Just last week, Rolling Stone Country published a lengthy and mortifying expose by writer Marissa R. Moss of the pervasive sexual harassment that goes on behind the scenes in country radio. It comes along almost two years after the unsettling comments by radio consultant Keith Hill who called his medium of choice “a principally male format” and claimed that playing two female artists in a row is bad for business, and in the midst of a long overdue #metoo groundswell calling out abusers and misogynists from all walks of life.
Is it any wonder, then, that one of the centerpiece tracks on Starfire, the stinging, superb debut album from Nashville artist Caitlyn Smith, is “This Town Is Killing Me,” a fulminating acoustic ballad about Music City? The core of the song is about the indifference and struggles she has faced in her career as a songwriter (she co-wrote Cassadee Pope’s 2013 hit “Wasting All These Tears” and the Meghan Trainor/John Legend duet “Like I’m Gonna Lose You”) and as a budding solo act. But the weariness in her voice is pure reflection of the gritted teeth and frustration that so many female artists suffer at the grabby hands of label execs, PR flaks and disc jockeys.
Smith’s disappointment with the men of the world revolves primarily around her personal life throughout Starfire. She dips into pure romanticism, extolling the joys of a night in with a loved one, a movie and Chinese takeout on “Cheap Date” and giving oneself over to lust on the bluesy “Contact High.” But mostly the men in her orbit are more space junk than satellites. The first five tracks on the album are a litany of failed relationships and regret, punctuated with sharp details (“Every time I order my coffee black/Your memory keeps coming back/In a double tall breve latte, two pumps classic”) and music that dips and dives between radio-friendly lamentations and neon-lit grit.
The good news for Smith is that she might be able to bypass the country-music establishment altogether. While it was recorded in Nashville and is replete with the late-night regrets and twang, Starfire features plenty of crossover-ready moments. “Don’t Give Up On My Love” swells with the dramatics of an Adele hit, and her ode to her old hometown of “St. Paul” could slot right between Sam Smith and Khalid on a Top 40 playlist.
That’s clearly on the mind of Smith’s label, Monument Records, which has put her in spotlight turns on The Tonight Show and Today. That could be to her benefit as the Nashville establishment may not react too kindly to an artist willing to bite the hand that feeds. Or it, and Moss’s article, may inspire Smith’s fellow female artists to sharpen their fangs and take their own nips at the powers that be.