Before anyone had any idea who Granger Smith was, Earl Dibbles Jr. was the king of the Internet. A purveyor of sassy country memes and parody videos, Dibbles is Smith’s longtime alter-ego, a character created by the Dallas singer and his brother as a sort of tongue-in-cheek celebration of rural life.
Now, Smith is striking out on his own after releasing Remington, an album branded by the gun company and the ninth album recorded under his own name.
A Dallas native, Smith moved to Nashville in 2004 trying to hit it big, but that never quite happened. “There weren’t a lot of venues for me to play original songs, just a bunch of covers,” he says. “I wanted to finish school and play the music that I was writing.” So Smith came back to College Station, attended Texas A&M and started a band. They didn’t make it to the big time either, which is when Earl Dibbles Jr. was born.
“I created Earl Dibbles Jr. and I’m passionate about it. It’s become my brand,” says Smith. The barb wire-tattooed, overalls-wearing Dibbles frequently sports a fat chaw in his lip and lives in a rundown house (actually an abandoned home on Smith's own property). He's released such esteemed tracks as the recent “‘Merica” and “City Boy Stuck," and boasts more than 5 million fans on Facebook and 50 million views on YouTube.
The hillbilly everyman persona has been so successful, in fact, that Smith has incorporated it into the shows he plays under the name his mama gave him. Once Smith’s band leaves the stage after a performance, Dibbles returns with his cannons and American flags to wrap up the show. But in Smith’s view, the creation of his country-fried persona is, for the most part, separate from the music he’s making under his own name.
"It’s just a different headspace. Granger tells the story of me, and Earl is way over the top,” he says. “There are elements of me in Earl and elements of Earl in me. It’s impossible to 100 percent separate the two. If they were completely black and white, if I was a lounge act playing it slow and Earl runs out with cannons and American flags at the end, there would be a disconnect. Fans of Earl need to like Granger Smith and vice versa, or at least appreciate it for what it is.”
The fans have certainly responded to both Smith and Dibbles. Right now, Smith’s “Backroad Song,” the lead single from Remington, sits at No. 16 on the Billboard Top Country Songs chart. On the other side of the coin, last year Smith inked a deal to market his own Yee Yee-branded (Earl Dibbles Jr.’s signature rallying cry) energy drink that’s sold in a camo tall boy can.
It all adds up to a push toward marketability. Smith has been deliberately trying to push beyond his persona and into the mainstream as an artist, and has been remarkably successful. He insists, though, that the success of “Backroad Song” was entirely organic. “If I could say that I knew it was going to be great, I would be a lot more successful with that kind of foresight,” says Smith. “I wrote that song on backroads and edited it on backroads on my laptop back by where I live. The way I wrote it, it flowed with the curves of the road that I’ve driven for years. This felt like a windows-down radio song, and I felt like it had a pretty good shot.”
More to the point, he’s subtly tailored his own music to fit with current market expectations. “If you can capture your story with the elements of today’s market, it gives you a window of opportunity,” he says. Before sounding too much like a shrewd investor, though, Smith insists that his sound was already a solid fit.
“I got lucky. I didn’t have to chase the market too much. If you worry about what’s going on in Nashville and in Texas, you’re never going to catch it,” he continues. “Luckily, our fans loved what we were doing. It was my story and I was translating it to that group of people in the audience, whether we were playing the small towns in Pennsylvania or Montana or whatever. They loved it.”
Even though it’s presented with a gun manufacturer’s logo, Remington’s title track is a deeply personal song for Smith. “'Remington' is a song I wrote about my first gun. It was a Remington 12-gauge WingMaster. It’s probably the most common and most versatile shotgun; a lot of people keep it as their trusty shotgun,” he says. “My dad gave me that gun. It’s got some character. It’s not the shiniest, newest gadget on the shelf but it does shoot straight. I started writing with the idea that maybe I’m a little bit like a Remington. This is kind of the sentiment of what this album is to me.”
For Smith, and arguably his fans, the Remington logo holds a special significance. “I had a guy in Baltimore come up to me with a box of Remington shells for me to sign,” he says. “It’s important because you can pull up that record and get an instant understanding. It’s easily digestible, it’s familiar. Maybe it’s a little comfortable.” The relationship with Remington the gun manufacturer, though, didn’t come quite so easily.
After writing the song, Smith approached a graphic artist he’d worked with before to design the cover for his forthcoming album. The artist came up with an old-school 1950s Remington logo, and the singer’s attorney insisted that he get approval from Remington to use their trademark. “They were kind of punks about it and said that we had to use their current logo,” says Smith. “We pushed back and thought about maybe changing the album title, but the more and more we thought about it, Remington was the title and we needed it to be compliant. If all we had to do was put the logo they wanted on it, then that’s what we needed to do.”
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Despite that minor snag, Remington has already seen a great deal of success, especially in terms of radio airplay for “Backroad Song.” The song also fit pretty comfortably on the country charts judging by its rapid ascent. “The single went fast and easy. It just kind of coasted,” says Smith. “We pushed along and helped the snowball down the hill, but the song did a lot of work on its own. One station would pick it up and their listeners loved it, then the next station down the road hears their competitor is playing it, it just snowballed.”
Which is sort of how Smith’s success with Dibbles happened. Plenty of people make (allegedly) funny videos and upload them to YouTube, but few have the kind of success that Smith has seen. Even fewer end up with energy drinks and marketing deals and a spot on CBS’s college football broadcasts. Whatever your feelings on Earl Dibbles Jr., whether you’re in on the joke or find it a little offensive, Smith sees it as a way to identify with his fan base – folks who either live in the country or wish they did.
“It’s not making fun of our fan base, it’s celebrating it. That’s how I have grown up. I have family members that are exactly like Earl and they talk just like him and they have those same stories,” he says. “The green truck that you see in the videos, that’s the truck I learned how to drive on. I broke the door off when I was 18 trying to back out of a barn. The roof is dented because I flipped it.”
Which is why, at the end of the day, Smith embraces the fact that he and Dibbles are one in the same person. “I can wake up every single day and be thankful that there is an Earl Dibbles Jr. and that it created a phenomenon on the Internet enough for us to go out and tour and have him as our ambassador,” he says. “I can’t take myself too seriously, and I think artists take themselves way too seriously. We write songs and there are people who take it so seriously. We’re all in the entertainment business.”