Too Cool To Be Forgotten

This appeared in No Depression Magazine - September/October 1998

Fan Fair ’98: A very pregnant Faith Hill is closing her set with her vapid re-make of Janis Joplin’s "Piece of My Heart". As she mechanically urges the crowd to get up and boogie, Hill sings the song’s chorus – an expression of total emotional surrender – as if all she can be bothered to share is a little piece of her heart. Not the least bit engaged with her audience or material, Hill soon has fairgoers making it for the hot dog line.

As Hill’s new labelmate, Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith, takes the stage, the contrast could hardly be more telling. Standing in one spot – and with none of Hill’s shucking and jiving – Smith belts out three songs with every fiber of her being before closing her set, as she has for 25 years, with "How Great Thou Art".

As Smith reaches ever deeper on the first line of the chorus ("Then sings my soul…"), the hair on the nape of every neck in the grandstands stands on end. People are on their feet well before Smith brings the hymn to its soaring conclusion, something most of us see only through tear-filled eyes.

If there had been any doubt, certainly now the reason why George Jones introduced Smith is clear: Among active country singers, only he can match the boundless soul of Connie Smith. In his book I Lived To Tell It All, Jones cites Smith as his "favorite female country singer." Jones has been saying as much since the ’60s, and he’s not alone. Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs calls Smith "the Rolls Royce of female country vocalists." And Dolly Parton, a candidate for such a title herself, says, "There’s really only three female singers in the world – Streisand, Ronstadt, and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending."

Still, Smith is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other great country females of the ’60s: Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. (Patsy Cline first made her mark in the ’50s.) Part of this has to do with Smith’s decision to retire from performing in the late ’70s to raise her five children. She returned to the stage in 1985, but except for her regular Opry appearances and some low-profile touring, she has been out of the public eye for most of the past 20 years.

Not only that, scarcely a fraction of her recorded output, which includes almost 50 albums, has been available on CD. And yet as most of those records – especially her stone-country albums for RCA – attest, few voices in country music have been more suited to sawdust and sobbing steel guitar: For vocal range, tone and quality, as well as for sheer depth of emotion, Connie Smith is without peer.

Born Constance June Meador on August 14, 1941, in Elkhart, Indiana, Smith was one of 14 children in a family of migrant farm workers. Her parents’ work took Smith and her siblings to West Virginia and, after that, to Warner, Ohio; her father, a harsh man, was an alcoholic who sometimes beat his children.

Smith began to sing as a young girl, doubtless to escape her grim circumstances. While in high school, she performed at square dances, PTA meetings and county fairs, and later on a live country TV show broadcast out of Huntington, West Virginia. Her big break came in 1963 when her newlywed husband and some friends talked her into entering a talent contest at Frontier Town in Columbus, Ohio. First prize meant a chance to sing with the traveling Grand Ole Opry show when it stopped at the park later that night.

Smith not only won, her version of Jean Shepard’s "I Thought Of You" so impressed Opry star Bill Anderson that he invited her down to Music City. She made a much-ballyhooed appearance on Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree, after which Chet Atkins signed her to RCA. In August 1964, Smith’s version of Anderson’s "Once A Day" hit the country charts. By November, the single had reached #1; it stayed there for more than two months, and Smith became country music’s latest Cinderella.

The pressures of the business – the roaming hands of DJs, being cast for shallow parts in third-rate movies, guilt over leaving her two-year-old son when she went out on the road – soon got to Smith. All she ever wanted, after all, was to sing. And yet no matter how great the strain on her emotional and personal life, her music didn’t suffer.

Fired by such stalwart pickers as Weldon Myrick, Grady Martin, Charlie McCoy and Johnny Gimble, Smith plumbed heartache like never before. But unlike Wynette, who at times came across as a victim, Smith always conveyed sorrow without self-pity. It was almost as if the music enabled her, however fleetingly, to transcend her unhappiness.

Even so, before long Smith all but hit bottom and, during Easter week 1968, she turned to the church. Smith’s newfound faith didn’t cure all her ills, but it did give her a focus – not just spiritually, but musically as well. From that point on, she included gospel material on her albums for RCA. When she moved to Monument in 1973, her contract even stipulated that she cut two gospel songs per album, as well as one gospel album per year.

By 1979, after slowly weaning herself off the road, Smith quit the business to stay at home with her kids, who now numbered five. Feminists painted her as a reactionary, as a successful woman who had forsaken her career. Looking back now, though, Smith’s decision seems a gutsy one; ever since she left her first son at home to tour behind "Once A Day", she had been looking for a chance to refocus her attentions on her family.

Smith became an Opry regular again in 1985, just as her youngest daughter was starting kindergarten. At the urging of Ricky Skaggs, she also cut a single for Epic, "A Far Cry From You", The record barely dented the charts, but it’s noteworthy for being the closest Smith’s music has ever come to bluegrass, and for being penned by a then-up-and-coming Nashville songwriter named Steve Earle.

In the mid-’90s, with the last of her kids grown, Smith again cast about for collaborators. Music Row had changed a lot since her ’60s and ’70s heyday, and she turned to longtime fan Marty Stuart for help negotiating new waters. The two started writing songs together – they subsequently married – and, with a blue-chip contribution from Harlan Howard, came up with the clutch of songs that comprise Smith’s new self-titled album, due out on Warner Bros. in October Smith recently spoke with No Depression about the project, and about her life and storied career.

No Depression: The way they make records on Music Row today is a far cry from the way y’all made them at RCA during the ’60s and early ’70s. How much of an adjustment was it for you when you went into the studio to make your new album for Warner Bros.?

Connie Smith: It had been 20 years since I had seriously been in the studio and it was really traumatic, because I love recording and everything had changed. Matter of fact, getting into it, I almost thought, "I’ve lost it. I can’t do this anymore."

When I sang in the studio at RCA we had this little box with some sound coming out of it and I just adjusted to that sound. Plus, I could pretty well fill up Studio B because I’ve got a pretty big mouth. I remember crying the day that Chet [Atkins] put me in Studio A because it was so big.

But we had a great studio at the Sound Emporium. That’s where I made my new record. I had double-scale musicians, the best in town. And Marty [Stuart] and Justin Niebank, who co-produced the album, they are both geniuses.

Another traumatic thing was that I realized I’d turned into a road singer. You’ve probably heard the term road musicians and studio musicians. After I dropped my band a few years back, I worked with bands that weren’t really familiar with my material. It was like I had to put the yoke on and pull them along. When I started doing that with the musicians on my record, I said, "What am I doing here?" Here I had these great musicians and I was pushing it and we weren’t getting in a pocket. And to me, the most important thing about a record is the feel, more than perfection.

So after all those adjustments, just about the time I got done with the album, I thought, ‘Hey, I got this now. Let’s start.’ I really can’t wait to make the next one. I’ve got a bunch more songs.

ND: You wrote very little of your material when you were with RCA and Monument, and yet you wrote or co-wrote everything on your new album.

CS: When I got serious about recording and started looking for songs, I couldn’t find anything that I liked. The songs that were presented to me were not the cream of the crop. I’ve always been a song connoisseur, and I’ve been real fortunate to have the greatest songwriters write for me. I’ve cut 68 Dallas Frazier songs, along with 33 Bill Anderson songs. So I got to thinking, "Who could I work with that would appreciate who I am and what I have done, but who also has a pulse on what’s happening today?" I was sitting at the kitchen table and I went over everybody I knew in my head and I thought, "There’s only one person I know of and that’s Marty Stuart."

So Marty and I had a meeting and I started telling him about how I couldn’t find any songs that I liked, and he said, "Well, why don’t you write ’em? Have you written?" And I had. In years past, I wrote "I’ll Come Runnin’", which was one of my biggest hits. I wrote "You Got Me (Right Where You Want Me)". Reba cut that one right before she hit. Conway [Twitty] cut "I’ll Come Runnin’". So did Warner Mack. And I wrote a song called "Ring Around Rosie’s Finger" that Moe Bandy cut.

But I’ve never been into it much because it took time and concentration and I had five kids.

So Marty and I started writing together and that very morning from my house he called Harlan Howard. We met with Harlan a couple days later and wrote "How Long", the first song on my album, from a song I had started in Branson three or four years before. We took it in a different direction, but it was great. I mean, that was an honor just to do that. I enjoyed it so much I started writing with a lot more people – Steve Wariner and Allen Shamblin and Curtis Wright. Marty and I alone wrote 30 or 40 songs together.

ND: You met Marty Stuart long before your recent collaboration, right?

CS: I met Marty when he was 12 years old. He came to one of my shows in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where he’s from. I was performing at the Indian Reservation. Marty had his mama buy him a new shirt that day, hoping I’d notice him. He said, "I waited on the hill all day for you to come in your bus." And I said, "I don’t have a bus." And he said, "I know, you have a blue station wagon."

We’ve got a picture hanging in our bedroom from the day we met. He was 12 and I was 29. It was me and him and his sister. His mama took the picture. The first picture Marty ever took was me in that station wagon. I certainly had no idea that writing songs with Marty would lead to us getting married. We dated for about three and a half years and we’ve been married about a year now, which is great.

ND: Radio programmers have told you they won’t play anything from your new album. And yet stylistically, half of the songs hark back to the records you made while at RCA, where you had 18 Top 10 singles. What do you make of that?

CS: For one thing, radio don’t know me. They know who they think I am, or who they thought I was, and they have metamorphosed me into something that they think they don’t want to hear.

I just gotta find a way to get to the people. I know the people who come to my shows. The other night I did two shows up in Pennsylvania. Our second show started at 10:30 and everybody who was at the first show was still there at 10:30. They knew almost every song I did, and I’ve got almost 50 albums.

Some of them are kids. I’ve noticed that my audience is getting younger and younger. Now granted, part of my audience is girls that’s hoping I’m bringing my husband. I realize that. But it’s great, because Marty’s fans are also coming to my shows. Some of them have come up to me and said, "I’d never heard you sing before. Where’s your next show?" And that feels good.

ND: You had what sounds like a tough childhood. Did singing help you endure hard times while you were growing up?

CS: Yeah, but when kids are like that, you don’t really know it’s hard times. I mean, how hard can it be to be free after breakfast and run out and play in the woods all day? As long as you’re home by supper nobody’d worry about you. So I’d dig up a sassafras root, and go climb a tree and swing back and forth.

I think maybe the hardest part of it was that I couldn’t hear the Grand Ole Opry all the time ’cause we didn’t have much of a radio. But there again, I got to listen to Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson and Nat King Cole and Brook Benton and Tony Bennett. I’ve made it pretty clear that my favorite singers were George Jones and Loretta Lynn, but much of time growing up I heard the great pop singers as well.

ND: Tell me about your first big break, the time you won the talent contest at the traveling Grand Ole Opry show in Columbus, Ohio.

CS: I had never seen a Grand Ole Opry star. I had seen Doc and Chickie Williams, who were from the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree, at a high school one time. That was the most I’d seen of any professional music. Well, I heard that George Jones was gonna be at this park, Frontier Town, near Columbus, Ohio. But when we got there, we discovered that somebody had given us the wrong schedule. George Jones had been the week prior and that week was a new guy called Bill Anderson. He was known for his songwriting, but on his own he was just starting out.

This park had a talent contest every week, and my husband and some folks talked me into singing in the contest. The hardest part was that you had to accompany yourself. I knew one key on the guitar – I could play a little in C – but I won the contest, I think mainly because for seven weeks running there’d been a seven-year-old boy that had won playing banjo.

My prize was five silver dollars and a chance to sing on the Opry show that night. Bill Anderson was so nice to me. He came out and listened to me when I sang my song on the show. I won with a song that Jean Shepard had had, called "I Thought Of You", and on the show that night I sang a Jim Reeves song called "Four Walls".

Six months later we found out that Bill Anderson was gonna be in Canton, Ohio, on a memorial show for Hank Williams, and we went up to see it. Johnny Cash was on the show, and Hank Williams Jr. – he was about 14. That was the night they announced that Columbia had signed the Statler Brothers. I’ll never forget June Carter in this chartreuse green chiffon dress, doing her comedy bit. She’s just the greatest. Her timing is so great.

We didn’t get to meet June and John, but after the show we went up to the autograph line and Bill Anderson saw my husband and I – and recognized us – and said, "Why don’t you come eat with me and the band after the show?" And so we did, and he said, "You like country music so well, why don’t you come to Nashville?" I thought, "Oh yeah, sure. We can’t do that." I’d said since I was five that it was my dream to sing on the Grand Ole Opry, but it’s one of those dreams that I never thought would come true. It was just a dream.

But he invited me and I came down on March 28, 1964, and sang on the Ernest Tubb Record Shop [the Midnight Jamboree show]. I came back in May and recorded a demo for Bill; his manager, Hubert Long, took it to Chet Atkins and Chet signed me in June and I recorded in July. "Once A Day" was out the first week in August and went to #1 in November and was there for about two and a half months.

ND: What were your first impressions of Nashville? I guess I’m thinking of your first visit, the time you sang on Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree.

CS: I was scared to death. It was my first plane ride, for one thing. I remember it was $80 to come from Wood Country Airport in Parkersburg, West Virginia, to Nashville. It was a pretty bumpy ride.

Bill Anderson took me to his home to meet his wife. He lived off Franklin Road. I remember thinking that it must be the biggest road in the world because it was four-lane. I stayed at a little hotel on Franklin Road called the Biltmore and I wouldn’t go outside. I was afraid somebody would get me, so I’d sit there all day and not eat. One day Bill’s band found out so they started coming to get me for meals. But it was just the dream of a lifetime.

I remember the one time I stayed at the Sam Davis Hotel downtown. Bill Anderson said he’d take me to the Opry before I sang on the [Ernest Tubb] Record Shop. I was afraid that I’d be late so I went downstairs and waited outside for Bill to come pick me up. I saw this convertible pull up with this really handsome guy in it. This guy got out and ran into the barber shop. While he was inside, a traffic cop came by and put a ticket on his car. Soon the guy came running back out and saw the ticket before the policeman left and started talking to him, just kinda charming him. The next thing you know the officer had torn up the ticket. I didn’t have any idea they were watching me. I was just standing there leaning against the wall, but when the guy got in his car he winked at me and drove off. That was my first meeting with Marty Robbins.

ND: Your ’60s and early ’70s albums are as good – and as country – as any made in Nashville during that era. They’re also among the least compromised by the excesses of the Nashville Sound. How much of that had to do with the fact that you were a creative partner in the studio alongside Bob Ferguson and Weldon Myrick?

CS: Bob Ferguson was a wonderful, wonderful man to work with. We had a great relationship. We worked together for nine years and we always picked songs together. Bob would listen, and he had a way of getting the best out of you without you really knowing he was bringing it out.

But sometimes it was a fight. The record company really thought that I could go middle-of-the-road or pop. "Once A Day" went into the Hot 100 and they thought, the more pop I went, the more records they could sell. But I just wasn’t comfortable with that.

I remember doing The Lawrence Welk Show. That was before Lynn Anderson went out there. Lawrence Welk had asked me to be a regular on the show during the ’60s, but I turned him down because I didn’t think they were country enough. They were wonderful to me. But I just really loved pure country music. Even if I did go pop it would still turn out country. So what good would that do?

ND: How important was the input and playing of steel guitarist Weldon Myrick on your records?

CS: I think Weldon created the "Connie Smith sound." Matter of fact, I’m excited, because my steel player is not able to go with me three days this month and Weldon’s gonna go out on the road with me. I’ll have him playing with me on my birthday this year. I’m just tickled about that.

Weldon is just so fresh and creative. His playing is so strong. I think that’s where I got most of my fans. Of course the steel guitar players bought my records to hear Weldon. He was a very, very integral part of my music. I love the steel guitar. I mean, if I wanna hear something, I’ll hum a steel lick. And if you’re listening to one of my records, more than likely I’ll point out what the steel guitar player did, or the guitar player.

ND: You’ve said that you weren’t ready for the pressures of the music business, including the way men in the business treated women. Can you talk about what that was like, especially at a time when there were relatively few women in country music?

CS: I was pretty much scared of everybody at first. It didn’t make any difference whether it was a man or woman, it was very hard for me to say what I thought. But some of the club owners, when they booked you, they thought they owned you. I didn’t handle that very well. Usually I just didn’t go back there again. I never went along with the crowd. I just walked off from pressures like that.

ND: At the height of your success at RCA, you bottomed out emotionally. What turned things around for you?

CS: I think everybody gets to the end of themselves at some point – hopefully. Because when you find that you’re not your own God, or the God of the universe, that’s good. And you can go either direction. You can go through life thinking you’re the best and be very fooled, or you can think you’re the worst, and be very fooled. Because either way, it’s ego. It’s just that one’s in reverse. And mine was in reverse. It came from being a child of an alcoholic father. And then, when my mother remarried, when there were 14 kids altogether, it came from not being able to dress like the other kids and from being laughed at and talked about.

ND: You became a Christian in 1968.

CS: Yeah, with help from Hank Snow’s son, Jimmie Rodgers Snow. I did a TV show at Easter time at his church that year. I didn’t grow up in church. My parents weren’t Christians. My mother got saved later on but when I was a child we did not go to church. There were times after I moved to Nashville when I’d go to church and I’d want to cry. But I felt like everyone would look at me because I was Connie Smith. So I couldn’t go.

I remember a preacher coming to my house wanting to witness. I basically shut the door in his face. I thought, "What right did he have to invade my privacy and judge me?" That’s the way I felt. I knew there was a God out there, but I had no idea that he could really make a change in your life. I didn’t know him personally.

And so when I did this TV show, which I thought I was safe doing, they started talking about God and I started crying. I couldn’t understand that. I had no idea about the spirit of God dealing with your heart, so I just ran outta there. But Jimmie Snow took me out to the parking lot and read me some scriptures. He read the plan of salvation to me that Jesus is the one that saves us and he’s the one that changes us and it doesn’t depend on us. That’s a great freedom. I found out that repentance is not a big thumb coming down judging you, but repentance is a freedom.

ND: Some have observed – and rightly – that you were every bit as good a singer as Loretta, Dolly, and Tammy were during y’all’s ’60s and ’70s heyday. And that you still are, for that matter. And yet because you chose to be at home raising your children and, therefore, out of the public eye, much of the past 20 years, people don’t always include you in their company.

CS: I don’t know if that’s the reason or if I just didn’t accomplish what they accomplished. They did a lot of work in the years that I was at the house.

ND: Has that ever bothered you?

CS: No, I don’t regret my decision to stay home. I’ve got the five greatest kids in the world – and three grandbabies. I wouldn’t trade any of those years. Had I traded it, I feel confident I would have been more popular, or at least had my home paid for [laughs]. I believe that I could have, but to me the price would have been too high. So no, I don’t have any regrets. I believe I made the right decision for myself at that time, and for my children.

And look at the chance I have now. I’ve got Warner Bros. backing me, and they’re committed to me even though they know radio won’t play me. I’m still making a living and I’m still enjoying it. I’ve still got my health, so I’ve got no complaints.

ND: You’ve always said that you’re primarily a singer as opposed to an entertainer. Can you elaborate on that?

CS: I’m more comfortable just singing. I’m not that great – I don’t think – of an entertainer. I’m still not that comfortable walking out onstage for everybody to look at. Once I’m singing and I’m telling a story, sure, I want people to listen, ’cause a song is a story to me. So that I enjoy. And I enjoy doing a show when I have a good band. It’s wonderful to fall back into the arms of the music. I love to sing. But even if I wasn’t doing that, I’d be singing at the house, while I’m cooking or cleaning or whatever.

ND: The other day on the phone you cited a passage of scripture, ‘God inhabits the praises of his people.’ What does that mean to you, especially in light of your gifts as a singer?

CS: The strongest that scripture ever came to my heart was when I came to town and I had "Once A Day". Everybody would go nuts when I’d sing "Once A Day", so it became my closing song. Well, then I got saved, and I was talking to Conway Twitty. We were out on the road together and he said, "I always believe you leave ’em with what you want ’em to think you are." That just really rang in my heart and I got to thinking, "Well, yeah, I’m glad I’ve got ‘Once A Day’, and I’ve never gotten tired of singing that song, but what I want them to think I am is a follower of Christ. That’s the main thing." So I decided to close my show with a hymn that meant a lot to me, a song called "I Saw A Man" that I heard Johnny Cash do. Arthur Smith wrote it.

I closed my next show with "Once A Day" and they whooped and hollered and yelled, and I came back and sang "I Saw A Man" and it bombed. I walked off almost in a silence. Somebody’s manager came up to me and said, "Well, that was a nice gesture, but I think you should put it in the middle where it won’t hurt the show." I really wrestled with that. In the carnal way of looking at it, it really hurt the show. And yet I made up my mind in the dressing room, I thought, "No, I’m gonna end my show with a hymn, whether it ever goes over or not." And so I did that for awhile and it didn’t go over.

Then one day I heard Sonny James sing a song called "How Great Thou Art". I loved that song so much that I learned it and I started closing my show with it. I’ve closed my show with that song for the last 25 years. And I remember when they put my picture in the [Country Music] Hall of Fame, that was the song they played behind it instead of "Once A Day".

Then I was at Fan Fair one year, and while I was singing "How Great Thou Art", the scripture came in mind that "God inhabits the praises of his people." I thought, "This ain’t working because I’m singing well. It’s working because God is fulfilling his word that says he inhabits the praises of his people. That song is a song of praise to him. When I go out and I get a standing ovation with "How Great Thou Art", I can’t take it to myself. The audience might think it’s my singing, and I might think it’s my singing, but the truth is it’s God inhabiting the praises of his people and fulfilling his word.

When I’m singing that song, I feel like I’m doing what I’ve really come to do. If I go out to sing a song just to promote Connie Smith, that will wind up coming to naught. I mean, sooner or later somebody’s gonna say who’s Connie Smith? But if I sing praises to God, that’s eternal.

If faced with a desert island disc decision between Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette, and Connie Smith, ND contributing editor Bill Friskics-Warren would take a collection of Smith’s RCA recordings, if only not to forget what it’s like to hear an angel sing.

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