Cinderella Deja Vu

Connie Smith finds new music, fresh prince

This appeared in The Tennessean - January 3, 1999

At a time in her life when country star Connie Smith expected neither new music nor new love, she found both. It has been 20 years since the Grand Ole Opry veteran had a new album of songs. Although she is widely admired as one of the greatest female stylists in country music history and has a track record of 20 Top 10 hits, most radio stations aren't playing and record labels aren't signing 57-year-old women these days.

But here she is with a Warner Bros. contract and a stunning new CD titled, simply Connie Smith.

After going through her third divorce, Smith was certain her days of romance were over. In what must surely be the envy of thousands of women in her position, she captured the heart of a handsome man nearly 20 years her junior and is setting up house as a new bride.

Both the music and the marriage are tied to the same man, charismatic country entertainer Marty Stuart. The singer-songwriter, who turned 40 a few weeks ago, has become her song collaborator, record producer and husband.

"After my divorce in 1990, I thought, 'That's it for me, never again.' " Smith recalls. "I never had any intention (of looking for romance again). I thought 'I don't deserve another chance and I don't think I want to put forth the effort.' I don't know what happened. It musta been the moon."

The chance to record again also came out of the blue. Although she was doing concerts, Connie Smith wasn't expecting calls from record labels. But Jim Ed Norman at Warner Bros. Records approached her about joining his company's roster in the midst of an explosion of young country talent in the '90s.

Smith tried twice in the recording studio for the label but couldn't find a way of merging her classic style with the sounds of today. Because she hadn't had a Top 10 hit since 1976, songwriters and publishers weren't eager to give her their best songs. Unhappy with the sounds and the songs she was getting in the studio, Smith put Norman's offer aside.

"One night one of my daughters called. She was talking about what she was going to do that night. All of a sudden she got real quiet and said, 'Well, Mommy, what are you going to do?' I was by myself. I was divorced. The kids were grown and doing their own thing. I thought 'I'd better get a life.'

"The only thing I know and love is music. But if I did get back into it and if I recorded again, who would I work with as a producer? I needed somebody who appreciates what I've done, where I've been, where I'm coming from.

"The only person I could think of to work with in this whole town--who would accept me for who I was, but who had their finger on the pulse of what is going on today--was Marty Stuart."

Stuart and Smith had been talking about getting together to write songs for several months prior to meeting backstage at the Opry in 1993. "I told him things were not going well on the Warner Bros. album because I didn't think we had any songs. Marty said, 'Why don't you write them?' He picked up the phone and called Harlan Howard. Three days later, we wrote How Long," the first track on her new CD.

I remember the first day he came over to the house," she says, smiling. "He got ready to leave. And like hillbillies do, we hugged each other. I said, 'You're my kid.' He said, 'No I'm not.' It didn't take long before we were in love. Anybody that's around Marty more than five minutes is going to fall in love with him"

Ironically, "One of the reasons I thought Marty would be good to work with was that he was younger and I wouldn't have to worry about him being 'interested' in me. And I knew I wasn't interested in nobody."

Stuart says that his heart overruled his concerns about their 17-year age difference. They became inseparable during the next two years, writing more than 40 songs together.

After the (1995) CMA Awards, Marty and I and Travis [Tritt] and Theresa [who became Tritt's wife in '97] were out running around. We went to the MCA party because Marty is on MCA. Then we went to the Warner Bros. party because Travis is on Warner Bros. We walked in and there was Jim Ed. He said, 'I've been looking for you. I was wondering if you were still interested, wondering what you've been doing.'

"I said, 'I've been getting ready.'

"Marty started to tell him about the songs we were writing. He said to Marty, 'Do you want to be involved in this?' Marty said, 'I'll do anything from carrying her water on up.' "

So, with Stuart and Justin Neibank as co-producers, Smith began recording her comeback album in the spring of 1996. In July 1997 she married Stuart at a South Dakota Indian reservation. Connie Smith was released in October and its tune Lonesome instantly became the most added record to Americana radio station playlists.

The singer says she's pleased to be accepted by such a modern radio format. "I knew nobody would want the Connie Smith of the '60s. And I'm not the Connie Smith of the '60s."

Raised in rural poverty in West Virginia and Ohio, Smith was a young housewife and mother when Opry star Bill Anderson discovered her at a talent contest and brought her to Nashville in 1964. Her very first single, the Anderson-penned Once A Day, became a No. 1 smash hit.

Billed as "the Cinderella of country music," she was catapulted to instant stardom. By 1970, she'd been featured in the feature films Road to Nashville and Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar and was the queen of the country hit parade with such powerful emotional performances as Nobody But A Fool, The Hurtin's All Over and Ribbon Of Darkness.

"The music business just kinda took me where it wanted," she recalls. "I didn't apply myself to it. In fact, I kinda fought it. I only went on the road when I had to, to make a living. Other than that, I was home with the kids."

The pressures of show business made her desperately unhappy. Smith was torn between her singing career and her love for her five children. Every time she'd leave for a singing engagement, her heart ached. After five years, her marriage to Jerry Smith disintegrated. A one-year marriage to Jack Watkins fared no better. She sought psychological counseling, then found solace in Christianity.

"I never wanted to be a star. Only God makes stars and they're hanging up there in the sky."

The rampage of hits continued in the 1970s with fiery performances like Just One More Time, If It Ain't Love and Just For What I Am. Smith's open-throated vocals thrilled listeners. Dolly Parton said, "There's really only three female singers in the world--Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending."

But Smith's family remained her top priority. She quit the road in 1979 to be a full-time mom. She returned to the stage when her youngest daughter started kindergarten in 1985, but didn't really recommit herself to music until after her 17-year marriage to Marshall Haynes ended in 1990.

"Now I'm busier than I've ever been in my life," she reports. "I've been really fortunate."

By Robert K. Oermann

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