Sarah Jane Nelson’s ‘Smile Pretty’ Speaks Her Long-Secret Truth [Exclusive Premiere]
When she was in her early 20s, Sarah Jane Nelson was sexually assaulted. She told no one at the time, but in her new song "Smile Pretty," premiering exclusively on The Boot, she harnesses the traumatic incident, in hopes that other survivors will feel empowered, less alone and encouraged to come forward.
Nelson begins "Smile Pretty" as a "perfect paper doll" high school student. At night, her mother sings to her: "Smile pretty, little teen queen / You look so ugly when you cry / You’re a glossy page in a magazine / Baby, keep those tears inside your eyes."
It's a refrain that stings from the start, but is even more damaging as it's used against her by the man who assaults her.
"I thought he was my friend / Stole a fifth of his daddy’s gin / Went down to the river one Friday night," Nelson shares in the second verse. "But under the August pines / He ripped my dress and crossed a lot of lines / Said, 'I like it when you fight.'"
By the third verse, it's Nelson who's using those words against herself, as she tries to "wash off [her] shame," bruised and scarred from the trauma.
"During the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings a couple of years ago, I kept seeing posts on social media that said, 'She must be lying because she waited so many years to tell,'" recalls Nelson, who is releasing "Smile Pretty" during Sexual Assault Awareness Month. "I thought to myself, 'Gosh, I never told. I kept all the pain, confusion and hurt inside. And I'm an outspoken person!
"If I never told anyone, imagine how many women are suffering silently," Nelson continues. "If we all raise our voices, imagine the power we would take back."
Nelson's "Smile Pretty" music video features four additional sexual assault survivors -- because, as Nelson says, "This song is not just about me. It's about all the survivors of sexual violence who keep their secrets hidden in shame, confusion and fear."
"My hope is that this video will inspire other survivors to share their story and lift the veil of silence and shame that many feel after they are the victim of sexual assault," she adds. "Even if this song has an impact on one person, it will have been worthwhile."
"Smile Pretty" comes from a forthcoming album from Nelson, Shelby Park, due out in February of 2022. Empowered by the response she received after opening up in a new way in her 2019 single "I'm Not Broken," Nelson writes about marriage and divorce, motherhood, and beauty and self-acceptance on her new record.
“For many years, I was terrified to be truly vulnerable in my songwriting," Nelson reflects. "Reading those messages each day, hearing that my music provided comfort and hope, I felt empowered to go even deeper with this new record and be fearless in giving voice to the stories of those who have felt unheard and underrepresented for a long time."
"Smile Pretty" is due out widely on Friday (April 23). On Saturday (April 24), she'll host a benefit for the Nashville Sexual Assault Center featuring Mary Gauthier, Jaimee Harris, Alice Wallace, Caitlin Cannon, the HawtThorns and Kenny Foster. The event will begin at 4PM CT at Dee's Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison, Tenn., just outside of Nashville, and will also stream live on Nelson's Facebook page.
A native of southern Arkansas who also grew up in Monroe, La., Nelson spent her childhood summers at bluegrass music festivals with her grandparents, and turned to sad country songs for comfort after her parents' divorce. After high school, she moved to New York City and worked her way up in the theater world to her Broadway debut in The Green Bird.
Her marriage and children took priority over Nelson's career for a time, but after she got divorced, she -- now living in Nashville -- turned back to those sad country songs. Shelby Park, recorded at Nashville's Rukkus Room and co-produced by Nelson and Jamie Tate, will be her fifth album.
“In the last couple of years, as I’ve become focused on my songwriting craft and personal development work, I’ve been getting much more comfortable in my own skin," Nelson shares. "I feel like that comes through in this new record. Every song has a bit of me and a bit of the stories I’ve heard along my way. My goal is to write from my truth while illuminating universal truths that help women feel heard and seen. In sharing myself, I share their stories as well."