"It's one of my favorite songs that I've really ever written as a country music songwriter," Smith tells PEOPLE about "Why I Can't Leave"
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Conner Smith
Conner Smith
| Credit: Cooper Smith

Singer/songwriter Conner Smith was 6 years old when he got his first dose of country music reality. At the time, his mom worked as a reporter of sorts, and would spend much of her nights listening to the interviews and reviewing the footage she had gotten that morning from some of the genre's most successful songwriters.

"I would just sit on the floor in her office and study how the songwriters were talking and how they were writing these country songs," explains Smith, now 21, during an interview with PEOPLE. "But most of all, I listened to the way they told their stories."

Listening to these conversations intrigued the kid born and raised just outside of Nashville so much that he began writing his own songs at 6 years old, signed with BMI as a writer at 9 years old and received his first publishing deal at 16 years old.

Conner Smith
Why Can't I Leave Cover Art
| Credit: Courtesy The Valory Music Co.

"Songwriting wasn't a phase," explains Smith, who at the same time was burning up the fields as a star baseball player. "From day one, my parents never questioned my dream of being a songwriter. It's just always what I did."

Indeed, his impressive talent as a songwriter has long captured the attention of those in Music City, but it's his promise as a solo artist that somewhat serves as another piece of the rush of new blood flowing into the genre at the moment. In fact, Smith has been on quite a streak as a solo artist as of late, including a viral moment he recently experienced thanks to his song "I Hate Alabama."

"I'm a big Tennessee Vols fan," he says with much enthusiasm for the song that was written by Ben Hayslip and Matt Jenkins. "So as soon as I heard the song, I connected to it. I mean, the cleverness of the way that they wrote this love song blew me away. It's brilliant."

And as college football was in full swing at the time, Smith instinctively knew that the time was right to release the song. And so, like any other talented member of Gen Z, he threw it on TikTok.

And it went viral.

"Literally seven days from the moment we put it on our socials, the song was officially out," says Smith, who signed with Big Machine Label Group's Valory Music Co. imprint in 2019 and who has gone on to open for the likes of Ryan Hurd, Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett. "We didn't even have artwork turned in. We didn't have an album cover. We didn't have the master turned in. We didn't have the song mix. So all the credit in the world goes to my label for seeing what this was and knowing instinctively that the time was right to get it out."

At the very same time "I Hate Alabama" was having its viral success, Smith was also basking in the radio success of his debut single "Learn from It." But despite all of this, they moved forward with their release last month of "Why I Can't Leave" which he wrote alongside Ben Hayslip and Matt Jenkins back in the summer of 2020.

"It's all about the reasons you can love a place for the same reasons that you hate it," says Smith, who was just named one of Pandora's Artists to Watch for 2022. "It's one of my favorite songs that I've really ever written as a country music songwriter."

And while heartbreak seems to be a common thread in the music of Smith thus far, one quick scroll through his Instagram seems to illuminate the fact that the rising star is having no trouble in the love department.

"I've been going out with my girlfriend for a little over a year," he says with a smile. "It's sort of funny, because she actually goes to school in Birmingham, Alabama, so we definitely laugh about that. She's a sweetheart."