Connie Smith is stuck in the 1960s, and she couldn’t be happier about it.
Let other artists boast of changing with the times. Smith is perfectly content to maintain the same sound and musical sensibilities she exhibited 47 years ago when she swept into Nashville on a torrential tearjerker called “Once a Day.”
Written by Grand Ole Opry star Bill Anderson, the song was 23-year-old Smith’s first single, and it topped the Billboard country songs charts for eight weeks during the fall and winter of 1964.
More important, though, it immediately catapulted the lissome blonde into the front rank of country vocal stylists.
The release of her latest album, Long Line of Heartaches on Sugar Hill Records, is ample proof she has lost none of her power or allure and that her style is not so much traditional as ageless.
“You could line up all my 53 albums [with] this one on the end of it,” she says, “and there’s not a whole lot of difference.”
She’s right. Whether viewed through the lens of subject matter, attitude, instrumentation, arrangement, diction or overall sound, any one of the songs in the new album could well have been cut during the same session that yielded “Once a Day.”
In spite of her prominence in country music, Smith has always been willing to put her career on hold to take care of her family. That sense of priority helps explain why she hasn’t recorded and released a full album since 1998.
Now 70 and expecting her eighth grandchild in March, Smith finally consented to record again at the urging of her husband and fellow Grand Ole Opry member, Marty Stuart.
“I just was busy, you know — living,” she says with a chuckle. “With him and with my kids and doing the Opry and being on the road, I just never settled down to do it. We talked about it for years, just hadn’t really homed in on it.”
Then legendary songwriter Dallas Frazier approached her with some good news.
“He hadn’t written any songs in about 30 years,” she explains, “but he felt free to start writing again, and he brought us a song called ‘What’s a Heart Like You Doing in a Fool Like Me.’ I wanted to record it. That makes 69 of his songs I’ve cut so far. Marty said, ‘That can be the first one on the record.’ So we started that way.”
Of the 12 songs they ultimately selected for the album, Smith and Stuart co-wrote five. For the rest, they dipped into the catalogs of Harlan Howard, Kostas, Johnny Russell, Roy Drusky, Vic McAlpin, Marie Wilson, Patty Loveless, Emory Gordy Jr., Bill Rice, Jerry Foster and Diane Berry.
Stuart volunteered to produce the album, an offer Smith gratefully accepted.
“He’s a genius, musically,” she says matter-of-factly. “He’s got such a well-rounded knowledge of everything that goes on. He listens to every kind of music in the world and knows country music from its inception right up to today. And he listens to me. It’s wonderful to work with a producer who’ll listen to you.
“Over the years that Marty and I have been married — 14 years, and we dated for three years before that — we’ve gotten to know each other’s musical tastes very well. We have our little listening sessions where I bring music that I’ve loved, and he’ll bring music he’s run into. We’ll drive around for several hours in the car just listening to the music.”
Using Smith’s road band, the Sundowners, as the musical core, Smith recorded Long Line of Heartaches in four sessions at RCA Studio B, the birthplace of her earliest hits. She and Stuart did the album on their own, then shopped it to Sugar Hill.
There is something of a mission in the new album, Smith confesses, as a desire to establish a cultural beachhead for the kind of country music she matured in.
“I just don’t want to lose what I was so blessed to be a part of in the ’60s,” she says. “We can talk about how good the good old days were and that they’re gone, or we can do something about it.”
So does she really think country music is “slipping away,” as she was quoted saying in a recent interview?
“Not as long as I’m living,” she snaps. “Not as long as Marty’s around.”
Smith says the country music community embraced her when she was just starting out.
“I was totally welcomed in,” she observes. “The very first time — March 28, 1964 — when I sang at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, Bill Anderson was going to host. He’d invited me down. But Ernest had a date cancel, so he hosted. When I sang ‘Walk Out Backward,’ one of Bill’s songs, Loretta [Lynn] was on that night and was sitting in the back because it was right before she had her twins.
“So she sent Doo, her husband, up to get me. He took me back where Loretta was, and she said, ‘Patsy [Cline] did this for me, and I want to do it for you.’ She started telling me what to expect and how things were in Nashville, just to encourage me. That was something I’ll never ever forget. On top of that, she’s my favorite girl singer.”
Smith became so popular in and beyond Nashville during the mid-to-late ’60s that bandleader Lawrence Welk invited her to join his highly-rated television show.
“I did his show four times,” she says, “and he asked me to be a regular. But at that time I had my son, and the show was being filmed in California. I didn’t know how I could bring him back and forth every time, and I didn’t want to leave him that much. And then that show wasn’t as country [as I liked]. But they were wonderful to me — all those people.”
She turned down the offer, which then went to Lynn Anderson, who accepted.
Of Smith’s thousands of stage performances, she remembers two with particular clarity.
“The first, I’d have to say, was my first night on the Grand Ole Opry. I’d always heard about people’s knees knocking when they got scared, but I didn’t know that really happened. But it did.
“My knees were just hitting together, and I had no control of my voice. I had no idea what it sounded like. It was just coming out in gushes, I was so frightened. As soon as I finished, I ran off to the side of the stage and just busted out crying.
“One of my greatest [stage experiences came] when ‘Once a Day’ was 30 years old. I was in Japan working, and I did several shows. One night, I went to this little club [where] they wanted me to come and sing. When I started singing ‘Once a Day,’ everybody in the audience simultaneously started doing the backup — just like on the record. I could hardly get through it, I was so touched.”
On Monday (Sept. 12), Smith performed the last of three concerts as the 2011 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. In the first session, she spotlighted the steel guitar as an essential component of her sound. The second featured songwriters who contributed to the new album, specifically Stuart, Frazier and Kostas. The final session focused on female singers who influenced Smith or were influenced by her — and featured guest appearances by Country Music Hall of Fame member Jean Shepard, Tanya Tucker, Martina McBride, the Quebe Sisters and Smith’s daughters, Jeanne, Jodi and Julie (who also sing backup on “Take My Hand,” the only hymn on the new album).
Bear Family Records will release its second boxed set of Smith’s music in early 2012 with an accompanying book by Wall Street Journal reviewer and music scholar Barry Mazor.
Although she’s been nominated for 11 of them, Smith has never won a Grammy. Long Line of Heartaches may just change her luck.