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Nashville Scene Queen of Broken Hearts

The underrated Connie Smith gets her due at last

By Bill Friskics-Warren

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Grand Ole Opry star Connie Smith has few peers when it comes to plumbing heartache. Among the female singers who emerged with her during the 1960s, only Tammy Wynette came close, and even she never matched Smith--who routinely summons what seems a Grand Canyon-sized well of feeling--for sheer emotional power. On her recording of Melba Montgomery's "I Can't Get Used to Being Lonely," for example, Smith conveys much more than the idea of absence: Aggravated by sobbing steel guitar, her aching alto makes the pain of separation throb like an open wound.

Smith, born Constance June Meador in Elkhart, Ind., in 1941, has known more than her share of suffering. Along with her 13 siblings, she endured a hardscrabble childhood and an abusive, alcoholic father; she's also survived three failed marriages. And yet the anguish that Smith could never get used to--and that ultimately made her give up her singing career nearly 20 years ago--was that of being away from her five children.

Even as early as 1964, when the runaway success of her first single, "Once a Day," had Music Row touting her as its new Cinderella, Smith longed to be at home with her 2-year-old son Darren. "When I was out on the road I would call back and check with the babysitter," Smith remembers, "and she would tell me how he would have her put my record on the record player, and how he would just stand there staring out the window. When I heard that, I said, 'I quit. I don't care what's at stake.' But my husband said, 'You're kind of cheatin' the whole family. If you do this, we can get ahead and have more of a life for our son.' So I said, 'Okay, I'll do it for a couple of years till you decide what you want to do.' "

Despite how much she loved singing, from that point on Smith looked for every chance to quit the road. She finally did so in 1979, but not before racking up 20 Top 10 singles and releasing some 40 albums on RCA, Columbia, and Monument. Feminists painted Smith, a devout Christian since 1968, as a reactionary for forsaking her successful career to be a stay-at-home mom. Politics, says Smith, had nothing to do with it. As has often been the case, she explains, she was merely following her heart.

Smith returned to the Opry stage when her youngest daughter started kindergarten in 1985, but apart from that--and from singing at fireman's specials and county fairs--she never seriously considered picking her career back up until the mid-'90s, when the last of her children had left home. "When I was alone again, I thought, 'I need to get a life so the kids aren't worrying about their poor old mama sittin' around the house,' " she says, laughing. "So that's when I decided to get back into recording."

When she did, Smith--whose new self-titled album for Warner Bros. came out last week--found Music Row a very different place from the one she knew in the '60s and '70s. "It had been 20 years since I had seriously been in the studio and it was really traumatic, because I love recording and everything had changed," she admits. "When I sang in the studio at RCA, we had this little box with some sound coming out of it and I just adjusted to that sound. Plus, I could pretty well fill up Studio B because I've got a pretty big mouth. I remember crying the day that Chet [Atkins] put me in Studio A because it was so big."

Smith didn't just find the new technologies daunting. As someone who'd been off the charts since before LeAnn Rimes was born, she could no longer cherry-pick songs from the hottest Nashville publishing houses the way she did when she was burning up the charts from 1964 to 1976. "I couldn't find anything that I liked," Smith says. "I've always been a song connoisseur, and I've been real fortunate to have the greatest songwriters write for me. I've cut 68 Dallas Frazier songs, along with 33 Bill Anderson songs. So I got to thinking, 'Who could I work with that would appreciate who I am and what I have done, but who also has a pulse on what's happening today?' I went over everybody I knew in my head and I thought, 'There's only one person I know of and that's Marty Stuart.' "

Stuart, who had been a big fan of Smith's since he was a kid, encouraged the singer to write her own material. Smith had done so before, most notably "I'll Come Runnin' " and "You Got Me (Right Where You Want Me)"--songs that had done well for her and for other singers--but admits that she rarely made time for writing. And yet as soon as she and Stuart started working together (the pair also began dating and subsequently married), they penned nearly 40 songs, a half-dozen of which appear on Smith's new album.

Singing in an even deeper, throatier style than she did during her '60s and '70s heyday, Smith's first major-label effort in nearly 20 years finds her in devastatingly fine voice. Coproduced by Stuart and Justin Niebank, the record's best moments are, without a doubt, its stone-country shuffles, but even its nods to the commercial market--be they pop-flavored ballads or Stuart's patented hillbilly rock--are never less than heartfelt.

Smith says that radio programmers have told her they won't play anything from the record; nevertheless, she believes that on the strength of her touring alone, the album could win her a new generation of fans. "Radio don't know me," she says. "They know who they think I am, or who they thought I was, and they have metamorphosed me into something that they think they don't want to hear."

But that's far from the case, she adds, for "the people who come to my shows. The other night I did two shows up in Pennsylvania. Our second show started at 10:30 and everybody who was at the first show was still there at 10:30. They knew almost every song I did, and I've got almost 50 albums." Indeed, as Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs puts it, "The only people who aren't fans of Connie Smith's singing are those who have yet to hear her."

Country legend Bill Anderson, who also has a new album out on Warner Bros., will certainly attest as much. When the Opry star first heard Smith sing Jean Shepard's "I Thought of You" at a talent contest in Columbus, Ohio, in 1963, he invited her to come to Nashville. Anderson, in fact, went one better. When Smith finally came to town in March of 1964, he commandeered her a spot on Ernest Tubb's Midnight Jamboree, where her performance caused such a stir that, by June, Chet Atkins had signed her to a record deal with RCA. Smith cut her first single, "Once a Day," the following month; by November, the song had topped the charts, where it stayed for the next 10 weeks.

Combining the sultry power of Patsy Cline and the down-home pluck of Loretta Lynn, Smith immediately became one of the most successful and beloved country singers of the '60s. Her singles, galvanized by the knifing pedal steel of Weldon Myrick, helped define the sound of country radio during the latter half of the decade. Smith also won the adulation of her peers. George Jones has, for the past 30 years, named her his "favorite female country singer." And Dolly Parton, owner of more Top 10 hits than any woman in country-music history, has said, "There's really only three female singers in the world--Streisand, Ronstadt, and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending."

Even so, Smith's name rarely comes up in conversation with those of the other great country females of the '60s--Parton, Wynette, and Lynn. One can only hope that her new record--as well as recent reissues of material from her RCA and Monument catalogs--will remedy that. But even if that doesn't prove to be the case, Smith says she's at peace with her decision to stay at home for much of the past two decades. "I've got the five greatest kids in the world, and three grandbabies," she beams. "I wouldn't trade any of those years. Had I traded it, I feel confident I would have been more popular, or at least had my home paid for [laughs]. I believe that I could have, but to me the price would have been too high.

"And look at the chance I have now," she continues. "I've got Warner Bros. backing me, and they're committed to me even though they know radio won't play me. I'm still making a living and enjoying it. I've still got my health, so I've got no complaints."

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