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Smith infuses country with rock and roll

Oklahoma native Damon Smith takes the old Donny and Marie axiom of "a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll" to an interesting extreme - he's country all right, but there's no lack of rock in his approach.

"I like to think of myself as Garth Brooks meets John Cougar Mellencamp, because they're my main influences," said Smith, who's been kicking around Nashville for the past decade and may soon be moving up the ladder as a national artist.

"I'm not like anybody else in the business - my persona is quite different from any other country performer. I listen to good storytelling country music and fun country songs, but I still love AC/DC, the Black Crowes, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and John Mellencamp. We mix all those influences into my shows."

Along with his band the Beautiful Mistakes, Smith will perform at the 5 O'clock Somewhere Bar and Grill in Covington on Saturday at 8:30 p.m. He recently played an industry showcase in his adopted hometown and created quite a buzz among the titans of the country music industry, so it may not be long before Smith moves beyond the clubs and takes the next step along his career path.

"We had a phenomenal turnout," said Smith of his showcase performance. "There were representatives from several major record labels, booking agents, producers and managers there. I have been in talks with a major label and I've got a good feeling things are going to pop for me soon. They were saying all I need is a hit song on the radio. There's no development required - I've been on the road playing 175 to 200 dates a year for the past 10 years."

The son of a funeral home director in Ada, Okla., and an outstanding high school and collegiate wrestler (he was a member of Oklahoma State University's 1994 national champion wrestling team), Smith moved to Nashville with no connections and no sympathetic supporters - he basically had a guitar and an ironclad will to make it in music.

"Being a wrestler instilled a character in my personality that has helped me in this business," he said. "I've got leather-thick skin and a tough heart and soul, which is helpful when you keep hearing the word 'no.' But this business, like life, is a wrestling match - and this is a match I'm going to win. That background is big in my heart and it drives me every day."

Smith was able to make friends with Brooks (himself a former Oklahoma State athlete) and realized that it would take more than a pleasing voice and a couple of catchy songs to make a career.

"I've been in Nashville since 1997 and I've seen so many artists come and go," he said. "And I wondered how somebody could have a hit record and then just sort of disappear. I realized it was because they weren't entertainers. Garth is somebody I have always looked up to and it was from him that I learned how to be an entertainer. And the only place I could learn that was to go on the road for as many as 200 shows a year, finding out what songs worked and what songs didn't.

"People react to entertainers. Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney don't have the greatest voices in the business, but they know how to entertain people. There are plenty of guys out there who can sing me under the table, but country music is all about connecting with the fans. If they accept you, you're in for life. Keeping your fan base together is what country music is about."

Smith's foray in recording yielded an interesting result in 2006 when his song "Jesus Runs With a Rough Crowd" found favor with Christian and inspirational radio stations all over the country.

"It's been the weirdest thing," he said. "I was working with this producer who thought the song would fit my voice, so we cut the thing and he advised me to take it to radio stations and plug it while I was on the road. So I did, and the song took off with wings. It started getting picked up by syndicated programs and was played on 300 or 400 radio stations at a time.

"It reached No. 1 on the inspirational and Christian charts and I found myself competing with folks like Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw and Diamond Rio. I never would have dreamed that an independent artist would knock those guys out of the No. 1 spot."

While "Jesus Runs With a Rough Crowd" doesn't necessarily play well in country bars ("You really have to listen to the lyrics," he said), Smith is willing to perform it if people want to hear it. A regular roadhouse performance by Smith will include a number of his songs, but as a performer, he's aware patrons want to hear music they're familiar with.

"I know people don't want to hear my songs all night long," said Smith, who was a high school classmate of country star Blake Shelton, with whom he remains close friends. "So we do about eight originals and then the rest of the show, for the most part, is honky tonking songs from Charlie Daniels to Blake Shelton to Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Kentucky Headhunters to Kenny Chesney. We've got something for everybody. If I've learned anything during the past 10 years, I've learned what people want to hear."

The cover charge to see Damon Smith and the Beautiful Mistakes on Saturday, March 22 is $5. For more information, call the 5 O'clock Somewhere Bar and Grill, 7189 Turner Lake Road in Covington, at 770-385-5800.

SideBar: If You Go

What: County rock singer Damon Smith

When: Saturday, March 22 at 8:30 p.m.

Where: 5 O'clock Somewhere Bar and Grill, 7189 Turner Lake Road in Covington

Cost: $5 cover charge. Call 770-385-5800 for more information.