Connie Smith – Too Cool To Be Forgotten
Fan Fair ’98: A very pregnant Faith Hill is closing her set with her vapid re-make of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart”. As she mechanically urges the crowd to get up and boogie, Hill sings the song’s chorus — an expression of total emotional surrender — as if all she can be bothered to share is a little piece of her heart. Not the least bit engaged with her audience or material, Hill soon has fairgoers making it for the hot dog line.
As Hill’s new labelmate, Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith, takes the stage, the contrast could hardly be more telling. Standing in one spot — and with none of Hill’s shucking and jiving — Smith belts out three songs with every fiber of her being before closing her set, as she has for 25 years, with “How Great Thou Art”.
As Smith reaches ever deeper on the first line of the chorus (“Then sings my soul…”), the hair on the nape of every neck in the grandstands stands on end. People are on their feet well before Smith brings the hymn to its soaring conclusion, something most of us see only through tear-filled eyes.
If there had been any doubt, certainly now the reason why George Jones introduced Smith is clear: Among active country singers, only he can match the boundless soul of Connie Smith. In his book I Lived To Tell It All, Jones cites Smith as his “favorite female country singer.” Jones has been saying as much since the ’60s, and he’s not alone. Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs calls Smith “the Rolls Royce of female country vocalists.” And Dolly Parton, a candidate for such a title herself, says, “There’s really only three female singers in the world — Streisand, Ronstadt, and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.”
Still, Smith is rarely mentioned in the same breath as the other great country females of the ’60s: Parton, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. (Patsy Cline first made her mark in the ’50s.) Part of this has to do with Smith’s decision to retire from performing in the late ’70s to raise her five children. She returned to the stage in 1985, but except for her regular Opry appearances and some low-profile touring, she has been out of the public eye for most of the past 20 years.
Not only that, scarcely a fraction of her recorded output, which includes almost 50 albums, has been available on CD. And yet as most of those records — especially her stone-country albums for RCA — attest, few voices in country music have been more suited to sawdust and sobbing steel guitar: For vocal range, tone and quality, as well as for sheer depth of emotion, Connie Smith is without peer.
Born Constance June Meador on August 14, 1941, in Elkhart, Indiana, Smith was one of 14 children in a family of migrant farm workers. Her parents’ work took Smith and her siblings to West Virginia and, after that, to Warner, Ohio; her father, a harsh man, was an alcoholic who sometimes beat his children.
Smith began to sing as a young girl, doubtless to escape her grim circumstances. While in high school, she performed at square dances, PTA meetings and county fairs, and later on a live country TV show broadcast out of Huntington, West Virginia. Her big break came in 1963 when her newlywed husband and some friends talked her into entering a talent contest at Frontier Town in Columbus, Ohio. First prize meant a chance to sing with the traveling Grand Ole Opry show when it stopped at the park later that night.
Smith not only won, her version of Jean Shepard’s “I Thought Of You” so impressed Opry star Bill Anderson that he invited her down to Music City. She made a much-ballyhooed appearance on Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree, after which Chet Atkins signed her to RCA. In August 1964, Smith’s version of Anderson’s “Once A Day” hit the country charts. By November, the single had reached #1; it stayed there for more than two months, and Smith became country music’s latest Cinderella.
The pressures of the business — the roaming hands of DJs, being cast for shallow parts in third-rate movies, guilt over leaving her two-year-old son when she went out on the road — soon got to Smith. All she ever wanted, after all, was to sing. And yet no matter how great the strain on her emotional and personal life, her music didn’t suffer.
Fired by such stalwart pickers as Weldon Myrick, Grady Martin, Charlie McCoy and Johnny Gimble, Smith plumbed heartache like never before. But unlike Wynette, who at times came across as a victim, Smith always conveyed sorrow without self-pity. It was almost as if the music enabled her, however fleetingly, to transcend her unhappiness.
Even so, before long Smith all but hit bottom and, during Easter week 1968, she turned to the church. Smith’s newfound faith didn’t cure all her ills, but it did give her a focus — not just spiritually, but musically as well. From that point on, she included gospel material on her albums for RCA. When she moved to Monument in 1973, her contract even stipulated that she cut two gospel songs per album, as well as one gospel album per year.