Back when Don Smithmier fronted a Madison grunge rock band, he never imagined a future in country music.
Smithmier, 39, is a McFarland native and UW-Madison alum. In 1994, he began singing in Seventeen Rhinos, the Madison group that echoed the national boom in muscular guitar acts like Alice in Chains.
Today, Smithmier lives in Minneapolis and plays keyboard in Rocket Club, an unsigned folk-rock band that won attention from Nashville by getting a song on Billboard's country chart late last year.
Next Thursday, April 1, Smithmier will return when Rocket Club plays Q106's Storyteller's Jam IX at the Marriott Madison West.
Rocket Club's sudden national exposure came as a surprise for Smithmier. He'd already earned success in business as cofounder of Rumble, a Twin Cities company that creates original music for advertising and film.
He says he started the band in 2007 as an outlet for the music he and longtime friend Brian Kroening had written. Kroening is also a Minneapolis resident, former Madisonian and former member of Seventeen Rhinos.
"We talked about how much we missed bands like the Eagles, where there were multiple singers who would trade vocal parts and then join together in harmony," Smithmier told me by phone last week.
Rocket Club is now a six-piece band that includes ex-Johnny Lang drummer Billy Thommes. The band's hit single emerged from a favor for a friend, Mark Lacek. Lacek and his wife run Faith's Lodge, a northwest Wisconsin retreat for families mourning the death of a child. Lacek had once written a poem mourning his stillborn daughter, Faith. He asked Rocket Club if they would consider putting music to his words.
"At first I thought it was too personal, but [Rocket Club bassist] Joel Sayles knew exactly what to do with it," Smithmier says.
Smithmier eventually helped Sayles finish "One More Day." The song began rotating on Twin Cities country radio and spread to stations across the U.S. The song peaked at No. 49 in the Billboard country Hot 100.
"People noticed in Nashville," says Smithmier. "Totally to our delight, we've been embraced by country music."