The Return, The Residency Of Connie Smith

This appeared in The Tennessean - August 22, 2011

March 28, 1964.

The Beatles were big. Lyndon Johnson was president. Connie Smith was nervous, taking her first airplane ride.

She wouldn’t have flown, except she had to because her fondest hopes were all wrapped up in it. Not in the flight, but in the destination.

She was flying from Parkersburg, West Virginia, to Nashville, because Bill Anderson liked her singing and had invited her to Nashville to make a demonstration recording and to sing on the Ernest Tubb Record Shop’s Midnight Jamboree.

“Just to go to the Grand Ole Opry, that had been my dream, my whole life,” she said.

Anderson, now a Country Music Hall of Famer, picked the 22-year-old Smith up at the airport after her bumpy flight and dropped her off later on at the Sam Davis Hotel at Seventh and Commerce. Later, waiting for Anderson to pick her up and take her to the Opry, she saw a cop ticketing a convertible. Then she saw the convertible owner charm his way out of the ticket.

“The guy whose car it was turned around, winked at me and drove off, and that was the first time I saw Marty Robbins,” she said.

Marty Robbins is sometimes called the greatest male singer in country music history. And Connie Smith, though she was an unknown upon her first Robbins sighting, is sometimes called the greatest female singer in country music history.

Country singing isn’t an arm-wrestling contest (though Trace Adkins has the skill set for both of those), and it’s not heresy to favor, say, George Jones over Marty Robbins, or Patsy Cline over Connie Smith. But Dolly Parton called Smith the best female country singer, and I’ll start arguing with Dolly Parton the same day I start arm-wrestling Trace Adkins. Anyone unmoved by hearing Smith’s strong, clear, emotional alto on a traditional country song should line up at their primary care physician’s office for ear wax removal.

Anderson’s ear canals were apparently unclogged in 1963, when he first heard Smith singing Jean Shepard’s “I Thought of You” at a talent contest in Ohio (she won). Less than a year later, he persuaded her to come to Nashville. And the next thing she knew, Marty Robbins was winking away (and he hadn’t even heard her sing).

That March evening, she got to watch as Kitty Wells sang on the Opry.

And guitar hero Leon Rhodes squired her out of Ryman Auditorium, through Tootsies (“I was scared to death,” says Smith, never one for the barrooms), across Broadway and over to Tubb’s Record Shop, where she sang Anderson’s “Walk Out Backwards” and impressed her favorite, Loretta Lynn.

“She was pregnant with twins, and she sent (Lynn’s husband) Doo out to get me,” Smith said. “She told me I had what it took, and she told me some things about what to expect in the business.”

That summer, Smith made her Opry debut, bursting into tears as she left the stage over the moment’s emotion. She also heard herself on the radio for the first time, when “Once a Day” came on while she was riding through West Virginia. That song was a debut smash, topping the country chart for eight straight weeks.

And then decades passed, and she played the Opry thousands of other times, usually without the waterworks. She heard herself on the radio more times than she could possibly remember. She notched 30 Top 20 country hits, many of which she’ll sing on August 22 and 29 and September 12 during her residency at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Oh, and she married Marty Stuart, a fellow named for winkin’ Marty Robbins.

Had Smith been as devoted to touring and recording as she was to her family and her spiritual life, she’d already have a plaque hanging at the Hall of Fame. But beginning in the early 1970s, she focused on gospel music that wasn’t going to top country charts and on raising her children.

“I couldn’t stand going out the door when the kids were hanging around my legs,” she says. “I thought, ‘I can’t give up on my kids or on my walk with the Lord. The only thing I can let go is the country music.’ And I wouldn’t trade my time with family for anything in the world. I have five wonderful kids and seven grandchildren. I don’t know that I thought I’d ever go back to work.”

With Tuesday’s tomorrow’s release of the Stuart-produced Long Line of Heartaches, her first album in 13 years, Connie Smith is officially back to work. Recorded at historic RCA Studio B, the studio where Smith cut her 1960s hits, the new album’s sound and style fits comfortably alongside classics such as “Once a Day,” “Cincinnati, Ohio” and “The Hurtin’s All Over.”

“My musical tastes haven’t changed since the ’60s,” she said, sitting in a Middle Tennessee office that holds the bulk of Stuart’s remarkable collection of country music artifacts.

For a country fan, interviewing Smith in such a setting is a full immersion into Attention Deficit Disorder. It’s “Hey, I’m talking to Connie Smith. Hey, aren’t those Hank Williams’ boots? Hey, that’s Hank Snow’s suit. Hey, Hank Snow was a tiny little dude. Hey, what did Connie Smith just say?”

What she said was that recording again at Studio B was both a comfort and a joy. And that she was thrilled to sing “A Heart Like You,” the 69th song she’s recorded that has come from the pen of famed writer Dallas Frazier. And that she misses her Opry pal, Johnny Russell, and knew she wanted to do the Russell-penned “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry” in his honor. And that she considers steel guitar to be the dancing partner to her voice, which is why steel men Gary Carter and Robby Turner figure so prominently in the mixes.

And that she loves to sing, as much as ever. And that, yes, the great Hank Snow sure was tiny.

And that her favorite sleepless night came in late March of 1964.

By Peter Cooper

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