How Nate Smith Went From Wildfire Survivor to ‘Wildfire’ Hitmaker

Nate Smith is hunkered down in a Nashville studio working on his forthcoming second album — but the rising country-rocker can’t help but revisit his past. This is the same studio, he says, where he recorded
his independently released debut EP, 2020’s Reckless, which included his breakout hit, “Wildfire.” When the longing, twangy song went viral on TikTok, it helped Smith score management, publishing and record deals. But that almost never happened.

“I was able to record that because my sister’s husband loaned me $4,000 and we made a little investment deal,” recalls Smith over Zoom, eyes widening in lingering astonishment. “They took a huge risk… But they were able to make enough to put a down payment on their house from [my music].”


During his wildly successful past few years, Smith, 38, has hit numerous milestones: He released his self-titled debut album in April 2023, kicked off his biggest headlining tour yet at the start of 2024 and topped Billboard’s Country Airplay chart with “World on Fire” for 10 weeks in February, tying Morgan Wallen — for whom he’s currently opening stadiums — for the longest-leading No. 1 in the chart’s history. But despite all that, Smith is mostly just happy to “have a stable job” now. “I paid my car off yesterday. From music!” he exclaims. “I can pay my rent and I can buy Christmas presents. That, to me, is making it.”

Smith learned to play guitar at 13 and became a worship leader at 16 in his hometown of Paradise, Calif., and as a young adult, he became a certified nursing assistant. But at 23, Smith moved to Nashville to fully pursue music. He scored a record deal with powerhouse Christian company Word Records and a publishing deal with Centricity Music, but without much success, so he moved back to Paradise in 2011.

He may have stayed, too, had it not been for the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Smith and his family survived 2018’s Butte County Camp Fire, but he lost his home. “If I had stayed in that apartment another hour, I wouldn’t have lived,” he says. Two years later, Smith packed his car with his remaining belongings and headed out to Nashville for a second time — now with nothing left to lose.

Country Power Players, Rookie of the Year, Nate Smith
Nate Smith

The Camp Fire prompted Smith to write “Wildfire,” about how a love interest can generate a less-destructive kind of heat. Smith’s managers, The Core Entertainment’s Kevin “Chief” Zaruk and Simon Tikhman, recall receiving the song early in the pandemic and soon after requesting a Zoom meeting with the unknown artist. “He had this bushy, wide-eyed personality of a guy who you know has been told ‘no’ every single step of the way and suddenly had a little momentum,” Tikhman says. “We just kind of fell in love with the guy and were flying to Nashville a week later to meet with him.” By summer 2020, The Core signed Smith to a management deal. A Sony/ATV publishing deal soon followed, as did a Sony Music Nashville record deal in 2021.

“If you look at an artist like Nate and his tough road to get where he is today, that’s the country story,” Tikhman continues. “They call Nashville the ‘10-year town…’ It has been a 20-year town for Nate.” Adds Zaruk: “The music business is so hard. To see that it can work and to see it happen to someone not in their 20s… He is an example of how hard work pays off.”

Today, Smith’s work ethic and his own strain of rock-­infused country have helped him collect two Country Airplay No. 1s. An alt-rock disciple, he has injected edge into Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars,” revitalized Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” and often played Foo Fighters’ “My Hero,” which he calls his “ultimate favorite” song, during his live sets. Smith is also an EDM and pop fan; he recently met Marshmello and would love to collaborate. Sustained radio success, paired with growing mainstream interest in country music, has, Smith figures, provided him with “a lot of leverage.”

“We’re a little hillbilly genre over here, but [pop stars are] wanting to be a part of it, and Beyoncé coming in and some other folks… it’s exploding the genre,” he says. “They’re still trickling in; Post [Malone] hasn’t put his album out yet. There’s an opportunity right now… it’s definitely the time to go DM your favorite pop star.”

Meanwhile, Smith and his management are working overtime to translate his current moment into a lasting career. “You can text Chief at 3 a.m., and he’s going to get back to you,” he says with a smile. “It’s kind of sickening, but we’re all like that.” He recently started a new protein-heavy diet and has given up drinking — for now. “The name of the game is don’t get sick and have endurance and be in shape,” Smith says. “This is an athletic thing, and I didn’t realize that… I love to party, but it’s just slowing me down.”

When Smith worries about losing momentum, his team reminds him where he was just a few years ago. “They always bring my perspective back,” he says, recalling Zaruk’s advice: “You were surviving before, working paycheck to paycheck and barely making ends meet. Now you’re living — we get to live.” Smith holds his freshly tattooed forearm to the camera, showing off some new ink that’s still healing: “Live. Don’t Exist.”

This story will appear in the May 11, 2024, issue of Billboard.

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