Music and country culture are in Hunter Smith’s blood. As a fifth-generation Floridian and fourth-generation Winter Havenite, his roots run deep here. His great grandfather, Dr. Wiley Terrell Simpson was instrumental in starting Winter Haven Hospital in 1928.
Smith loves it here. His dad always says, “Another day in paradise” – and Hunter agrees. He left home to attend college but made his way back to Winter Haven where he and his wife Jennifer and two Labrador Retrievers, Willie and Waylon live. His time not strumming for a crowd is spent as a commercial insurance agent with Mulling Insurance. He likes good music, good food, good craft beer, and good wine.
The Music that Shaped Him
Surrounded since childhood by chords and notes, Smith’s grandmother, Billye-Mullins Smith was a professional concert pianist and music educator. “She developed her own music curriculum based on mathematics called Opus One,” said Smith.
Her career flourished. She played for politicians and affluent audiences. Billye-Mullins Smith continued to teach until age 92 before passing away at 93.
“She was absolutely amazing and a huge influence on me musically,” he said. “That’s where all the music in our family stemmed from.”
Smith’s dad is a talented pianist as well, though never trained, he has an ear for it. His father also plays bass and both of his parents can carry quite a tune according to Smith. The sounds of James Taylor, The Beatles, Alabama, and Ronnie Milsap infused his upbringing. His grandmother introduced him to all of the essential classical artists – Brahms, Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Bach.
He said, “The radio was always on – there was either an 8-track in the dash of the car playing, a record on somewhere, there was a tape playing somewhere, the radio was on somewhere – there was just always music.”
College is where he met one of his lifelong friends and bandmates, Shannon Fetherman. Fetherman was from Lakeland and Smith from Winter Haven, but the two had never crossed paths in Polk. They attended college nine and a half hours away at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and were as thick as thieves within weeks of meeting. A binding force for the pals was music.
“We started trying to teach ourselves how to play guitar. Over the course of a year we could strum G-C-D chord songs that were pretty simple,” remembered Smith. “We’d drive from Birmingham, home – both of us playing guitar. Him in the driver’s seat of a Bronco II and me in the passenger’s seat – both of us playing guitar, him with the neck out the window, driving with his knee.”
In 1995, within a year of learning guitar, they started their first band called Tamerlane. Tamerlane even recorded an album in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded some of their music. The next few years saw them opening up for larger acts of the era like Semisonic, Creed, and Edwin McCain.
Around the turn of the century, band members had moved away and Fetherman and Smith both moved back to Florida. Tamerlane was no longer. Smith said, “It was fun, it really taught me a lot about music, but it didn’t teach me near as much as what I would learn in the next 18 years of my musical career.”
Wall Street Cantina, Loaded Hog, and One-Eyed Jacks in downtown Orlando became frequent gigs for Hunter and Shannon when they moved home with their acoustic duo. At the same time, Smith was playing solo shows at Molly McHugh’s, Jesse’s, and Tanner’s original location.
In 2002, Smith and Fetherman decided to start a three-piece band. With hard rock influence in the songs Hunter had been writing, they’d need a drummer. Fetherman bought a drum set and taught himself to play. They picked up bass player Jake Cockrell who has played with bands Black Eyed Suzy and Hubo Bentley.
The three dubbed themselves “Polk.”
From 2002 to 2005, Polk played regionally even opening for Switchfoot on the Cypress Gardens stage. Fetherman carried his acquisition of drumming skills into their band today.
After the success of Polk, Smith, continuing to perform solo, also playing acoustic duo sets with his buddy, Tom Tussler. In 2009, Smith, Fetherman, Tussler and Danny Class started a rock quartet called, “As You Were.”
Around 2011, Smith and Fetherman started playing with another friend and colleague, Jeff Sweat. The trio played and wrote songs together. In 2012, they decided to record an album of all the autobiographical songs they’d written.
They sought out folks who could play the other instruments needed to produce the stripped-down, Americana country album. Producing and playing on the album was Brett Hestla who had spent time playing bass for Creed and was the lead singer and guitarist of bands Virgos Merlot and Dark New Day.
Over the course of two weeks in the studio in 2012, the first album of the newly formed band, Jill’s Cashbox was complete. Smith has continued with Jill’s Cashbox for the last 7 years on vocals and acoustic guitar.
Someone he said was pivotal in his own and the band’s success was the host of radio station WPCV 97.5 County, Sara Michaels. Smith called Michaels a friend and his “chosen family.”
Michaels called Smith and asked if he wanted to play a gig at the House of Blues. They booked it, but the show fell through. Maybe that was serendipity’s intervening hand because the House of Blues stayed in touch and later asked Jill’s Cashbox to open up for top country artist, Josh Turner.
That show snowballed into gigs left and right for Jill’s Cashbox. “We rounded out the lineup of the band within six to eight months of playing the show at the House of Blues. We added our current lead guitarist and we’ve been a six-piece ever since,” said Smith. On vocals and acoustic guitar for the band is Smith, Fetherman on drums, Jeff Sweat on rhythm guitar, Joey Antrim on bass, Greg Martin on lead guitar, and Rob Gundling on keys.
Jill’s Cashbox has seen its share of regional success and has been an incredible experience for Smith. He said, “The list just goes on and on of the folks that we’ve gotten to share the stage with. We’ve gotten to meet a lot of our country music idols – Dierks Bentley, Sara Evans, Charlie Daniels, Toby Keith, Keith Urban, Chris Young, Lonestar, we played with Skynyrd twice. I never thought I’d get to meet the guys from Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
“It’s been so much fun that some days you go, ‘Where’s this going? Maybe I just want to take time off and relax.’ And then you play that next show and it reminds you why you do it.”
Songs that Mean the Most
Every song he’s ever written holds a place in Hunter Smith’s heart, but there are three that take up a little more room.
The day before his wedding to wife Jennifer, Smith found himself penning a song to surprise her with at their reception. About the song, “Forever” on the Jill’s Cashbox album, Smith said, “It’s a cheesy love song, but those were my heartfelt feelings the day before my wedding to my wife and those lyrics all stand true fifteen years later.”
Next is a song he wrote with friend Terry Coffman, “Love Me Never.” It was a piece that came together in about 20 minutes. “It just felt so natural,” said Smith.
John Gunter wrote a song that Smith tweaked a bit and produced called “Fishing in Our Soul.” He called it the “epitome of a fishing song.” It is even the theme song for brothers Joe and Luke Simonds for their company, Salt Strong Fishing. The crew filmed a music video for the track in the Little Gasparilla/ Boca Grande area that Smith says has been viewed collectively over 2 million times.
Many Years to Come
Happy where he is, Smith reflected that his main goal is to sell his music. He would love to get his songs into the hands of producers, artists and record labels that could produce them with some of the country icons he has looked up to. “I think that my joy would come from being able to see somebody else take my music and take it to that next level,” he said.
“I don’t think any of the success that I’ve had over the last seven years whether it’s been solo or with Jill’s Cashbox would have happened if it wasn’t for Polk County and Winter Haven and the support of friends, family, fans,” expressed Smith. He also credits Sara Michaels for her avid support of the band.
To all of his supporters, Smith said, “Thank you for allowing me to be able to do this for as long as I’ve been doing it. I hope there are many, many more years to come.”
The musician says he doesn’t plan to quit playing until people quit listening. “I’m indebted to the folks of Central Florida and Winter Haven and Polk County for giving me a voice. It’s really cool.”
Hunter Smith Music
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