Country music turns the losses and defeats of ordinary people into art that can seem all too ordinary — that's its appeal and its curse. The career of the great country singer Connie Smith is a case in point, since Smith is a remarkable vocalist who never over-dramatizes her narratives of cheating husbands and long-suffering wives. Smith's body of work has never received the sort of critical scrutiny lavished upon Tammy Wynette or Loretta Lynn, but that's changing. With her husband, Marty Stuart, she's made her first full-length record in 15 years, Long Line of Heartaches, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has selected her as their newest artist-in-residence — the first woman to be so honored. Her career may be a triumph of the everyday, but it's never been ordinary.
Cut with Stuart producing at RCA's famed Studio B — where Smith made her classic '60s work for RCA Victor — Long Line of Heartaches takes up where she left off in her glory days. It reunites her with songwriter Dallas Frazier, who penned many of her songs in the '60s and '70s, and features writing by Smith and Stuart along with material by such venerated tunesmiths as Kostas Lazarides, Patty Loveless and Harlan Howard. It's an immaculately recorded collection that demonstrates the power of straight-down-the-line country.
Born Constance Meador on Aug. 14, 1941, in Elkhart, Ind., Smith came from a musical family. She began singing on The Saturday Night Jamboree, a live 15-minute television show in Huntington, W.V. "Their girl singer, who had been there for years, had gotten married and moved to California," Smith says. "They wanted me to audition, and I did, and I won. For about nine months, I sang on that TV show."
In 1963, Smith entered a talent show at a country music park called Frontier Ranch, near Columbus, Ohio. "Bill Anderson was there that week," she remembers. "At that point, I did not know about Bill Anderson. I had to play my own accompaniment on the guitar, and I only played in the key of C. I sang a Jean Shepard song called 'I Thought of You,' and won the contest. My prize was five silver dollars and the chance to sing on the Grand Ole Opry portion of the show that night, which Bill Anderson was doing."
Smith saw Anderson again about six months later at another show in Ohio. Standing in line to get autographs like any other fan, she received an invitation from the songwriter: "Bill said, 'You like to sing so much, why don't you come to Nashville?' And I thought, 'Yeah, like you can just come to Nashville.' " But you can — and she did — and a demo record she made for Anderson made its way to RCA producer Chet Atkins, who signed her to the label in June 1964.
Over the next nine years, Smith made a series of albums and singles for RCA with producer Bob Ferguson. She says she shared the workload with Ferguson, who died in 2001. "He'd look for songs, I'd look for songs, and we'd get together and listen to them," Smith recalls. "I learned to respect his opinion, and the wonderful thing about it was he respected mine."
One songwriter Smith and Ferguson pulled into their orbit was the Oklahoma-born Dallas Frazier, who had already hit the charts with the rock 'n' roll tune "Alley Oop." Frazier would go on to pen 69 songs for Smith — written with Glenn Ashworth, his "A Heart Like You" appears on Long Line of Heartaches — and he remembers their relationship fondly.
"I met Connie sometime in the early part of '65," Frazier says. "I was with Ray Baker, who was my publisher, and it might have been that Ray pitched one of my songs to her — one of the first was 'Ain't Had No Lovin',' which was '66, and it went to the Top 5. My own vocal range was kinda close to hers, and a lot of times my demos were very close to her range."
Smith recorded songs by Frazier, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Gordon Lightfoot during her tenure at RCA. Such albums as 1965's Connie Smith and Cute 'n' Country featured her hard-edged voice on top of spare arrangements only occasionally marred by the countrypolitan goop Atkins and Ferguson deemed suitable for an artist with crossover potential.
"It definitely wasn't my choice," Smith says of such later RCA albums as I Love Charley Brown, which sported string arrangements, too many background singers and fewer of Weldon Myrick's steel-guitar licks. "It came down from New York. They wanted me to go middle-of-the-road, because that would sell more records. They'd say, 'You can do more than country,' and I'd say, 'I don't wanna do more than country.' "
Some of Smith's late-'60s recordings are remarkable — her 1968 version of Cy Coben's "Burning a Hole in My Mind" demonstrated her ability to sing a difficult chromatic melody. But she was unhappy with RCA and left in 1973 to record for Columbia, Monument and Warner Bros., and to sing on the Grand Ole Opry.
Long Line of Heartaches rectifies the situation nicely. "The arrangements and songs were carefully considered," says Stuart. "We kept writin' songs, and one day we woke up, and it seemed like they all strung together like a string of pearls. When I heard the sound of her voice comin' back through the speakers at Studio B, it seemed like the place welcomed her back home."
Smith sounds fine throughout Long Line — the no-nonsense phrasing is as sharp as ever. She says she's looking forward to performing at the Hall of Fame, which plans to feature her in three themed segments over a few weeks. Yet the singer remains modest and pragmatic about the honors being bestowed upon her. As she says, "I've been workin' a bunch on it, and I'm excited and scared and all the things you can think of."
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