Say Something Real: An Interview with Shinedown's Brent Smith

Brent Smith, the lead singer of Shinedown, has a voice as massive as a helicopter searchlight. It illumines the intricate details of the diverse range of lyrical subject matter his band explores. Fans and critics know him best as the frontman of the hard rock unit responsible for hits like “45” and “Devour,” but Smith has taken a temporary and simultaneous detour and homecoming with his contribution to a Muscle Shoals tribute record, Small Town, Big Sound. The eclectic and excellent celebration of one of America’s most iconic recording studios features Smith alongside Steven Tyler, Alan Jackson, Grace Potter, and others in an impressive gathering of singers and players from country, rock, and R&B.

It might surprise some of Shinedown’s listeners to hear Smith sing his heart out on an old school, soul classic, but the lead singer grew up on the genre in his Florida home, and beyond musical category, soul is also a term denoting expressions of conviction, authenticity, and real life intensity. Smith and Shinedown are familiar purveyors of all those artistic qualities. So, it seems oddly fitting that he would select the Wilson Pickett barroom burner, “Mustang Sally,” for his Small Town, Big Sound performance.

Covering “Mustang Sally” is a pursuit full of risk and potential for failure. It is an immensely beloved and familiar classic, already covered by countless legends, from Buddy Guy to Bruce Springsteen.

It requires a significant quantity of courage to take “Mustang Sally” for a drive, as the road is full of possible pitfalls. Lucky for Small Town, Big Sound, Brent Smith manages to work a miracle of rhythm and blues. With a dazzling array of backup musicians, including some who played on Wilson Pickett’s unforgettable recording, Smith actually makes the song sound fresh. He not only nails the vocal, but gives “Mustang Sally” a new arrangement – one that is a close cousin to the original, but surprisingly contemporary and novel. “Mustang Sally,” in the hands and from the microphone of Brent Smith, is a true musical pleasure – and a tribute in the best sense of the word; not a mere rehash of the original, but a rendition that honors the original with imagination.

Expression of conviction, authenticity, and real life intensity, as the essential ingredients of soul, are also essential for songs, of all genres, that assimilate themselves into the listener’s heart and spirit. Shinedown’s latest hit single, “Get Up,” from the album, Attention Attention, does exactly that as it explores the struggle to overcome depression and mental illness.

I recently interviewed Brent Smith over the phone about his cover of “Mustang Sally,” and Shinedown’s success with “Get Up.”

I have to admit that when I read you selected “Mustang Sally,” I was reticent because it is such a frequently covered song, but not only do you deliver a spectacular version, you manage to make it fresh. How do you cover such a familiar and beloved song, and strike the balance between homage and novelty?

One thing that helped me out is that I did not know a lot about Wilson Pickett. Of course, I knew the song, but I had not dived into the history of the song, and all the different versions of it. Going way back, my dad changed my outlook on music when I was fourteen, because he gave me an anthology tape back when cassettes were still a thing by a guy named Otis Redding. Otis Redding opened the door for me to soul and rhythm and blues. He got me into Sam Cooke, Percy Sledge, and Marvin Gaye, and then they got me to Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday. So, even though I love soul music and soul singers, I did not have that much knowledge of Wilson Pickett’s music. So, when the opportunity came up to go to Muscle Shoals with Rodney Hall (the record’s producer), they found out that I had a small window to get to Alabama and record the song. By the time I got there, there were only four songs left that Rodney wanted me to consider. Since I did not know as much about “Mustang Sally” as I did the other songs – one was “Main Street” by Bob Seger – I went with that one, because I figured it presented an opportunity for me to come in fresh, as you say, to something, and not have too many preconceived notions about it. Plus, I knew that some of the players on this album were on the Wilson Pickett recording. So, that made it really exciting.

When we cut the song, we did it entirely live. There were about fifteen people in that little room when we recorded. The only overdubs were the backup vocals from the three wonderful ladies. Cutting live always lends a certain energy to a recording, but I’ll also tell you this – I think some of my sleep deprivation helped too. I was in Europe for three weeks doing promotion for Shinedown. I flew from Madrid to Nashville, and I went straight to sleep for about five hours. The next morning we went straight to Muscle Shoals. We walked into Fame Studios, and were just like, “Alright, let’s get to it.” It was a bit of a whirlwind.

Then, we actually did two versions. The first few takes were really close to the original. We were working in the same tempo with that same jump. Then, I wanted to stop. I was very respectful, but then I said, “Let’s do something a little different. Let’s try to make it a little more current. Let’s give it a sprinkle of some modernity, and let’s make it a little sexier.” So, we slowed down the tempo, and let the drummer and bassist get into that pocket. And that was it. We had two different versions.

Now, that would have never happened if Rodney didn’t come right out and tell me, “Do it your way.” I felt like that was permission to rework this classic song, and another thing he did was move the microphone out of the vocal booth, and put it in the center of the room. Then, he said, “If you need a little inspiration look up and to your left.”

What I saw was a portrait of Wilson Pickett taken from the recording session for “Mustang Sally.”

I used the word “fresh” exactly because those individualistic and modern qualities are audible in your version. Speaking more broadly, you mentioned your introduction to soul as a boy. What would you say is the connection between Shinedown and R&B?

When I was a teenager, I was listening to a lot of rock and roll, and I got heavily into old school punk and metal. My dad walked into my room one day when I had the Sex Pistols blaring, and he said, “Brent, can you turn it down?” I said, “What?” Then, he shouted, “Can you turn it down?” And I remember he said, “I have no idea why these people are so angry, but I can appreciate their passion. But let me give you something different, and please just give it a try.” He handed me that Otis Redding anthology I mentioned. My love for it was instantaneous. I had never heard that kind of conviction in a vocal before. And it led me to so many other singers, especially those deep south soul singers with bombastic vocal patterns. I had never heard that before, and never heard it coupled with horns. I thought of horns as something in a marching band.

So, if you listen to my band, you can hear the soul part of me more in the first two albums of Shinedown. I was still searching for my sound then, and I finally started to settle into my technique and confidence on the third album. I thought I had reached the conviction of singing from a real place.

I want to emphasize that word – “conviction.” How do you hold out a particular note? How do you glide through different vocal patters? How do you raise the hair on the back of someone’s next to say something real?

I learned how to sing with conviction from soul. Here is the ultimate example of conviction in a singer: To this day, I can put on Billie Holiday, and feel like she is only singing to me. Even if the style is different, I try to invoke that same passion with Shinedown.

It is a privilege, and I feel really lucky, because I knew wanted to be a singer when I was twelve years old, and I’ve never changed my course. I’ve just worked harder and harder at it.

Speaking of conviction, that presents a good transition to talk about the latest Shinedown single, “Get Up.” It is about mental illness and overcoming depression, a timely and timeless topic, and it is having a significant impact on many people’s lives. How did you come to write and record the song?

The process for the album began last year, and we never talked about having a producer, because I knew that Eric Bass, our bassist, would produce the album completely. Eric is much more than our bass player. He has a phenomenal voice – I mean, perfect pitch. If he hears something flat, it just drives him crazy. On top of all of that, he has always been an engineer and producer, but this is the first time that he has done an entire album. He not only produced it, but he engineered and mixed it as well.

Now, I spent 129 days with him last year in Charleston, South Carolina, and why “Get Up” is so significant, and how it got written, is because he had a main piano part that we were holding onto. While we were writing the piano part, there was a buzz – a rub – and it was driving him nuts. So, we actually took apart the entire piano part, and put it back together to get rid of that buzz. On our Instagram, if you go back far enough, you can see a video of Eric taking apart the piano and explaining, “We’re working on a new song, and we need to take this piano apart to do it, and if we like it, you might get to hear it.”

That song that we were working on became “Get Up.”

The main part that was left was the lyrics. Typically, with lyrics, if I don’t get it in 24 hours, I move on. So, fast forward eleven days. Eric was so frustrated, because I still didn’t have the lyrics. He told me to just move on, and forget it, and I said, “Give it one more day.” The following day, I called him up, and I finally had the lyrics.

Rather than reading him the lyrics, I cut the song. It took six hours – the entire vocal part, the harmonies, everything. The next day we listened to the song, and I said, “I absolutely love it.” He said that he did too, and then I asked, “Do you know what it is about?”

He said, “Yes, I know what it is about. It is about me.”

I was terrified that by writing those lyrics I would cross a line with him in our friendship and our love and appreciation for each other. Here’s the interesting and brave thing about Eric: He was not only not mad at me, but he said, “Now that we’ve crossed the line, let’s remove the line.”

So, “Get Up” was the first song for the concept that would define the entire record. It is what makes Attention Attention a story album – the story of someone dealing with depression and finding the strength to overcome it. “Get Up” is four minutes in a 51 minute story.

And it is the turning point of the story. Correct?

“Get Up” is the moment in the record when the individual starts to get his confidence back, and put his life back together.

How would you describe the response to “Get Up”?

It has actually been the most cathartic and wonderful experience in the band’s history, because of how heartfelt and fast it is happening. It is not only in the United States, but around the entire world. Two months after the album’s release, “Get Up” had over three million views on YouTube, and in the comments, there was an incredible community of people talking about how relevant and important the song was for them. Many people have told us that the song came into their lives at the perfect time, and that it gives them real hope. It is about something real. It is not about money, fame, or image. It is something that came from Eric and me, because it is based on our experience, and because of that, it is a song that lets people who have anxiety and depression know that they are not alone.

It is also a song that, I hope, starts a conversation about how there is a difference between having a bad day and having a chemical imbalance. Too many people believe that someone who suffers from depression can just “get over it.”

What is really brave and inspiring about Eric, and I’ve seen it up close, is that he has a way of talking about depression that allows other people to open up about what they are going through. That is important, because for all of the progress we’ve made, it is still the case that most people with mental illness are not going to talk about it, because they fear they are going to get mocked, or they are going to feel ashamed and embarrassed.

One of the most important tasks that art can accomplish is the encouragement of conversation. It can provoke questions and exploration of topics many people prefer to ignore or dismiss.

Yes, and we don’t want to start an argument with “Get Up.” We want people to celebrate themselves. It isn’t always going to be easy, but even when times are hard, do not leave behind your sense of compassion. So, with Attention Attention we are trying to tell people, “You’re going to fail, but you are not going to be defined by your failures. You are going to be defined by your refusal to give up.” 

David Masciotra is the author of four books, including Mellencamp: American Troubadour (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and Barack Obama: Invisible Man (Eyewear Publishing, 2017).