “Love You Like That.” Moberly and other label staffers who were watching took notice, and Smith quickly found himself in the studio tracking the song, which was soon swapped in as the single.

“He had so much going on creatively,” says Moberly. “I kept saying, ‘Just finish the album already,’ and Dungan kept saying, ‘No, let him keep going,’ because what he was turning in was better than what we already had.”

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Moberly says he knew early on that “Love You Like That” was a hit because its sales were outperforming its chart position by a good margin every week, and it was “outselling everything around it.” Still, getting radio to see that —particularly with an unproven artist — is often a challenge. To date, the single has sold more than 627,000 downloads, according to Nielsen Music.

In November 2014, the slow-moving single dropped off the chart for two weeks, forcing Moberly to make an uncomfortable call to Smith’s management. But “we hustled and got busy, and it picked up some steam,” says Moberly. It ultimately re-entered the chart at No. 46.

Months later, Moberly began to worry that the song was getting “really long in the tooth” as he began to plan for an eventual No. 1 push. “We had a lot of stations that had played it in power, and were already over 1,500 and 1,700 and 2,000 spins,” he says. “They had a hit in their market and had backed it off because it was burnt. But so many came back and put it back in power and maxed it out for the week we went for No. 1. It was a giant [audience increase], and people did that because Canaan has worked hard and done everything [radio has] asked him to do, and they wanted him to have a No. 1 record. That doesn’t happen all the time.”

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In addition to Smith’s “goodwill” from radio, Moberly credits the record’s success to his staff, which pulled out all the stops in its white-knuckler final-week jump from 4-1, even calling radio on a Sunday and pushing for some last-minute extra spins to move it into the top spot. “It was an amazing effort by the staff to get all their radio stations into power rotation,” he says. “We wouldn’t have gotten it otherwise.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of things here in 18 years, and this one was as fun as anything I’ve ever done,” adds Moberly. He says the happy chart news brought Smith “some tears, because we had been grinding for so long.”

Smith’s next single, “Hole in a Bottle,” goes for airplay on Aug. 17. As for the four songs on his radio sampler from summer 2014, none of them made the cut on his debut album, Bronco, which arrived in June. So Moberly jokes that for the radio stations still hanging on to them, “They’re collector’s items now.” 

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.