Sammi Smith: 1943 to 2005
For a time in the 1970s, it seemed Sammi Smith might join her friends Waylon and Willie in the Outlaw ranks and become one of the few females of the clan. Tragically, it never quite happened.
Jewel Fay Smith’s family hailed from Oklahoma, but she was born in California, where her dad was stationed. The family moved around but eventually returned to Oklahoma. She started singing at age 11 in military clubs; she married at 15, but divorced in her twenties and moved to Nashville in 1967.
One of her demos impressed Johnny Cash’s bassist Marshall Grant and Cash himself, who helped her land a contract with Columbia. While her three Columbia singles didn’t chart higher than the low 50s, the move proved productive. She met Waylon and for a time, toured with his stage show.
She also met Kris Kristofferson, who was trying to establish himself as a writer while working as a janitor at Columbia’s Nashville studios. Her own writing skills emerged on the dramatic “Cedartown, Georgia”; co-written with Mack Vickery and Charlie Cobble in 1970, it remains one of Waylon’s most powerful pre-Outlaw numbers.
That same year, Mega Records, a new label founded by Brad McCuen and Henry Pratt, approached her twice. McCuen, an ex-RCA marketing and promotion whiz who’d worked with Elvis, Hank Snow and the label’s 1950s and 1960s country luminaries, had the juice to make things happen. Her producer, Jim Malloy, a former Hollywood studio engineer, had primarily a pop background. In Nashville, he produced for (among others) Monument Records, owned by Fred Foster, whose Combine Music published Kristofferson’s songs.
Kristofferson’s incisive tunes began taking off around that time. They generated hits for Roger Miller (“Me And Bobby McGee”), Ray Price (“For The Good Times”) and Johnny Cash (“Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”). Malloy, who knew Kristofferson’s work, was aware several male singers had recorded “Help Me Make It Through the Night” without success. Smith had no trouble adapting it, her smoky, sultry interpretation affording the lyrics a visceral sensuality that was heightened by Malloy’s Nashville Sound production. It stayed at #1 on the country charts for three weeks and crossed over to the Pop top-10, winning Smith a 1971 Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance.
With her 1971 top-10 follow-up “Then You Walk In”, Smith became part of the informal circle forming around Waylon and Willie as they stepped away from the pack in their quest for creative freedom. She toured, performed at Willie’s first Fourth of July Picnic in 1973, and later married Willie’s lead guitarist Jody Payne (they named their son Waylon). Times changed as Willie and Waylon sold records beyond their wildest dreams and turned the Nashville Sound inside-out.
Sadly, that same Nashville Sound slickness nearly strangled Smith at Mega. Her records didn’t reflect the changing climate, and she didn’t see the top 10 again until her searing 1975 rendition of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again”. Mega was soon history, but even after Smith signed with Elektra, which should have worked to her advantage, her hits proved modest as she stuck to bland Nashville schlock. With more adventurous producers and material, she could — should — have found success alongside the Outlaw crowd. Instead, she remained awash in blandness much of the time.
More records followed for lesser labels such as Cyclone, Sound Factory (where “Cheatin’s Just A Two Way Street” broke the top 20 in 1981), Step One and Playback. Through the 1980s, Smith, part Apache and Kiowa Indian, devoted time to Apache causes. She married (and divorced) again. Suffering from emphysema, she died in Oklahoma City February 12 and was buried in Guymon, Oklahoma, four days later, leaving behind three sons, a daughter, and stepchildren.
Jessi Colter became the only female outlaw. Sammi Smith should have been there alongside her. She had all the talent, but never the luck.