By Beverly Keel
July 8, 1997: Kitty Wells may be the queen of country music, but Hazel Smith is surely the mother of Music Row. While countless label executives, singers, and songwriters have gotten hot and then gone home, Smith has remained one of the few constants in a changing industry that has been home to everyone from Wanda Jackson to Alan Jackson.
Since the divorced mother of two moved from North Carolina in the late '60s, she has supported herself as a songwriter, publicist, manager, and journalist. She is the Drue Smith of country music journalism, but it could just as easily be said that Drue is the Hazel Smith of political reporting. Both women are cherished Nashville treasures, both are outspoken and colorful, and both are perhaps more knowledgeable in their particular circles than anyone else in town. Indeed, a conversation with Hazel Smith is a lesson in Tennessee and musical history.
Although health problems have slowed her down, Smith has only grown more passionate and more informed over the years. At a recent lunch interview, she told four stories in the time it took her to navigate the few steps up to Sammy B's. She moves cautiously as a result of a branch retinal vein occlusion, which has left her right eye with a vision of 20/200. "I don't have any promise that it will clear up," she says. "I was able to read the headline of Billboard, and that was wonderful."
Jovial though she may be, Smith is concerned about the state of country; it troubles her to see so many people pursuing careers for money rather than out of love for the music. "The songwriters now come dragging in about 9:30 a.m. wearing clean clothes," she says. "They've slept all night in their very own bed in their very own home beside their wife and not somebody else's wife. They haven't been chasing somebody at the Holiday Inn. I don't know how they get their material.
"I can't believe the songs are as good as they were, because back then the songs were written from the heart. Take a song like `Good Hearted Woman'.... That's about some woman who truly loved a man, and that's Waylon and Willie writing a song in their hotel room because it happened right out of the depth of their hearts.
"Instead, we've got people writing songs who have college degrees.... There ain't nothin' wrong with education, but I'd a whole lot rather hear a song with feeling to it than a bunch of educated words written from the neck up that had no feeling at all. Songs with feelings are what make us unique and what we are today."
Smith worked in the early '70s as a publicist for Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, Tompall Glaser, and Waylon and Willie. It was in Glaser Studios' office on 19th Avenue South that she coined the term "outlaw music." "I remember, because there were three radio stations playing that kind of music, and they wanted a moniker," she recalls of her $85-a-week days. "One day, I was just sitting in the office, and there was an old blue Webster's Collegiate Dictionary just laying there. Now, it doesn't say this in mine or any other dictionary I've seen, but it said that outlaw meant virtually living on the outside of the written law. It just made sense to me, because Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins were doing marvelous music, but this was another step in another direction.
"It was the most exciting time in the music business you could ever imagine. There were no windows in that building. The shutters were closed and the lights were on, and the office was open 24 hours a day. The back door was never locked. It was nothing for me to go in there in the morning and there would be a couple of songwriters asleep on my typewriter and a bottle of gin on the floor."
Smith made the down payment on her Madison home in 1979 after Dr. Hook recorded eight of her songs. She went on to work in Dr. Hook's office before becoming a personal assistant for Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White. In 1990, she and Bobby Heller formed a management company that lasted five years. Throughout it all, she has continued to write for Country Music magazine. (She interviewed Garth Brooks this past Monday after he specifically requested her. She says she was the first journalist to write about Brooks in the '80s.) She also files daily reports for several radio stations and writes a column for NashvilleLife.
"The fans want to know," she says. " But there are just certain things that I wouldn't dare tell the fans. I am first and foremost a country-music fan myself. I don't want my favorites to be hurt." She wouldn't report on a star getting AIDS, but she wouldn't hesitate to spill the beans about someone involved in an affair. "You'd bet your life I'd report it, because it's wrong," she says.
Smith has spent the last two years as an A&R licensee for K-Tel Records, securing song rights and developing concepts for albums. She developed the concept for 101 Country Songs, which went gold and earned about $10 million for the company. K-Tel abruptly shut down its Nashville office in May, leaving Smith unemployed. "I had to have surgery," she says. "I don't know if that had anything to do with it. They came in on May 28 with a letter and severance pay. I was totally shocked."
Smith is concerned about her future, but she has faith that divine providence will help see her through. Already, she has been offered two consulting jobs, and she's looking for more projects. "My friends on Music Row have...started coming through," she says. "To me, that's really the heart of Nashville: people helping people."
Zimmerman recoversUniversally respected journalist David Zimmerman, who covers country music for USA Today, is recovering from a stroke he had two weeks ago. "The first symptom was [that] I couldn't drink beer," he says in all seriousness. "I kept spilling it all over myself."
Zimmerman, 52, is undergoing rehab at The Women's Hospital at Centennial, where he has been surrounded by flowers from Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, LeAnn Rimes, Pam Tillis, and others. "We expect a 100 percent recovery," he says. "I am fine." Indeed, the writer has retained his sense of humor throughout the ordeal. "If Jimmy Bowen can blame Garth Brooks for his cancer, I can blame my stroke on Garth Brooks," he jokes, noting that his stroke had a "causal link" to Fan Fair.
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