Sometimes the unlikeliest romances are the best romances.
Marty Stuart was an 11-year-old starstruck country fan when he first met Connie Smith at the Choctaw County Indian Fair in Philadelphia, Miss., in the summer of 1970. Smith was a 28-year-old star with 14 top 10 country hits behind her. Nonetheless, as they drove home from the show, Stuart told his mother he was going to marry Smith someday.
And he did. Flash-forward to 1995, 18 years after Smith’s previous top 20 single and three years after Stuart’s most recent top 20 single. Smith hadn’t released an album of new material since 1978, but Stuart’s solo career was still yielding an album every year or two. Smith was single after divorcing three different husbands, and Stuart was single after divorcing Johnny Cash’s daughter Cindy in 1988.
“She came to my dressing room at the Grand Ole Opry,” Stuart remembers, “and said she was thinking about making a record and asked me if I would produce it. I said, ‘Absolutely.’ We were acquaintances at that point but not close friends. I knew she could sing beautifully, but I said she should write the songs for her next album. So we got together to write songs. I called Harlan Howard, and the three of us wrote a song — ‘How Long,’ a country shuffle. There’s nothing like a good country shuffle to kick off a relationship. I called it our first date. We wrote ‘Hearts Like Ours,’ and one love song led to another.”
“It didn’t take long for us to become a couple,” Smith admits. The two were wed on July 8, 1997, and Connie Smith, her first album in 20 years, was released in 1998. Now the couple have collaborated again on the brand-new The Cry of the Heart, only the third solo album Smith has released since 1978. Released at the same time will be a new 38-minute video documentary, Connie Smith: The Cry of the Heart, directed by Stuart and telling her life story via dozens of priceless old performance clips.
This new album got its start on a television show. Between 2008 and 2014, The Marty Stuart Show was syndicated by RFD-TV, and Smith sang on most episodes. It was an old-fashioned country music variety show that Stuart modeled on the famous franchises hosted by Porter Wagoner and the Wilburn Brothers. Near the end of the show’s run, Smith had exhausted her large catalog and started singing her favorite songs by other artists. One of those was “A Million and One,” a No. 2 country hit for Billy Walker in 1966 — other recordings of which yielded modest pop hits for Dean Martin and Vic Dana that same year. But never had the song sounded so good as it did that night.
“Connie was singing so great that I held my breath when I heard it,” Stuart recalls. “After the show, I went back to the control room, and asked, ‘Can I get a copy of that?’ When I heard it again, I knew it was the beginning of an album. The Jack Greene song ‘All the Time’ was the same scenario. We took the audience’s applause out, but everything else you hear on the record is untouched from the original TV taping.”
“I wasn’t thinking about an album when I sang it,” Smith adds. “I was just having fun, singing songs I’d always wanted to sing. Once you get into a song, sometimes it really works.”
With those two songs in hand, Stuart and Smith went looking for new songs with the same feel. The spouses wrote two songs together plus one song apiece with other co-writers. Bluegrass legend Carl Jackson contributed two songs, one of them co-written with Melba Montgomery.
“We found a new Dallas Frazier song, ‘I Just Don’t Believe Me Anymore,’ ” Smith says. “That makes 72 songs of his that I’ve done now. I believe he’s as good a writer as we’ve ever had. He’s right up there with Hank Williams. I’m surprised that he’s not in the [Country Music] Hall of Fame. When I was young I started cutting his songs, and he started writing songs for me. Then he started writing songs about me. Our hearts melted together.”
“Dallas and Connie are like soul mates,” adds Stuart. “She became a character, and he supplied the dialogue and settings for her. He told me one time that he saw her as a target, and he hit the bullseye every time.”
“The demos I liked the most were his,” Smith concludes, “just his guitar and his foot hitting the floor. I like demos that are sparse and leave room to put your own ideas in without fighting off the ideas that are already there. Hearing his songs is like hearing someone talk; one line will just get you. It was a match, just like Weldon Myrick on steel guitar was a match; he helped create the Connie Smith sound.”
Three songs on the album (“Look Out Heart,” “Heart, We Did All That We Could” and “Here Comes My Baby Back Again”) are framed as conversations between the narrator and her own heart. The narrator admits that she had sworn she’d never fall in love again, but now she just can’t help herself. All she can do is apologize to the Valentine organ and warn it to brace itself for turbulence ahead.
“It’s a relevant theme,” Stuart says. “When she sings, people say, ‘She must have been there too.’ Of course, we’ve spent many years researching this subject. They don’t call Connie the Queen of Broken Hearts for nothing.”
“We’re all pretty much the same,” Smith declares. “We all have wants and needs and sorrows, and there’s nothing like sharing them. You feel better when you hear someone else talking or singing about those things, like, ‘Oh, that’s happened to her too.’ Give me some George Jones, and I’m happy, even if I’m sad. Even if he’s sad.”
Once they had the songs, they decided to cut them in the same style as Smith’s classic singles from the ’60s, recorded at the legendary RCA Studio B. Fortunately, Smith, who just turned 80, still has the broad range and lustrous tone of her younger self, thanks to all those years of semi-retirement. Stuart backed her up with his own band, His Fabulous Superlatives, as well as his first-call steel guitarist Gary Carter and Smith’s longtime pianist Pig Robbins.
“From working with Connie over the years,” Stuart points out, “I’ve learned that she’s at her absolute best when all the pieces are in place: a great song, Pig Robbins on piano, a lot of guitar, steel guitar fills, upright bass, quiet drums — that unapologetically Studio B soundprint.”
The album was pretty much done by the end of 2020, but in January of this year Smith and Stuart both came down with COVID infections. Smith had the worst of it, winding up on a breathing apparatus in a hospital for 11 days. Even now she goes to therapy a few times a week to cope with the consequences. But she remains upbeat, already making plans for her next album.
“They asked me if my heart stopped, did I want to be revived, and I said, ‘Of course, I don’t want to be a COVID statistic,’ ” Smith says. “But I got through it with prayer and the Lord’s mercy, with a lot of support from my friends and family — especially Marty. He loves music and I love music. We love to get in the car and drive around and listen to something he’s heard, or something I’ve heard. There are guitars all over the house, and he’ll pick one up and we’ll start singing and maybe start writing.”
In addition to his music career, Stuart is a widely published photographer. While serving as a talking head in Ken Burns’ Country Music series, Stuart learned more about his first meeting with Smith and the origin of his picture taking.
“I used to say I was 12 when I first met Connie, but Ken Burns proved to me that I was 11,” says Stuart. “I had my mom take me to the department store so I could get a new yellow shirt and maybe Connie would notice me. After the show I got her autograph and she waved me along. But later I saw her sitting alone by the bus, so I got my mother’s camera and said, ‘Miss Smith, is it OK if I take your picture?’ That was the first picture I ever made.”
“I remember this little kid coming up on the stage,” adds Smith, “and talking to Weldon Myrick and asking about the gauge of the strings. I thought, ‘This kid doesn’t have a bashful bone in his body; he acts as if he already belongs up here.’ I don’t remember about the autograph and the photograph, but I do remember that.”