Music

In Case ‘World on Fire’ Seemed Like a Fluke, Nate Smith Serves Up ‘Bulletproof’: ‘You Have to Be Able to Sing Along to My Songs’

Nate Smith had an enviable start to his career when “Whiskey on You” worked its way to No. 1 on Country Airplay in 2022.

So when his sophomore single arrived, it pretty much required the country universe to pay attention. That song – mirroring its title, “World on Fire” – blew up, outstripping the previous release’s reach by tying the record for the longest run at the top of the Country Airplay chart since that list’s 1990 inception.

“Talk about a shocker,” Smith marvels. “Ten weeks? I just can’t even believe it.”

“World” had a brawny sound, and its successor, “Bulletproof,” operates a bit like a boxer following the previous single’s body blow with a fierce left hook. The “Bulletproof” chorus employs big, snarling guitars beneath a catchy melody, and it helps define expectations as Smith moves forward in his career.

“We’re obviously going to evolve,” he allows, “but I think that what can’t stop is anthems. They have to be anthems. They have to be sing-alongs. They have to be something that feels visceral, emotional and has to connect to people on an emotional level.”

“Bulletproof” was kind of waiting around for Smith to find it. He co-wrote the bulk of the material on his eponymous debut album, but after his first two singles created demand for his talents, he spent most of 2023 on the road, often visiting radio stations during the afternoons, then wedging in meet and greets before his concerts. It wasn’t ideal for writing songs, so he put out the word that he was looking for outside songs. Music Row was happy to oblige.

“Bulletproof” is actually a three-year-old composition, owing its origins to an April 2021 appointment at the office of Track45 member Ben Johnson (“Truck Bed,” “Take My Name”). Johnson worked that day with Ashley Gorley (“Last Night,” “You Should Probably Leave”) and Hunter Phelps (“wait in the truck,” “Cold Beer Calling My Name”) on “starts,” assembling short foundations they could use to compose songs at a later date.

“We’ve done that forever,” Johnson says. “It’s basically just getting ready for a write, you know. You want to make sure you’re armed with ideas and vibes and melodies.”

After crafting about five starts, they tore into another and found they couldn’t stop. “We were supposed to just do a start, and we end up writing the whole song,” Johnson says. “So that was a happy accident.”

Johnson got the “Bulletproof” title from a synth-heavy 2011 dance record by female singer La Roux. He imagined it receiving some country-style wordplay – “take shots at me, but I’m bulletproof” – and plugged the new idea into his phone. When he brought it up, Gorley and Phelps kicked into what became the opening lines of the chorus.

“This one was faster than most of the songs I would say that we’ve ever written,” Phelps says. “It was quick, because I remember instantly him going ‘I’ve tried Jack, I’ve tried Jim.’ I was like, ‘Man, we’re off to the races right now. That’s it.’”

They injected some solid drinking imagery into that chorus – particularly “heartbreak bottles up on the shelf” – and Gorley tossed in some repetition. “I remember Ashley singing the ‘shots, shots, shots,’ and we’re like, ‘Oh, yeah,” Phelps says.

It’s safe to say that by that time, it was no longer a “start,” and they were intent on taking it to the finish line. They headed back to the front, where they used the first verse to set a bar scene with the protagonist trying desperately to drink away the memory of an ex. And when they made it to the second verse, they cut that section in half, with specific purpose. They’d developed a post-chorus – an extra add-on that they planned to tack onto the end of the second chorus. Halving the second verse helped them get there quicker.

“If you have a big post-chorus,” Johnson reasons, “you don’t really want a long second verse, because you want to leave a lot of real estate for that post-chorus to come around.”

Johnson built the demo, inspired by 2000s-era rock, particularly thinking of the percussion sounds and guitar tones in Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” though he came up with guitar chords for the intro that feel more like Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Gorley gave the demo a cursory vocal, and Phelps re-did it at a later date; then “Bulletproof” sat for a while until Smith put out the word that he needed material. Gorley assembled about 10 songs and forwarded them to Smith, who was intrigued from the second he heard the “Mary Jane” chords. The demo felt like a club-level rock performance, but Smith believed it could bear a heavier interpretation suitable for arenas.

“It had the bones there, but I was like, ‘Let’s really rock it up’ so it gets you into that later, that Nickelback, country/rock sort of thing,” Smith says.

Producer Lindsay Rimes (LOCASH, Tyler Rich) recruited drummer Evan Hutchings, bassist Tony Lucido, guitarists Sol Philcox-Littlefield and Tim Galloway, plus keyboardist Alex Wright for a tracking session at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios. They played the demo for the band, and encouraged them to rock it harder. By the time they got to the instrumental break, Philcox-Littlefield went a little farther than they had in mind, playing what Smith called a “super-rippin’ guitar solo.” Smith asked him to dial it back.

“One thing that I’ve learned from John Mayer, like listening to his music, you could sing any guitar solo that he records,” Smith says. “I think that there’s something about that. It has to be catchy, and it can’t be an afterthought.”

Smith’s vocal track was relatively easy. The biggest issue was picking the right spots to beef up further, doubling his performance in key spots to make the lead voice thicker, and adding vocal delays that made the words echo in spaces and fill the track out more.  “Holy cow,” Phelps says. “They made it sound massive.”

The country hitmaker didn’t waste much time to get the song into his set list. He was playing it in concert by November 2023, and RCA Nashville decided to send it to programmers as soon as “World on Fire” slowed down.

The label released “Bulletproof” to country radio via PlayMPE on Feb. 8. It’s already hit No. 27 on Hot Country Songs in its four weeks on the chart. In the meantime, consider its heavy sound and engaging melodicism a template for Smith’s future.

“Stylistically, things will evolve in different ways and stuff, but I feel like if you have that catchy chorus, that really connects to you on emotional level, that’s so important to me,” Smith notes. “You have to be able to sing along with my songs. You have to.”

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