My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Tag Archives: Bob Ferguson

Album Review: Connie Smith – ‘Just For What I Am’

The past decade or so hasn’t produced much great country music, forcing many fans to mine the back catalogs of some of the genre’s legends, in search of material that they might have initially overlooked. Germany’s Bear Family Records has released numerous extensive box sets of many legendary artists and in doing so has been a Godsend to fans of classic country music. Last month they released a second set of Connie Smith’s music, a little more than a week after it was announced that the Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry would finally be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Just For What I Am
is a companion piece to 2001′s Born To Sing, picking up where the earlier collection left off. Together the two collections represent the singer’s entire RCA catalog, marking the first time in decades that many of these classic recordings have been commercially available. It covers the period from 1967 through 1972, and contains 151 tracks, spanning five discs. It contains 14 Top 20 singles, several Gospel numbers, and Connie’s take on many of the then-current hits of her contemporaries, such as Loretta Lynn, Dottie West, George Jones, Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings. It also contains nine tracks that were never released by RCA. The highest charting single in the collection is “Just One Time”, a Don Gibson number that Connie took to #2 in 1971. My personal favorites among the singles are “I Never Once Stopped Loving You” written by Bill Anderson and Jan Howard, and the Dallas Frazier compositions “Where Is My Castle” and “If It Ain’t Love (Let’s Leave It Alone)”, both of which feature the great Johnny Gimble on fiddle and stands in stark contrast to the countrypolitan that was dominating the country charts at the time.

Smith’s singles from this era were great, but most of them have been available for quite some time on the small handful of compilations that RCA saw fit to release on CD. The real gems are the album cuts, most of which have been unavailable since their initial release 40 years ago or more. Of particular interest are the covers of other artists’ hits. Waylon Jennings’ “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line” seems like an unlikely choice for Connie Smith, but she attacks it with gusto, altering the lyrics slightly to represent the female point of view. Jerry Reed’s “Natchilly Ain’t No Good” gets a similar treatment, as do Conway Twitty’s signature tunes “Hello, Darlin’” and “I Can’t Believe You Stopped Loving Me”. Her rendition of Loretta Lynn’s “Before I’m Over You” rivals the original, and her version of “Here Comes My Baby” is superior to Dottie West’s Grammy winning record. My favorite of the cover songs is “If My Heart Had Windows”, which had been a Top 10 for George Jones in 1967. Patty Loveless would later score her first Top 10 hit when she covered the tune in 1988. Another highlight is Harlan Howard’s heartbreaking “The Deepening Snow”. I’d previously heard this song on Tammy Wynette’s 1992 box set; inexplicably, neither Wynette’s nor Smith’s version was ever released as a single.

It was common in the 60s and 70s for male and female labelmates to become duet partners. RCA wanted to pair Connie up with Waylon Jennings, but she resisted, fearing that a hit Jennings-Smith duet would require her to spend more time on the road promoting it. In retrospect, it’s regrettable because Jennings and Smith would have been an amazing pairing. Instead, Connie teamed up with Nat Stuckey, a singer-songwriter who had written such hits as Jim Ed Brown’s “Pop A Top” and Buck Owens’ “Waiting In Your Welfare Line”, and who would go on to co-write “Diggin’ Up Bones” with Paul Overstreet and Al Gore (not the former Vice President). That tune would become a #1 hit for Randy Travis in 1986. Smith recorded two duet albums with Stuckey, and although he was a fine vocalist, it is here that the material falters a bit. Still, there are some gems among their duets. I especially like their take on The Everly Brothers’ “Let It Be Me” and the Gospel standard “Whispering Hope.” Connie also recorded a handful of duets with Dallas Frazier, who is a great songwriter but not much of a singer.

Among the previously unreleased tracks are Connie’s interpretations of Mel Tillis’and Webb Pierce’s “I Ain’t Never”, Johnny Paycheck’s “(S)he’s All I Got”, Porter Wagoner’s “What Ain’t To Be Just Might Happen” and Dottie West’s somewhat sappy “Country Girl”.

Producer Bob Ferguson was largely responsible for creating the unique Connie Smith sound, but much of the credit should go to steel guitarist Weldon Myrick, who was featured prominently on many of Connie’s recordings. His tribute “Connie’s Song” closes out the collection. It is a steel guitar-led instrumental medley of some of Connie’s biggest hits: “Once A Day, “Then and Only Then”, and “I Can’t Remember”.

Just For What I Am
comes with extensive liner notes written by Barry Mazor, which are contained in a hardcover book. Like all Bear Family projects, it is beautifully packaged and contains a wealth of material, however, it avoids the trap of exhausting the listener with multiple takes of the same song, false starts and studio chatter which were characteristics of many other Bear Family releases. It is expensive, and will probably only appeal to diehard fans. The price, however, can be rationalized by taking into account that it contains twelve albums’ worth of material. If you’ve got some extra cash in your music budget, it is well worth checking out.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘New Harvest … First Gathering’

1977 saw Dolly making a decisive move in her career and taking full artistic control. The portentously titled New Harvest … First Gathering was controversial, as critics and country fans saw Dolly “going pop”. To be honest, her previous effort, the Porter Wagoner co-produced All I Can Do, started the popwards move, but this album (produced by Dolly with the assistance of Gregg Perry) was a big step further down that road, with only one track I would categorise as unquestionably “country”. The sound throughout is definitely experimental. The music was mainly recorded in Nashville but mixed in LA, with the steel guitar present on most tracks but relegated into the background so much as to be inaudible. Future country star Janie Fricke is among the backing vocalists.

The title track’s optimistic lyrics look forward to a new start following the end of the legal proceedings which had delayed her final break with Porter. As a single, it peaked outside the top 10 on the country charts, and failed to make the impact Dolly must have hoped on the pop charts. It expresses her feelings about being set free like an imprisoned eagle, and an impassioned and obviously heartfelt vocal is supported by Gregg Perry’s plangent piano and gospel backing vocals marking the new start musically.

The rather shouty ‘Holdin’ On To You’ has an intrusive almost disco beat and blaring horns, and might have been a better bet for pop success. ‘How Does It Feel’ is up-tempo, beaty and not too bad (although not country by any means), but gets far too repetitive. The peppy but equally repetitive ‘Getting In My Way’ is very pop and very annoying. I also dislike the closing ‘There’ with its mixture of gospel choir and child backing vocals and build from hushed start to full blown climax.

Dolly wrote most of the songs, but included two covers of R&B classics. A very whispery version of ‘My Girl’ (given a gender–neutral makeover as ‘My Love’) is a dud, but the upbeat ‘Your Love Has Lifted Me (Higher And Higher)’ is quite enjoyable.

The love song ‘You Are’ is a pop ballad with a delicately cooed vocal and string arrangement, which works well on its own terms, although not to my personal taste. The most interesting track, ‘Where Beauty Lives In Memory’, is an acute psychological portrait of a crazy old woman trapped in her memories of youth, beauty and a lost love. Almost alone on the album, the aural experimentation works for me on this rather poignant story.

The banjo-led part-recited ‘Applejack’ was the sole reminder of Dolly’s Appalachian roots, with its playful vocals, and backing vocals from a number of veteran stars, including Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Kitty Wells and her husband Johnny Wright, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones and his wife, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis and Chet Atkins, plus Dolly’s parents. In another nod to the past, Dolly’s former producer Bob Ferguson contributes the voice of Applejack, the old man from Dolly’s childhood who is the song’s subject. Dolly herself plays banjo on the track. It is charming, but at times feels a little too deliberate an affirmation that despite the pop material elsewhere, Dolly was still a country girl at heart. It was not a single, but has become a fan favorite.

This is a very varied sounding album, and one has to applaud Dolly’s willingness to try out new things with her music, even if the result is not often to my personal tastes. It was released on CD in 2007 in Europe only as a 2for1 with its immediate predecessor, but is easy to find. It is also available digitally.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘My Tennessee Mountain Home’

By 1973, Dolly Parton had been an RCA recording artist for six years, and though she managed to score a few solo hits during that time, her records were still being received by radio on a rather hit-or-miss basis. One of her most successful records during this time was 1971′s autobiographical “Coat of Many Colors”, which may have provided the inspiration for My Tennessee Mountain Home, a concept album released in 1973, in which Dolly reminisced about her childhood in the Smoky Mountains.

It was common practice in the early 70s to build an album around one or two hit singles and to round it out with covers of other artists’ recent hits and filler songs for which the artist or producer held a share in the publishing rights. My Tennessee Mountain Home breaks with that tradition; each of its eleven tracks — all written by Dolly — deals with a specific memory of her life from her childhood through her early days in Nashville. It didn’t produce any major hits, but it is the most deeply personal album of Dolly’s career and as such, is one of the most important in her discography. it’s also one of those albums that needs to be listened to in its entirety in order to be fully appreciated.

The album opens with a recitation of a letter Dolly wrote to her parents shortly after her arrival in Nashville in 1964. She tries to reassure them that she is doing well and tells them not to worry, but it is also apparent that she is deeply homesick. From there she sings “I Remember”, a tribute to her parents and then focuses on specific objects she remembered from her youth, such as “The Old Black Kettle” her mother used to cook in or “Daddy’s Working Boots.” “Dr. Robert F. Thomas” is her homage to the physician who had long-served her rural community.

The centerpiece of the album is the title track, which was the only new single in the collection. Though it only reached #15 on the Billboard country singles chart, it has gone on to become a classic. It mainly deals with happy memories of her childhood. “In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)”, on the other hand, paints a decidedly bleaker picture in which Dolly seems a lot more conflicted about her past, talking frankly about illness, poverty and hunger. She sums up her feelings by saying:

No amount of money could buy from me the memories that I have of then,
No amount of money could pay me to go back and live through it again.

The song had first appeared in 1968 as the title track of Dolly’s second RCA album. It was released as a single at that time and reached #25 on the charts. A newly recorded version appears on My Tennessee Mountain Home and provides some balance to the mostly positive songs, as a reassurance to listeners that Parton wasn’t looking at her childhood through rose colored glasses. Merle Haggard covered the song and included it on his 1968 album Mama Tried.

The album concludes with “Down On Music Row”, in which Dolly discusses her early days in Nashville, visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame, The Grand Ole Opry,and standing on the front steps of the RCA offices of Chet Atkins and Bob Ferguson before they signed her to the label.

Legacy Recordings released My Tennessee Mountain Home on CD in 2007 as part of its American Milestones series along with a bonus track, “Sacred Memories” which originally appeared on Dolly’s 1974 album Love Is Like A Butterfly.

In the years since Dolly’s late 1970s crossover success, she has become something of a caricature, and jokes about her clothes, wigs, and makeup — not to mention certain other assets — have unfortunately sometimes overshadowed her music. My Tennessee Mountain Home stands as a testament to her strength as a songwriter and reaffirms that there is a lot more to Dolly Parton than meets the eye.

My Tennessee Mountain Home can be purchased from Amazon or iTunes.

Grade: A

Album Review: Dolly Parton – ‘My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy’

Released in September 1969, My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy was Dolly’s third solo effort for RCA and her fourth solo album overall. At this stage of her career, she was still struggling to find her commercial breakthrough, having cracked the Top 20 as a solo artist only once, with the previous year’s “Just Because I’m A Woman.” Whereas her previous two albums had produced only one single each, My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy produced three, which suggests that RCA had some faith that they were on the right track. Indeed, it is a more consistent album than its somewhat uneven predecessors, and it charted higher, peaking at #6 on the Billboard country albums chart. However, none of the singles performed well on the charts, most likely due to their depressing and controversial — by 1969 standards — subject matter. Make no mistake, this album is no happy affair. The themes explored range from poverty, infidelity, and illegitimate birth to revenge, murder, suicide and prostitution.

In the first single, “Daddy”, Dolly is a young woman urging her father not to abandon her mother in favor of a woman who is younger than his daughter. One of her weaker efforts up to this point, it was an odd choice for lead single and it failed to gain much traction at radio, though it did manage to crack the Top 40 — the only single from the album to do so.

The second single was a cover of Mac Davis’ controversial “In The Ghetto”, which had been a recent hit for Elvis Presley. It tells the tale of the vicious cycle of crime and poverty in the inner city — a problem which has only worsened over the succeeding four decades. Likely considered too topical for country radio, it died at #50, despite an excellent performance which drew praise from Elvis himself. Equally controversial was the next single, the album’s title track, which tells the story of a young woman who leaves her rural home and the boy she loves for the bright lights of the city, only to find more than she bargained for and ultimately resorting to prostitution to survive. It performed slightly better than “In The Ghetto”, climbing to #45. Despite its commercial failure, it is relatively well known today thanks to its inclusion on a number of “best of” compilations over the years.

In addition to “Daddy” and the title tack, Dolly wrote three more of the album’s twelve tracks. In “Til Death Do Us Part”, the narrator commits suicide upon learning that her husband is leaving her for another woman. “Evening Shade” tells the story of an orphans home, in which the inhabitants seek their revenge by burning the place down while the cruel headmistress is sleeping inside. “Gypsy, Joe and Me” seems like a more lighthearted affair in the beginning, telling the story of a couple of free spirits and their dog. However, both the dog and the narrator’s partner meet with tragic ends, which ultimately leads the narrator to take her own life.

The fallen woman is a recurring theme throughout Parton’s early work, so it was somewhat surprising to learn that “Home For Pete’s Sake” is one of the tunes on the album which she did not write. On the other hand, it’s a little less surprising when one takes into account that this one actually has a happy ending. Unlike Dolly’s later composition “Down From Dover”, which would appear on the following year’s album, the protagonist in Rudy Preston’s “Home For Pete’s Sake” is welcomed home by her family and ex-boyfriend when she falls pregnant after moving to the big city.

Rounding out the set are covers of Joe South’s “Games People Play”, Jean Shepherd’s “We Had All The Good Things Going”, which had been a hit for Jean Shepherd, and Porter Wagoner’s “Big Wind”. While none of these can be said to be happy songs, they range from mid- to up-tempo and thus server to lighten the mood and save the album from becoming a total case of unabated misery.

The album’s cover art shows the cabin in Tennessee where Dolly grew up, and the gentleman posing as The Blue Ridge Mountain Boy is none other than Dolly’s husband, the reclusive Carl Dean. Bob Ferguson was credited as producer, but in reality, like all of Parton’s work from this era, My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy was produced by her mentor Porter Wagoner. At the time, RCA would only allow employees of the label to produce, so Ferguson got the credit even though he was rarely present in the studio when Parton and Wagoner were recording.

Bleak and somber though the subject matter may be, My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy is first rate from beginning to end and is worthy of a remastering and re-release. Unfortunately, it has never been released on CD, though used vinyl copies can be purchased. In addition, most the album’s tracks can be found on various hits compilations, and many of them can be individually downloaded.

Grade: A

Country Heritage Redux: Charley Pride (1938 – )

An updated version of the article originally published by The 9513:

While he’s not exactly forgotten, it’s been twenty-five years since Charley Pride received much airplay on country radio – which seems unbelievable considering the dominant force he was on the charts. For the ’70s, Billboard has Charley listed as its third ranking singles artist behind only Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard. Pride also shows up as fourth on the Billboard Country Album chart for the same decade, while Cashbox has him as its number one artist for the period of 1958-1982.

Younger listeners who have not previously heard Pride will have a real treat coming when they sample his music from the ’60s and ’70s. He has a very distinctive voice; one not easily forgotten once it’s been heard.

Originally planning on a career in Major League Baseball, Pride grew up in the cotton fields near Sledge, Mississippi, where he listened to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. For whatever reason, Pride’s taste in music leaned towards country – perhaps he sensed (correctly) that his voice fit the genre perfectly. While pitching in semi-pro baseball in Montana, Pride was “discovered” by Red Sovine, who urged him to try his luck in Nashville. Pride did just that after his hopes of a career in baseball were gone, and soon thereafter he came to the attention of legendary producer Jack Clement. Clement did everything within his power to get Pride recorded and on a label, going so far as to self-producing the singer’s early recording sessions and shopping the masters. Clement even eventually persuaded Chet Atkins to add Pride to RCA.

Racial relations have come a long way since Pride emerged as country music’s top star and its first African-American superstar. The situation in America was so tense in 1965 that RCA issued his first few singles without the customary picture sleeves and promotional information, hoping to get country audiences hooked before they realized his race. To get the disk jockeys to play the records, they made them as hard-core country as was possible for the time, and listed the label’s four big name producers (Chet Atkins, Jack Clement, Bob Ferguson and Felton Jarvis) as the co-producers on the singles. DJs of the ’60s might not have known who Charley Pride was, but Atkins, Clement, Ferguson and Jarvis were known to all within the industry, so the records were destined to get at least some airplay.

Eventually country audiences tumbled onto Charley’s “permanent suntan” (as he put it), but it was too late. They simply loved his singing and would demonstrate this love by purchasing millions of his albums over the next 30 years, pushing four albums to gold status, a rarity for country albums with no cross-over appeal.

The first album, appearing in 1966, was Country Charley Pride; it had solid country arrangements and contained no hit singles as it was basically an album designed to introduce Pride to the marketplace. The songs included:

“Busted” — a 1963 hit for Johnny Cash & the Carter Family, and later a successful single for Ray Charles and John Conlee. It was written by the Dean of country songsmiths, Harlan Howard.

“Distant Drums”
— this Cindy Walker-penned song was a posthumous #1 for Jim Reeves in early 1966–the first of several such songs for Reeves.

“Detroit City” was a 1963 hit for Bobby Bare. Earlier in 1963, Billy Grammer had a hit with the song, recording it under the title “I Want To Go Home.” Mel Tillis and Danny Dill wrote this classic song.

“Yonder Comes A Sucker” — Jim Reeves took this self-penned song to #4 in 1955.

“Green Green Grass of Home”
— Johnny Darrell and Porter Wagoner hit with this Curly Putman classic in 1965, Porter scoring the much bigger hit of the pair.

“That’s The Chance I’ll Have To Take”
— label mate Waylon Jennings had a minor hit with this in 1965.

“Before I Met You”
— charted at #6 for Carl Smith in 1956. Smith’s star had faded by 1966, but he had been one of the biggest stars in the genre during the 1950s. This was Charley’s second single, issued in mid-1966. It would be the last non-charting single for Charley Pride for the next 28 years.

“Folsom Prison Blues”
— this was not as obvious a trendy pick as you might think. Johnny Cash took this song to #4 in 1956 – the #1 hit version and album were still 18 months away at the time this album was issued.

“The Snakes Crawl At Night”
was Pride’s first single, and while it did not chart nationally, it got significant regional airplay in the south and southwest. It was, in fact, the song that introduced me to Charley Pride.

“Miller’s Cave”
— Hank Snow had a hit in 1960 and Bobby Bare had one in 1964 with this Jack Clement-penned song (both top ten records). Clement was not simply padding his coffers by having Charley record his songs, as he was a top-flight songsmith. He wrote several Johnny Cash hits, including “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” (Cash’s top charting record), and “I Guess Things Happen That Way.”

“The Atlantic Coastal Line”
— this was the “B” side of “The Snakes Crawl At Night” but it got some radio airplay. Mel Tillis wrote this song.

“Got Leavin’ On Her Mind”
— Jack Clement wrote this song, which was never a big hit, although Mac Wiseman had a terrific record on the song in 1968, and many others recorded it as well.

Normally, the strategy of introducing an artist to the public through an album entirely composed of oldies does not succeed. This time, however, the “country classics” strategy worked to perfection in priming the demand for more. Subsequent Charley Pride albums would feature newer songs and more of Pride’s own hits – lots of hits. Before long, all of Nashville’s leading writers were pitching their best material to him, with Dallas Frazier being his early favorite. So successful was Pride that an incredible string of 35 consecutive songs reached #1 on the Billboard and/or Cashbox Country Charts. Starting with 1969′s “Kaw-Liga” and ending with 1980′s “You Almost Slipped My Mind”, every Charley Pride single (except the 1972 two-sided gospel record “Let Me Live”/”Did You Think To Pray” and the 1979 “Dallas Cowboys” NFL special souvenir edition) reached #1. After the streak ended, Charley would have another 6 songs that were #1 on either Billboard and/or Cashbox. “Kiss An Angel Good Morning” released in 1971, would, of course become his signature song.

In addition to the above milestones, Charley Pride recorded a live album in 1968 at Panther Hall in Dallas, simply one of the best live albums ever. During his career, RCA issued three best of Charley Pride albums and two Greatest Hits albums with absolutely no overlap between the albums; moreover, several major hits were left off completely. He won the CMA Entertainer of the Year award, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the ACM’s Pioneer Award (a fitting award, if ever there was one), and several Grammy awards. Global sales reportedly brought 30 of his albums up to gold status.

During the CD era, Pride was very poorly served, at least until recently. At one point in the mid-1990s, he re-recorded 25 of his classic songs for Honest Entertainment, using the original arrangements, producer Jack Clement, and as many of the original musicians as he could find. For several years these re-makes were the only versions available, as RCA neglected its back catalog of anyone not named Elvis Presley.

Charley Pride continues to perform and record. While his voice has lost some tonal quality over the years, he still sings very well indeed. His success did not herald a phalanx of African-American singers into county music. Perhaps, that was an unrealistic expectation, since voices as good as that of Charley Pride rarely come around.


Charley Pride on Vinyl

Charley’s peak period coincides with the period in which the biggest stars issued three or four albums per year. From 1966-1979 RCA released 31 albums – 28 regular albums plus 3 ‘Best of’ collections. Generally the albums from before 1972 are the best, although all of them are worthwhile. After Pride hit the big time the albums became more formulaic and contained more filler, but the hit singles remained top-notch.

From 1980 to 1986 RCA issued 11 albums including two Greatest Hitscollections. A switch to 16th Avenue saw three more albums released before the end of the vinyl era.

After leaving RCA at the end of 1986, Charley recorded for 16th Avenue Records where he charted eight singles through 1989 when the label folded. His albums on 16th Avenue were released on vinyl and audio cassette. His two biggest hits for 16th Avenue were “Shouldn’t It Be Easier Than This” (1988 – #5) and “I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio” (1988 – #13) and he released three albums while on 16th Avenue in After All This Time, I’m Gonna Love Her On The Radio and Moody Woman.


Charley Pride’s RCA recordings on CD

The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 1997 — an adequate overview with 20 songs, 19 hits plus a cover of “Please Help Me I’m Falling.”
The Essential Charley Pride – BMG 2006 – this two CD set replaced the prior entry and contains forty of Charley’s hits. An excellent set and an excellent value.
Charley Pride’s Country – Readers Digest 1996 — for years this was best available American collection. Containing 72 songs, 20 or so hits plus some good album cuts and cover versions.
The Legendary Charley Pride — BMG Australia 2003 — 50 songs, 40 hits plus a few other songs. Now out of print, this collection still is as good as any hits collection .
36 All Time Greatest Hits — RCA Special Products 193 — 36 songs — about 50-50 hits and other songs.

Several of Charley Pride’s other RCA albums have been available on CD over the years including Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits V2 (both truncated versions of the vinyl albums), There’s A Little Bit of Hank In Me (his Hank Williams tribute) and Charley Pride In Person at Panther Hall .


Other CDs and Recent Output

The 16th Avenue recording have been available on CD under a variety of names and for a variety of labels. The Curb CD The Best of Charley Pride is mostly 16th Avenue Recordings.

As noted above, so little of his music was available during the 1990s, that Charley re-recorded twenty-five of his biggest hits for Honest Entertainment. He also recorded some newer material, along with some other songs. These recordings have been licensed to a variety of labels including the Gusto, King, Tee Vee family of companies. These aren’t bad recordings but the originals are better.

Charley continues to record, although only occasionally. Three noteworthy albums from recent years include the following:

A Tribute To Jim Reeves (2001) – Charley recorded many Jim Reeves songs during his early peak years, so this album of all Jim Reeves songs was a natural for him to record. Charley does right by Jim’s memory.

The Comfort of Her Wings (2003) – new material – a pretty good album, although it produced no hits.

Choices (2011) – more new material, given a good run by one of the most distinctive voices in the business.

Heart, soul and talent: Connie Smith’s recipe for great country music

conniesmithmyspace1A few days ago, I had the great honor and privilege of sitting down for a conversation with the legendary Connie Smith:

RX: Your entry into the country music world seems to be something that just sort of happened, instead of something that you spent a lot of time pursuing. Prior to meeting Bill Anderson, had you given any serious thought to going to Nashville to pursue a career in country music?

CS: No. It was always a dream I had to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. I remember when I was about 5 saying that, but I never thought I really would. If I hadn’t met Bill I probably wouldn’t have pursued it because I already had a young son. The way I met him was I went up to that park because I’d heard that George Jones would be there. But they’d given my husband and me the wrong date, so when we got there Bill was there. I hadn’t gone to sing, I just wanted to hear George because he was my favorite male singer. When we got there we found out that they had a talent contest every week, and my husband and friends talked me into entering. The biggest holdback was that you had to do your own accompaniment, and I can only play the guitar in the key of C, so I had to pick a song that I could do in C. And I think the reason I won was because the winner for the prior seven weeks was a seven-year-old banjo player and I guess they just wanted something different. I’d like to think it was my talent that won but I’m really not so sure. I know it wasn’t my guitar playing (laughs).

RX: But it was definitely your talent that caught the attention of Bill Anderson. You went to Nashville at his invitation, and “Once a Day”, your debut record, was a megahit – the kind that every new artist dreams of having right out of the box. Was it difficult to adjust to that kind of overnight success?

CS: I was just very lucky to have come along at the right time and to have gotten such a great, great song. But it was difficult being thrust into the spotlight so quickly. I just wanted to hear my record on the radio but I was never really career-driven.

RX: Most artists from that era, particularly women, seem to have been almost completely controlled by their labels and producers.  Did you have any say in what you got to record or how your records sounded?

downtown-country CS (emphatically):  Absolutely. I never recorded anything I didn’t want to. I was very fortunate to get to work with Bob Ferguson as my producer for the first 9 years. Any attempts to force me to record something I didn’t want to wouldn’t have gone down well with me. If he really, really wanted me to do something, I did it but I was never forced. RCA did say to me, “You can do things besides just country,” and I said, “I’m not sure that I want to.”  That wasn’t Bob or Chet forcing me – that was coming more from New York. They really wanted me to do some middle-of-the-road stuff. So we did the whole Downtown Country album. But those really weren’t the best songs for me.

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