Connie Smith: Back Where She Belongs

Thirty-four years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a country music listener who didn’t know the the name Connie Smith and the sound of her flawless chart-topper “Once A Day.” Only a year earlier, in 1963, before Bill Anderson invited her to Nashville and before Chet Atkins signed her to RCA, she was an unknown housewife in small-town Ohio. The runaway success of “Once A Day” was unprecedented. Never before had a female artist’s debut single captured the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s country singles chart and, moreover, stay there for a remarkable eight weeks. However, the breakthrough was as disconcerting as it was sudden for the 23-year-old singer.

The usual problems associated with being an overnight sensation were further complicated by Smith’s own hesitation of becoming a star. Her first child, Darren, was in diapers when “Once A Day” hit, and the singer longed to be at home with her son when she was on the road.

“The first time I left him,” Smith recalls, “he had the babysitter play my record while he just stood there staring out the window waiting for me to come home. I wanted to quit then. However, my (first) husband told me that we had a chance of getting ahead and that we could prepare a better future for him if I didn’t quit. I said, ’O.K., I understand, I’ll do it, but only until you find out what you want to do.'”

The singer ultimately allowed her career to take a back seat to family responsibilities, but she managed to continue making records until about the time her fifth and last child was born 22 years ago. “I worked very little, and after I had Jodi, I just quit all together for a while. I just couldn’t stand leavin’ my children knowing they were at the door wanting mama. When Jodi started kindergarten, I went back to working some on the road, for one thing, to help support the family.”

Smith has no regrets about putting her recording career on hold.

“I’m glad I made the choice I did. I knew at the time it was the wrong decision to make business-wise, but I also did not want to lose any time with my children. Had I continued to work, it would have been too late to give them the training I wanted to give them.”

Smith never repeated the spectacular success of “Once A Day,” but from 1964 to 1976 she recorded a succession of albums and Top 10 singles of consistent quality and dramatic impact. By the time she finally quit recording and touring in the late ’70s, she had become one of the most beloved singers in country music history. Roy Acuff dubbed her “The Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry” after she arrived soon after the tragic death of Patsy Cline, making Smith one of the select few cast members who carries a permanent nickname. Dolly Parton, George Jones and Junior Brown are among those who have sited Smith as their favorite female country singer. And Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs is fond of saying “The only people who aren’t fans of Connie Smith’s singing are those who have yet to hear her.”

Now is the opportune time for listeners to discover–or in other cases, rediscover–Smith’s talent. The singer, at 57, is in the spotlight again with a major-label release simply titled Connie Smith, her first studio album in 20 years. The Grand Ole Opry star enjoys the rare luxury of a voice that continues to season and improve over time. For vocal range, tone and quality, as well as for sheer depth of emotion, Smith is almost without peer. Furthermore, the viable singer clearly sounds inspired on her new album. Singing her heart out, Smith demonstrates she is still capable of igniting a song and an emotion.

The fact that Smith sacrificed her career to be a stay-at-home mom, only indicates she does what feels right, no matter the risks. The fact she stuck to her convictions while putting together her new album for Warner Bros. suggests the same.

Jim Ed Norman, who heads the Nashville division of Warner Bros., first contacted Smith seven years ago about recording for his label. The singer cut some sessions, but they did not come off as well as she wanted. She tried her hand at it again a few years later with a different producer, but again Smith was not completely satisfied with the results. “Jim Ed told me that if I really believed in the album he would release it,” Smith remembers. “I told him no, this is not the album I want to present. I told him I would rather not put out an album until I can do one I think is right. Why do it unless I’m excited about it?”

The two continued to keep in touch, off-and-on, until plans for Connie Smith finally coalesced one night a few Octobers ago following the Country Music Association Awards. Smith–with all her children now grown–was ready to devote time to her great love for music. She had begun writing songs with Marty Stuart, whom she began dating a few years ago and subsequently married in 1997. (Interestingly, Marty told his mother he was going to marry Connie when he was 12. He was introduced to the star when she was 29 at one of her shows in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. They’ve got a picture hanging in the bedroom from the day they met.) The two country stars attended a Warner Bros. post-CMA Awards show party with close pal Travis Tritt, who is on the label’s roster. At the party, Smith and Jim Ed Norman began discussing the idea of recording again. Agreeing that the timing was right, they invited Marty Stuart to become involved with the project.

“I wanted to work with someone that would appreciate who I am and where I’ve been, but also have their pulse on what’s going on today in country music,” Smith explains. “Marty was the only one I could think of that fit the bill.”

By this time, Smith realized the main problem behind those earlier false starts with Warner Bros. She wasn’t in love with the material she was recording. “I never used to have a problem finding songs. When you’re on a roll, of course, publishers hand you the hits. The only sensible thing for a publisher to do is pitch songs to the artists that are on the charts, the ones currently making hits,” Smith reasons. “It’s just the business. So, I knew I wasn’t getting the cream of the crop from publishing houses when I went looking for songs after years of inactivity on the charts. Then Marty said to me, ’Well, you write! Why don’t you write the songs for your next album?'”

“I’ll Come Running” and “You Got Me (Right Where You Want Me)” are among Smith’s self-penned hits, but she primarily made her mark in the ’60s and ’70s with throaty renditions of songs written by others. It was high-caliber songwriters Bill Anderson and Dallas Frazier who inked “Once A Day,” “Nobody But A Fool (Would Love You),” “Then And Only Then,” “Ain’t Had No Lovin’,” “Cincinnati, Ohio” and many of her other RCA hits (found on the recent CD compilation, The Essential Connie Smith).

Taking Stuart’s advice to heart, Smith is now more inspired to write songs than she has ever been. “Now that I don’t have to worry about fixing supper or being there to pick up the kids from school, I have the time I can spend on my writing,” she notes. Smith is heart-deep into it. For the past few years she’s been writing songs with some of Nashville’s top songwriters and artist friends, including Harlan Howard, Jessi Colter, Melba Montgomery, Steve Wariner, Deborah Allen and Lionel Cartwright. Then, of course, there’s Marty, with whom she has written some 40 songs over the past few years.

Eight songs she co-wrote with her husband–tunes which vary from country shuffles to pop-flavored ballads to Stuart’s patent hillbilly rock–appear on Connie Smith. Stuart also co-produced the 10-track album (with Justin Neibank) and plays mandolin and guitar on the project.

Like she hoped, Stuart helped Smith craft an album that fits her style and plays up her strengths while mining a sound and feel that are contemporary. Judging by the music alone, Connie Smith is a very radio-friendly album. But, even as the liner notes to the album are quick to point out, country music is in a totally youth-driven phase and even its legends are usually ignored and forgotten.

“I understand where radio is coming from,” Smith says. “They feel I’m dated. I don’t feel that I am. I know I have a lot more to give. I’m fresh. I’ve learned so much doing this album that I can’t wait to do the next one. The radio programmers who won’t play my records don’t know me. They assume they know me, but I bet they’ve never met me, they’ve never talked with me, they’ve never seen my concerts. It would be nice if before they made their (playlists) they got to know the artists as they are today, not who they were, but who they are now. That way they can see for themselves if an artist can still cut it and then decide if people will want to hear it.”

Just as she is at peace with her previous career decisions–even the ones that cost the singer some of the recognition due her–she’ll likely have no regrets concerning her new album, no matter what radio decides to do with it.

“I’ve had my day; I’ve had wonderful success; I’ve raised my family. Now, I’m doing what I’m doing just because I want to do it. I have no pressure on me. I’m just interested in seeing what will happen. Whether the album gets attention or not, I’m still singing and I’m still writing. I still have a very busy life and plenty of things ahead to do.”