Country music hitmaker ERNEST loves himself some self-inflicted heartache every once in a while.
“I’m trying to be better at it, but damn it, it always happens,” ERNEST, 30, tells PEOPLE in a recent interview. “I write songs when I have hurt myself in an easily avoidable situation, because it’s a vulnerable place to write in.”
It’s this vulnerable place that ERNEST, whose full name is Ernest Keith Smith, was in as he headed to a writing session Ben Burgess and Mark Holman and a little George Jones came on the radio.
“I have this George Jones playlist, and the song ‘A Good Year for the Roses’ came up, and I instantly started thinking about writing a song that played off that same idea,” remembers ERNEST, who has snagged No. 1s as a songwriter on songs such as Morgan Wallen‘s “More Than My Hometown” and Florida Georgia Line‘s “I Love My Country.”
In a span of less than an hour, the songwriting trio would end up writing ERNEST’S debut single “Flower Shops (feat. Morgan Wallen,) which quickly charted at No. 1 at Apple Music Country, Spotify Country, and iTunes overall upon its release and is now making its way to the top of the Billboard charts.
“I quickly realized that I could tap into this guy in the song fairly easily,” the Nashville native explains. “He’s just a sad, sad dude who has run out of apologies and has no idea what else he can possibly do to make it right besides stopping at the flower shop.”
Of course, make no mistake, ERNEST is no “sad, sad dude.” In fact, the tough-looking wordsmith-turned-artist not only finds himself thriving in his professional life, but also in his personal life as he enjoys five years of marriage with wife Delaney.
“A week after I met her, I knew I was going to marry her one day,” remembers ERNEST, who recently penned the sweetest of Mother’s Day messages to her on Instagram. “She believed in my dream from the start.”
In fact, ERNEST was just a kid when that dream got going one Christmas when he received a banjo, a copy of the Space Jam soundtrack — and an enduring love for all things music.
“I remember writing poems in my little notepad in middle school and going and putting them with a guitar as soon as I got home,” recalls ERNEST, whose musical influences have run the gamut from John Mayer to Drake. “Once I got into college playing baseball, I just spent my time in my dorm room writing songs. I didn’t really want to go to practice and do all the other stuff. I wanted to do music for real. So, I started doing it.”
Soon, ERNEST was dropping out of college and dropping in at the home of Robb Royer, a noted songwriter and founding member of the soft rock band Bread. After a six-week trip to the U.S. Virgin Islands with the family, ERNEST found himself smitten with Royer’s daughter Delaney.
And these days, it is now-wife Delaney that serves as the muse for many of ERNEST’s masterpieces, including the sweet-sounding song “Classic” off his debut full-length album Flower Shops-The Album.
“I’ll be the first to say the love songs are just as honest as the sad songs I write,” says ERNEST, who made his Grand Ole Opry debut this past January.
It was also Delaney that ERNEST had on his mind when writing the track “Tennessee Queen,” whose Elvis references have a personal slant to them.
“I think Elvis is one of the coolest people ever,” says ERNEST with a laugh. “And if you’ve ever seen Graceland, you can see that same retro vibe in our house. Our house was built in 1963, so we have some very similar stuff. We just haven’t all the way renovated. We just make it work, but yeah, it looks like Graceland.”
And he’s been to Graceland six times in case you are wondering.
Another thing he can’t get enough of is his son Ryman Saint, who recently celebrated his first birthday.
It was children that often came up in conversation as ERNEST was out on tour earlier this year with Chris Lane on his Fill Them Boots Tour. Lane is also the father of a son — 11-month-old Dutton, with wife Lauren Bushnell Lane — and worked with ERNEST to write his No. 1 hit “Big, Big Plans.”
“I’m glad we can be dads together,” says ERNEST, who is set to hit the road alongside artists such as Wallen and Eric Church this summer. “Especially early on, we would talk about what we were going through and what to get ready for and stuff like that. The hardest thing is being gone. You can see videos and stuff, and you can get three or four days at home with them, but then you got to say goodbye.”
But ERNEST focuses on the positives: “There is nothing sweeter than a good baby hug!”