Nobody said it because so few understood it, but Granger Smith and his wife Amber's immediate call to give back to the hospital where their 3-year-old son died was not intuitive. Within days, if not sooner, the couple was praising the staff and their efforts.

It's not that the nurses and doctors at the Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, Texas, weren't deserving. They did everything they could and more to bring River back after his June 2019 drowning accident. It's the under-appreciated nature of their jobs — we expect to be cared for like family, and the Smiths were treated as such. After River's death, they took the express train to reciprocity and raised $218,000 in their late son's name, giving it to the children's hospital.

"We needed to immediately look for a purpose," Smith tells Taste of Country, "a meaning to something that we couldn't explain and just couldn’t find any kind of truth in the reality. We needed to redirect that focus immediately into something that we could walk away that first day and go, 'OK, we have a new mission.'"

A song called "Heroes" on Smith's new Country Things, Vol. 1 album (Wheelhouse Records) speaks to the second reason he and his wife of 10 years felt compelled to give back without hesitation. The ballad is track No. 7 on an eight-song LP and is just one of the ways he takes his hat off to quietly grieve, show gratitude or share new perspective. "I Kill Spiders" is a piece of his diary that he can't wait to look back on in 10 years with his daughter, London, the resident arachnophobe at their new Texas farm. The title track is a Texas-ified, banjo and steel guitar rambler about slowing down to take notice of life's funny little details, a theme he also explores during "That's Why I Love Dirt Roads."

"Heroes" started as a kind of cowboy song four or five years ago in Bend, Ore. Smith says early on in the coronavirus pandemic, those old lyrics came back to him while he was driving his truck, and he started to sing them slowed down — like you hear on the record. He did a U-turn toward home and pulled the song out of his files to work on it again. Later he'd add onto it — a special tribute to nurses, making it especially personal and timely. Few would argue that in Sept. 2020, nurses and medical personnel don't deserve to be called "heroes."

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"That was a big deal with me and Amber, to see those nurses with River," Smith recalls, choking up just a little. "It was unimaginable how they could go through this and actually cry and feel emotional connection to these children and then go home, sleep and come back in the morning at 7AM and make a new bed ... and here comes another child into that bed."

River Kelly Smith couldn't be revived after he slipped into the family's backyard pool while playing outside with his siblings. The couple has laid their grief out in episodes of their popular YouTube series The Smiths in the 15 months since, often using the platform as a way to promote proper swimming pool safety and awareness.

Within a few weeks of the tragedy, the country singer returned to the stage, but admits certain parts of his show were very difficult to reprise.

"At the onset, it was difficult to be Earl," the 41-year-old shares, speaking of his alter ego, Earl Dibbles Jr. The backwoods-raised, too-proud-for-his-own-good redneck personality has closed Smith's show for years, singing one or two originals as he chews tobacco and hollers "Yee Yee!" Historically, the very last beat of the show would find Dibbles smashing two beers in the air like professional wrestler Steve Austin and peacocking off the stage as a frenzied crowd shouted back at him. Smith quit that tradition for a bit.

"I felt so weird partying on the stage when my heart wasn’t partying," he says, "but this year we’ve played a handful of shows and Earl is a nice outlet for me. Earl is a nice mask I could put on that helps me become a new character. There is a lot of relief in that."

The Smith family continues to raise money in River's memory via a charitable fund, the River Kelly Fund, so that they can give back to special causes and folks close to their hearts — like nurses.

Smith Country Things Cover
Wheelhouse Records

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