SANFORD — If Erik Smallwood ever does hit the big time, he can credit his work ethic, passion for music and perhaps even the water in his hometown.
Smallwood, who now lives in Fayetteville, is a native of Muscle Shoals, the small northwestern Alabama town where legendary recording artists like Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Eric Clapton, the Allman Brothers and newer artists like Carrie Underwood recorded some of their biggest hits. It’s also the hometown of John Paul White of the Civil Wars and is the subject of a recent documentary, “Muscle Shoals,” which received rave reviews at the recent Sundance Film Festival.
Smallwood took to music as early as the seventh grade, but it wasn’t until he reached his 20s when he learned about his hometown’s place in music history. He grew up listening to a lot of Christian bands like D.C. Talk and Switchfoot and played mostly Christian music in bands with his friends throughout his teens and early 20s. Now 30, Smallwood branched out into different sounds about seven years ago and developed what he calls today a “country and soul” sound; a sound that is both infectious and passionate, with “blues, pop and a little Muscle Shoals flavor.”
“Muscle Shoals is like country mixed with Motown. It’s a cool sound,” said Smallwood, who’ll be performing on Saturday at the Arts & Vine Festival in Sanford. “You’ve got the documentary coming out and John Paul’ success with the Civil Wars. But there’s also Alabama Shakes, who has a member from there, and up-and-coming groups like the Secret Sisters and Local Saints. The talent coming out of that town is phenomenal.”
Add Smallwood to the growing list. He won “Best Country Male” at the 2012 Carolina Music Awards, and was named “Entertainer of the Year” that same year by “Best of Fayetteville.” He has worked with or opened for several well-known artists, including Donna Jean of the Grateful Dead, Will McFarlane (guitarist for Bonnie Raitt, Etta James and Jackson Browne), Jason Isbell of the Drive-by Truckers and Shooter Jennings. His biggest gig was opening for Joe Diffie before about 10,000 fans at the 2013 Fayetteville Dogwood Festival.
This week, he signed a deal with a North Carolina-based music promoter to get two of his most recent recordings, “Sweeter” and “Come Home Soon” on regional country music stations. He has 19 shows scheduled for May, including Arts & Vine, where he’ll take the stage at 3 p.m. before traveling to nearby Hope Mills for a night show.
“We play full time,” said Smallwood, who plays most of his smaller acoustic sets with friend Neil Ray. “Three to five times a week, all over the state and the Southeast. But I’m not complaining … I get to do what I love.”
When he finds time, Smallwood is currently working on a new EP, which will include a revised version of “Sweeter” and other new songs. He left Alabama for Fayetteville in 2006 to take a music position at a church, but a tough economy nullified that position and left Smallwood at a crossroads. He stayed in Fayetteville because he met his wife there and made several close friends. His biggest music moments were born there, too, from playing before thousands at Dogwood to opening for and playing on stage with one of his heroes, Shooter Jennings.
“There are so many great moments to choose from,” Smallwood said. “I don’t know if any of them rank as the best, because I’m at home playing in front of 30 people who are into my music more than I am in front of 3,000 who might not care what’s going on. I’m just very humbled and blessed and honored that any of this is happening to me.”