Reigning Country Queen Connie Smith Looks Back on a 50-Year Career

Music Features Connie Smith
Reigning Country Queen Connie Smith Looks Back on a 50-Year Career

In classic Music Row parlance, a “long-hauler” might once have designated a lonesome, sleep-deprived truck driver, doggedly driving cross-country with nothing in his cab for comfort but Red Sovine on the 8-track. Not any longer. “I’m one of the long-haulers,” sighs Connie Smith, one of country’s reigning queens, who—along with her equally royal tunesmith husband Marty Stuart—somehow contracted the dreaded coronavirus in January of this year. And her case—as intimated by this deceptively-friendly new name—did not immediately resolve itself. “He and I both got it at the same time, but I wound up in the hospital for 11 days, and I’m still recovering from that. I’m still in the long haulers’ clinic at Vanderbilt, where they’re still working on me.” It’s not the easiest way to start an interview about the singer’s latest Stuart-produced release, The Cry of the Heart, but she quickly brightens. “I’m hanging in there, and I made it! That’s the really good thing,” she chirps, counting her blessings. And she has quite a few to be thankful for, all told.

To begin with, at 80, this Country Music Hall of Famer’s brassy powerhouse of a voice—first heard on her forlorn 1964 “Once a Day” debut single, and one of the most unique in Nashville—remains undiminished on Cry. With youthful zeal, she storms through retro-clever co-writes with her husband (“Spare Me No Truth,” “Here Comes My Baby Back Again”) and covers of twangy cuts by Mel Tillis (“All the Time”), Merle Haggard (“Jesus Take a Hold”) and Dallas Frazier (“I Just Don’t Believe Me Anymore,” her 72nd catalog contribution from the songwriting titan). She’s also grateful for a long line of influential mentors, like Bill Anderson (who discovered her in 1963, when she won a talent contest at Frontier Ranch Country Music Park in Columbus, Ohio), Chet Atkins [who signed her to RCA a year later], Bob Ferguson (the producer who understood how to accent her bluesy trill), Weldon Myrick (the steel guitar player who helped create her sound) and Stuart, who helped revive her career at Warner Brothers and then married her in 1997. He still oversees her work, even though she hasn’t released an album since 2011’s Long Line of Heartaches. Luckily, they’d wrapped Cry sessions before lockdown, she adds.

Smith wishes she was more productive. But time just flies, she says, with five kids, eight grandkids and a new grandchild that she has yet to meet, given the grave tenor of the times. “Plus, I’ve got lots of friends to stay in touch with, and I do the Grand Ole Opry a lot—I’m one of the hosts there,” she says. “And if Marty’s out very long on tour, sometimes I’ll go with him and we’ll go out each night and sing a song or two. So I’m plenty busy.” And that was the ultimate uplifting message she took from her long-hauling days. Just relaxing around the house, watching TV with her significant other—with a record ready to be issued at the appropriate post-vaccine time—was a blessing in itself. “So we actually had wonderful times together, because Marty had worked almost solid for the two years prior, and I had been really busy, too,” she says. “So for us to spend time together, just the two of us, was really great. Uhh … other than feeling so lousy, that is!”

Paste: It’s interesting that Whispering Bill Anderson heard you at that fair, so the story goes, and he wanted you to sing his demos. And yet you have one of the most forceful, aggressive voices in country. What was he thinking back then? You were like polar opposites.

Connie Smith: Yeah! With his whispering, definitely. But the song was “Once a Day,” and he and his wife sang it to me—his wife Betty, at that time—since I was back at that park and we were both working there that day. And they sang me the song and asked me if I liked it, and he had started it three years prior, I think he told me, and hadn’t finished it. He was just going through it because Chet (Atkins, then head of RCA Nashville) had asked him to write me some songs. And I’m sure Chet wanted me to have some Bill Anderson songs, because he was on Decca at the time, and he liked the idea of filtering some through RCA. And so my very first session on July the 16th, 1964, we saved it ‘til the third song, because I’d never recorded and I wanted to relax and kind of listen and get my feet grounded a little bit.

Paste: Was that your first time in Nashville?

Smith: No, I came down twice before. I had seen him at the park when I won that contest and got to sing on the Grand Ole Opry Show that night—that was part of my prize. Five silver dollars and a chance to sing on the show that night. And I actually sang “Four Walls” that night, I sang the Jean Shepherd song that won the contest. And then about six months later, I saw in Akron, Ohio, where they did a memorial show for Hank Williams Sr., every year, because that’s where he was headed when he passed away. So we did that, and I saw Bill again—I didn’t know that he was on the show, we just knew that Johnny Cash and June Carter were up there, and we wanted to go see them. And The Statler Brothers were on the show, too, and it was actually the night that they announced that The Statler Brothers had been signed to Columbia. So afterwards, we wanted to get in the autograph line, because June was my favorite comedienne. Of course, John was John, so we wanted their autograph. And of course, Bill was in the autograph line, as well, and he recognized my husband and I and said, “Why don’t you come on backstage?” And then he invited us to go out to eat with him and his band after the show. And we did, and he said, “Well, you like it so much, why don’t you come to Nashville?” And I thought, “Yeah, like you can just come to Nashville.” And he said that, no, he was supposed to host the Ernest Tubb Record Shop on the 28th of March in ’64 and wanted me to come down. But it just so happened that Ernest was actually there to host that night, so Bill wasn’t even there when I sang that first song, which was one of his songs, “Walk Out Backwards.” And I sang it on the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, and after this guy came up and said, “My wife wants to meet you,” and he took me back there and it was Loretta Lynn. She was pregnant with the twins, so she was sitting in the back, and she said, “Patsy Cline did this for me, and I want to do it for you—you’re gonna make it.” And she wanted to tell me who to trust, who not to trust, things to do and not to do—the same things Patsy told her, she wanted to tell me, and of course, we’ve been friends now for about 56 years. And she’s still my favorite girl singer—always has been.

So I came down and did the Record Shop that night, and then in May of ‘64, Bill called me and said, “I’ve written some songs—would you come down and do the demo session?” He’d written one for Patsy Cline and one for Skeeter Davis, and one that Ernest and Loretta cut called “A Heart for Holding Hands.” So I came down and sang those songs, and then I went back to Ohio, and he went to the Flame Club in Minneapolis, and his manager, Hubert Long, took the tape to Chet, and Chet heard it and wanted to record me. But he was so busy, he didn’t have time to produce me, so he had just hired this new guy by the name of Bob Ferguson, and, of course, Bob went on to produce me for the next 10 years. So that was in May, and then I came down again on the 24th of June and signed the contract, and then on the 16th of July, I came down and did my first session.

Paste: All through the pandemic, I’ve been listening to lots of early Rose Maddox, Loretta Lynn, and the first Dolly Parton albums. And they were so far ahead of their time—just Loretta alone singing “Fist City” or Dolly singing “I Don’t Want to Throw Rice.” It was a different time back then, right?

Smith: Yeah. But the same things are still going on. Always have been and always will be. And with the #metoo movement, I’ve never really heard it described as exactly what it is. But I know that I’m proud to be a woman, and I don’t have to fight to be one. So I don’t know as if I’m in any of the movements—I just love people, and I love being who I am. But I will help anybody I can.

Paste: Did you ever meet Elvis?

Smith: No. I had chances to, but I thought, “He doesn’t need another fan, falling at his feet. I’d love to meet him—maybe someday I will.” And I just turned down chances, because I would have loved to have met him on a fellow-musician scale. But one of my proudest moments is when I found out that I’d cut a song that Jerry Chestnut had written—and it had been cut before—but it was called “The Wonders You Perform.” And I found out that Elvis had my album because he wanted to do my version of it. But he died before he ever got it recorded.

Paste: Wanda Jackson is still out there, doing her classic rockabilly. And if you hadn’t bumped into Anderson, you could have easily gone rockabilly.

Smith: Well, RCA tried to get me to go more middle-of-the-road and all—they said, “You could do more than country.” And I said, “I don’t want to do more than country—that’s who I am.” And to me, you’ve got to sing what’s in your heart. And I love rockabilly, and my favorite rock and roller was Tom Petty, and of course, The Beatles. And when Marty and I started dating, he said, “I want to take you somewhere. But do you like The Rolling Stones?” And I said, “Who are The Rolling Stones?” I didn’t know—I was just pure country. So he took me to see The Rolling Stones, and when he took me backstage, and when Keith Richards and the drummer Charlie Watts came forward and saw me, they knew who I was. And they wanted to know all about my steel guitar player Weldon Myrick—they knew everything country that there was, and they knew me, but I didn’t know them. And of course, I loved the show—I just really loved it, because it was good, and I love anything that’s good. But I also love Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn and Nat King Cole and folks like that—I like anything that’s good.

Paste: Do you actually remember first meeting a younger Marty Stuart, when he swore he would marry you someday?

Smith: I actually remember seeing him, because he’d come up on the stage. And I had Weldon Myrick playing steel, and all the pickers—the A-team from Nashville—came down, and he was up there standing by the steel guitar, and he was asking him what gauge strings he used, just like was one of ‘em. But he was 11 years old—he thought he was 12, but he found out he was 11, and Ken Burns found that out. And I thought this kid was so cute, and he didn’t have a bashful bone in his body—he knew what he was talking about, and that I remember. I don’t remember actually meeting him, but I remember seeing him.

Paste: But then when you met him again, years later, it was a friendly “Let’s get together and write for your Warner Brothers comeback album” kind of deal in ‘97?

Smith: Well, I was being third-base umpire at a celebrity ball game which I knew nothing about, but it was funny—they’d get us folks who knew nothing about it and then watch us and laugh. But it was worth it, because it was for a good cause. But I saw him backstage, and he started talking about songs, and I was telling about this one song that I had started, and he said, “Promise me you won’t finish it until we can do it together.” And I said, “Okay.” And sometime later, we got together and started writing, and we’ve probably written 40 or 50 songs. We actually wrote one called “The Farmer’s Blues” that he and Merle did a video on, him and Merle Haggard. And we’ve written some that I’ve recorded, and some that he’s recorded. And actually, “I Run to You” was nominated for a Grammy, I think, and that was one we duetted on for one of his albums.

Paste: And there are two Marty co-writes on your new album—“Spare Me No Truth” and “Here Comes My Baby Back Again,” right?

Smith: Yeah. We were on the bus just pickin’, and he’d pick up a guitar and start strumming and I’d start singing. But I quit playing a long time ago—I never was good, because I’d get to singing and forget to play. I’d really get into my song. But he’s phenomenal, and we’ve done a lot of writing, because he’s always going through the house, picking up a guitar, and I love that. Sometimes I’ll be in the kitchen and he’ll say, “You need any help?” And I’ll say, “Yeah—bring your guitar in here and pick for me!”

Paste: Even when Ferguson buttressed you with orchestra, like on “Ain’t Had No Loving,” your bluesy, almost elastic voice just refuses to be contained. And that was certainly unusual in country at the time.

Smith: Actually, that was one of Dallas Frazier’s songs. And I’ve cut 72 of his songs, and you know he wrote “Alley Oop” and “Elvira,” and he could sing a rock song as well as anybody. And then he’ll turn right around and write one that I recorded called “I Love Charlie Brown,” and songs like that. So he runs the whole gamut—he is so awesome. But he could do one like “Ain’t Got No Loving,” which was so bluesy, and then turn right around to do one that was so country, like “Where’s My Castle?” He’s a full-fledged writer in any genre that he wants to do. And this project started when I heard his “I Just Don’t Believe Me Anymore.” I said, “I wanna cut that!” And Marty said, “Good. We’ll do another album.” And once I find one song I love, we start picking songs, and we’ve got seven songs ready for the next album already.

Paste: It must have been cool with Marty having his own RFD TV show, because you could pop up there with a song whenever you wanted.

Smith: Well, we did six years of The Marty Stuart Show, and I was on all of ‘em but two—I had a little bug, and we did two a day, so I missed one day out of all that six years. And as a matter of fact, a couple of songs on this album we took straight from the TV, songs that we had done on the show. When you have to do 26 shows a year for six years, you just start singing songs that you always wanted to sing. Like “A Million and One” was a song that Billy Walker had out, and that’s on this album, and also Jack Green’s “All the Time”—that was one of ‘em. So we did a lot of songs that I had always wanted to sing. That was one of the things that we thought about on this album. And Marty said he got to thinking about the songs, and he said that these cuts were good enough, so we didn’t go in and re-sing ‘em. He may have added a rhythm or something like that—I don’t even know what all he did—but he took those and just put ‘em on the album. And Merle Haggard wrote “Jesus Take a Hold”—he’d written that in the ‘70s, and I had actually cut it back then. And then I included it on this album, because I like to do a sacred song on every album. So we talked about it, and I thought, “Well, that song is as relevant today as it was back in the ‘70s, when all the riots were going on. So we just put it on again, and Marty just produced it another way, which I dearly loved. And with Carl Jackson, there were two of ‘em—one of ‘em he wrote with Mel Montgomery called “I’m Not Over You,” and that’s an older song. And then he wrote one called “To Pieces” that he played for us when we were listening to his songs, and we cut that one.

Paste: The phraseology on that is exemplary—“I guess to pieces is the only place to go.” Country used to have these great ironic lyrical twists that were often unapologetically punny. Like in your classic “Once a Day,” where you’ve pretty much been crying for 24 hours when you add it up.

Smith: Yeah. And when you’re raised in the country and you do those things, and you didn’t have the Internet and all that stuff, you’d come up with things to amuse yourself. Like, my mama’s favorite saying was, “Well, if you can’t remember, just forget it.”

Paste: I like the image of you and your dozen-plus siblings sitting around the family radio, listening to Saturday night Opry broadcasts.

Smith: And my favorite was The Louvin Brothers. That was my very favorite. And during the pandemic, that [Covid] fatigue was just really something, so I couldn’t do much. But I didn’t like lying in bed all day, so I’d get up and just go to the couch and turn on the TV, not the radio, and it just took me places. But mainly we just watched music stuff and old movies—we did a lot of YouTubing and we love old Westerns.

Paste: I saw one on TCM this past year that I couldn’t believe—The Fastest Guitar in the West, starring Roy Orbison, who, since it was a Western, couldn’t wear his signature shades.

Smith: Oh wow! That must have been really rough for him, bless his heart. I know I broke a tendon in two one time and I was laying in bed for two months one time, and I called Carl Smith and I said, “You got me through it.” Because I saw a movie, and Carl Smith was the sheriff and Marty Robbins was one of the crooks. Those old Westerns just pop up every now and again. And I’ve been listening lately to Jimmy Wakely—we’ve been listening to some of his singing, and it’s such a kick. He was an old cowboy movie star, and he really was a good singer.

Paste: When you’re at the Opry these days, do you see any young performers who have the same Connie Smith spirit?

Smith: Well, I think Chris Janson has really got the life in his singing, and he does it his way. And he does more of the modern stuff than he did when he started, but still, he’s Chris, and he’s a real entertainer—he can sing and entertain, and I really enjoy that. And I remember the first time I saw some of the great singers, like Clint Black and Dwight Yoakam. And when you see some of those, you can’t help but think, “Yep—this kid’s got it. I know he’s got it.” And every now and then we find somebody like that, and that’s what we look for.

Paste: Does religion still play a big role in your life?

Smith: Well, I am a born-again Christian, and I know that it’s the Lord that has kept me going and forgiven me for all my mistakes through my life, and still is. And He’s still teaching me, and I believe that it’s the Lord who got me through Covid, because there were a few days where I wasn’t sure if I was gonna make it. So yes, it’s a very integral part of my family. And I’m still here—I’m not done yet! And that’s why I’m still praying.

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