Country Music Hall of Fame member Carl Smith, one of the genre’s most successful singers and entertainers during the 1950’s, died Saturday (Jan. 16) at his home in Franklin, Tenn. He was 82.
Smith was so long out of the spotlight — enjoying what was for most stars of his generation an early, atypical and genteel retirement — many began to wonder if younger CMA electors would ever induct him into the Country Music Hall of Fame. When they finally did in 2003, Smith’s few seconds back on national TV consisted of a silent smile and wave to his well-deserved standing ovation.
In 1977, the year he turned 50, Smith retired from the grind of recording sessions and personal appearances and thereafter enjoyed life as a gentleman farmer and horse breeder on his ranch. After this, he resolutely avoided contact with the music industry he’d helped to build, in spite of the fact that both his wives and his first child were also well-known entertainers.
He was married to June Carter from 1952 until 1957, and their daughter, Carlene Carter, gained prominence as a singer-songwriter during the late ’70s. His subsequent marriage to country singer Goldie Hill began in September 1957 and lasted until her death in February 2005. Hill was the mother of his last three children, Lorri Lynn, Carl Jr. and Larry Dean, none of whom sought a career as a performer.
Carl M. Smith was born in East Tennessee at Maynardville (also Roy Acuff’s hometown) on March 15, 1927. He loved music from his earliest days, especially the country music broadcast out of nearby Knoxville, Tenn. While in high school, he began his professional career in 1944 as a performer on radio personality Cas Walker’s programs on WROL in Knoxville. After joining the military, Smith served in the Pacific on the USS Admiral Sims at the end of World War II and returned to Knoxville in 1946 to work as a guitarist with the Brewster Brothers, one of Cas Walker’s radio bands.
His musical quest took him to other cities — Asheville, N.C., and Augusta, Ga., in 1947-48 as a singer alongside banjoist Hoke Jenkins — but Smith came back to Knoxville as bassist and part-time singer with Skeets Williamson and his famous singing sister, Molly O’Day. Afterwards, he worked with “Grandpappy” Archie Campbell, who years later achieved national fame as a comic on Hee Haw. While Smith worked for Campbell, the prolific Knoxville Dobro player and songwriter George “Speedy” Krise used him as a vocalist to demo some new songs he sent to Peer-Southern talent scout Troy Martin, who was most impressed with Smith’s singing.
Sensing an opportunity to help himself and Smith, Martin passed the best demos along to Jack Stapp of Nashville’s WSM radio and Don Law, peripatetic producer for Columbia Records. Smith moved to Nashville at Stapp’s invitation in March 1950 as a part-time singer on WSM’s early morning show, but he was not made a regular guest on the station’s great Saturday night showcase, the Grand Ole Opry, until Don Law signed Smith to his first Columbia Records contract in May.
Success as a recording artist came slowly for Smith but was built with sure momentum after “Let’s Live a Little,” a song from his second Columbia session, cracked the Top 10 in 1951. It was followed later that year by “Mr. Moon” and a great song from old Knoxville buddy Carl Butler, “If Teardrops Were Pennies.”
Befriended by such helpful WSM legends as Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams (who brought him songs to record and shared tour dates with the young hopeful), Smith gathered a talented band for recording and touring. Eventually dubbed the Tunesmiths, the group featured fiddler-manager Hal Smith, Hal’s wife Velma on rhythm guitar, bassist Junior Huskey, steel guitarist Johnny Sibert and former Hank Williams electric guitarist Sammy Pruett.
Smith’s first No. 1 record, the near-million-selling “Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way,” came in 1951. The next year brought Smith big hits with “(When You Feel Like You’re in Love) Don’t Just Stand There” and a double-sided smash with the Louvin Brothers’ “Are You Teasing Me” and Boudleaux Bryant’s “It’s a Lovely, Lovely World.” Bryant also wrote the two biggest hits of Smith’s many in 1953, “Just Wait Till I Get You Alone” and the immortal “Hey Joe.”
The handsome and full-throated Smith was obviously at his best with such happy love songs, and his combination of good looks, good singing, good songs and flashy attire (his white suits giving way by the mid-1950s to trim Western cut suits for himself and his band) made him a favorite with country’s female fans. As a pre-Elvis heartthrob, he was a natural choice to help country music break into television.
In 1952, he was one host of Kate Smith’s NBC-TV show, Main Street Music Hall, her segment plugging the Opry’s brief New York City engagement at the Hotel Astor. In 1955-56, Smith often hosted half-hour shows in Albert Gannaway’s syndicated color TV series, Stars of Country Music. Gannaway cast Smith as one star of his 1956 motion picture, Buffalo Guns (alongside Marty Robbins and Webb Pierce), and there were other low-budget film appearances in the 1960s, although major screen stardom never came his way.
In the late ’50s, Smith often traveled to Springfield, Mo., to host or guest on ABC-TV’s Jubilee USA, formerly the Ozark Jubilee. By then, Smith had left the Opry after it fired his business partner, Jim Denny. (Smith, Denny and country star Webb Pierce had co-founded the lucrative Cedarwood Music publishing company in 1953. The Opry fired Denny in 1956 for alleged conflict of interest.)
It was at Denny’s behest that Smith toured the nation for 18 months in 1957-58 as a headliner of the Philip Morris Country Show tour, which also featured Smith’s new wife, Goldie Hill. Smith’s land, business interests and recording career kept his home base in Nashville, though, and that career weathered the onslaught of rock ‘n’ roll in reasonably good shape. To augment his sound, he had added drummer Buddy Harman to his Tunesmiths as early as 1954. He also enjoyed a steady supply of good songs from the growing stable of Cedarwood songwriters, including Danny Dill, Marijohn Wilkin and Mel Tillis.
Smith’s appeal as a TV performer lasted through the ’60s with an alternating hosting role in 1961 for Five-Star Jubilee, ABC’s follow-up to Jubilee USA. In 1964, he filmed the first of some 190 episodes as host of his own popular Canadian series, Carl Smith’s Country Music Hall.
Although he claimed only one Top 10 hit in the ’60s (“Deep Water” in 1967), there was not a single year between 1951 and 1973 that Smith’s Columbia Records did not reach the country charts somewhere, a consistency only surpassed in those years by Marty Robbins (1952-83). He took a break from recording for about a year and resurfaced on Hickory Records from 1975-78, though none of his seven chart singles for Hickory got any higher than No. 67 on the Billboard country chart.
He stopped touring in 1977, and his long and placid life thereafter as breeder of quarter horses won him a whole new set of friends and peers who often didn’t even know he had once been a major country music star. Smith, however, fondly remembered his singing days and was always helpful to writers and researchers on various record reissue projects. He occasionally sat for remarkably frank broadcast interviews about his career — on TNN: The Nashville Network with his old boss Archie Campbell for Yesteryear in Nashville, with Ralph Emery live on TNN’s Nashville Now and then back at WSM with Eddie Stubbs for a salute and career retrospective on his 70th birthday in 1997.
Smith’s earliest recordings and most of the reissues still circulate among collectors. Among them is Satisfaction Guaranteed, a five CD boxed set of entire Columbia recordings from the ’50s. Compiled by the German label, Bear Family Records, the collection features extensive liner notes written by the late Dr. Charles Wolfe, a country music historian and scholar. Regrettably, there is no published Carl Smith biography or autobiography.