Songwriter Gary Michael Smith and Sal La Rosa of Nashville got to meet President Barack Obama.
When Smyrna songwriter Gary Michael Smith met President Barack Obama Tuesday, he described the experience as “very weighty and historic.”
Smith and 10-year-old student Sal La Rosa of Nashville performed at the White House during the “Country at the White House” workshop. Sal sang his song Smith wrote the melody to and accompanied him on the guitar.
Afterward, they met the president and his wife, Michelle, who thanked them for participating in the program.
“It was just beyond every expectation and dream you have to perform at the White House, let alone the president,” Smith said, describing the event as “quite cool.”
Was it one of the highlights of his life?
“Yes by far,” Smith answered. “How many people get invited to play at the White House and do what they love to do? I am just feeling blessed to have this opportunity.”
Sal and Smith were two of the performers during the White House Music Series. They sat at the table next to the Obamas later Tuesday night when Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss and Union Station performed for the Obamas.
Smith is one of 70 volunteers with the County Music Hall of Fame’s Words and Music program where teachers obtain a kit on lyric writing. Then, students submit lyrics and the Hall of Fame assigns a songwriter to work up melodies for the students.
At age 9, Sal wrote “The Girl in the Hallway,” and Smith worked up the melody and ending songs during a 45-minute session.
They talked about the origin of the song at the White House.
“He really thought about that fact that this was going to be turned in,” Smith said. “It had a chance of a songwriter putting music to it. He thought about what kinds of things appeal to people.”
Sal considered the song from a commercial standpoint.
“He decided to write a love song about seeing a girl in the hall as she swished her hair to the side,” Smith described. “It’s real cute.”
Smith only put minimal input into Sal’s song “to send home the message.” Sal said it was a lot different than what he had in mind but he liked it.
“The Girl in the Hallway” was one of 16 songs chosen for the County Music Hall of Fame Words and Music program from more than 14,000 submitted last year. Smith and Sal performed the song for the County Music Hall of Fame.
“He didn’t want to take his lyric sheet with him,” Smith said. “He’s just a confident and smart kid who is fun to work with.”
They had a good reaction from the Hall of Fame.
When the White House contacted the Hall of Fame for Michelle Obama’s arts program, Hall of Fame members immediately thought about Sal’s performance and invited the pair to the White House.
They performed at the White House for students from Nashville and several other states. Just after the conference, President Obama approached Sal.
“He told Sal he was ‘the man,’” Smith remembered. “He thanked all of us for being in the program.”
The president thanked Smith for his participation.
“I told him I was proud of him and proud to meet him,” Smith said. “I like what he’s doing.”
The Hall of Fame performers and representatives had a photograph taken with Obama. A Marine Corps major escorted them to seats at the show next to the Obamas with Paisley and Krauss and Union Station in the East Room of the White House.
“I was soaking in every ounce of it, trying to take it all in,” Smith remembered.
Smith moved to Middle Tennessee from Colorado. He and his wife, Dana, have lived in Smyrna 14 years. They have three children, Sheridan, 18, Sydney, 8, and Samuel, 7. Sydney and Samuel attend Thurman Francis Arts Academy.
“My day gig is for Journal Communication as distribution and print services director,” Smith said.
He was a writer before moving to Middle Tennessee in 1990. In January 1991, he became a volunteer for the County Music Hall of Fame.
“It was a good way to be on Music Row,” Smith said, explaining he gets critiques of his songs. He’s published about a couple of dozen songs.
“I’ve always volunteered at the Hall of Fame because I feel it’s important to encourage the arts and education and do what I can as a songwriter to help inspire kids,” Smith explained. “I think everybody could be a writer if they put their heart and their mind into it and if they just be observant.”
Smith credited the County Music Association for donating millions of dollars to keep the program between the students and volunteer songwriters.
“God bless them, they’re keeping a great thing going,” Smith said.
CMA also funded the trip to Washington.
“When I got done with the whole night, I went back to the hotel and I just hit my knees and thanked God for the opportunity he provided to us,” Smith said. “What a country He’s protecting and keeping for us.”
Sal and Smith will appear together in a broadcast on network GAC Aug. 20.
The performance at the White House might be the last time Smith and Sal perform together live.
“Maybe the Grand Ole Opry will come calling,” Smith said.