Corey Smith 

Country singer/songwriter remains a student of life

Corey Smith isn't a doctor. But that doesn't stop him from performing open-heart surgery on himself for his fans' benefit.

In less than five years, Smith has gone from a school teacher in Suwanee, Ga., to one of the top unsigned artists in country music. The class of '01 University of Georgia graduate released his third full-length, Hard-Headed Fool, last September. Smith, who grew up in Jefferson, near Athens, says he was shaped more by the geography of the region than its notable musical influences. "I don't think when one listens to my music they hear a lot of the Athens-based bands like R.E.M. or the B-52's or Widespread Panic," Smith says. "Living in a town like Jefferson, surrounded by chicken houses and cow pastures, to be able to travel 30 minutes and see all these different kinds of people helped open my mind."

Smith's fans were former commercial country fans who discovered something in his music they weren't getting from Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw. The singer/songwriter communicated his feelings about leaving his small-town high school for the great unknown in his song "I'm Not Gonna Cry" so well, it's become the anthem for high school graduations across the country.

He played his songs for his North Gwinnett High School social studies class, and his students encouraged him to pursue a musical career. Smith's chronicles of growing up struck a chord with young adults, making his concerts sing-along sellouts. "John Lennon said all his songs were a giant body of work that ... trace his life and his struggles," Smith says. "I hope my songwriting can be viewed the same way. I hope it helps people feel normal and realize the common struggle that we all face."

Corey Smith plays the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Thurs.-Fri., Feb. 21-22. Sam Thacker opens. $15. 706-549-9918. www.georgiatheatre.com.

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