Constance June Meador was born on August 14, 1941 in Elkhart, Indiana. Her father’s alcoholism led to the breakup of her parents’ marriage when Connie was seven years old. After her mother remarried, Connie found herself in the middle of an extended family that included 14 children. Her stepfather played the mandolin and performed in square dances with his brothers who played fiddle and guitar. The family moved frequently, making it difficult for Connie to form friendships in school. Eventually they settled in Ohio. Connie grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, as well as singers like Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald, when country music wasn’t available on the local radio stations.
In 1961, Connie married Jerry Smith, and began singing in grange halls and at local fairs to make extra money. In 1963, they drove to a country music park near Columbus to see a Grand Ole Opry package show where George Jones, Connie’s favorite singer, had been scheduled to appear. When the Smiths arrived, they discovered that George Jones had actually headlined the show the previous week, so they had to make do with a different headliner – one named Bill Anderson. The mistake about the show’s scheduled roster was a fateful one. There was a talent contest that evening, which Connie entered and won, which also got the attention of Bill Anderson. He invited her to Nashville to perform on the Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop radio program. She was initially reluctant, but eventually accepted the offer. While in Nashville, Anderson tried to persuade his producer Owen Bradley to sign Connie to a Decca Records contract. Bradley declined, since Decca already had Loretta Lynn on its roster, and didn’t feel the need for another “girl singer”. So Anderson instead talked to Chet Atkins at RCA , who did offer Smith a contract.
In 1964, country music was still recovering from the untimely death of its only female superstar, Patsy Cline, who had lost her life in a plane crash the previous year. There was no one else to fill the void. The next female superstar, Loretta Lynn, wouldn’t have her first #1 hit until 1966, and a young singer-songwriter named Dolly Parton wouldn’t arrive in Nashville until later in 1964, so the timing was just right for Connie Smith to take Nashville by storm. And take it by storm, she did. Her first single was a song written by Anderson, called “Once A Day”. (Click on the link to listen). It was a song that Bill Anderson had started writing years earlier. He quickly finished it upon learning that Connie needed a few more songs for her first RCA album. It quickly shot to #1, staying there for 8 weeks, a first for a female country artist. To this day, it remains the record holder for the most weeks at #1 by a female artist. It was the first time a debut record by a female artist reached #1 and it wouldn’t happen again until 1991 when Trisha Yearwood reached the top spot with “She’s In Love With the Boy”.
“Once A Day” was Smith’s only #1 record, but it quickly established her as a major star. In order to promote it, she had to go on tour, which required her to get out of a contract she’d signed a few months earlier with WSAZ-AM in Ohio. The contract obligated her to sing every Saturday night for 52 weeks. She was able to take advantage of a clause that enabled either party to cancel the contract upon 14 days’ notice. That clause has to have gone down as one of the biggest mistakes in country music history, because if it hadn’t been written into the contract, WSAZ could have had the biggest female star in country music performing live every Saturday night for an entire year for $25 a night.
Connie made her Grand Ole Opry debut on July 18, 1964 and was inducted as a member in September of the following year. She toured almost constantly during the week and appeared on the Opry on weekends. She deeply disliked touring and the separation from her two-year-old son Darren. She was ready to quit show business, but was persuaded by husband Jerry to stick with it just a little longer until they could get ahead financially. Instead, he quit his job and he and Darren joined Connie on the road. However, the pressures of show business and life on the road took its toll on their marriage, and eventually the Smiths divorced. Connie married Jack Watkins, who played guitar in her band, but that union only lasted about a year.
Smith turned to religion and became a born-again Christian, marrying an evangelist named Marshall Haynes in 1968. Their union produced three daughters. Connie gave up touring to stay home with her family, limiting her appearances to weekends on the Opry, and the occasional crusade with Billy Graham. She continued to record and have hit records, but none of her later hits ever matched the success of “Once A Day.” Her desire to record more gospel music led to friction with the brass at RCA, and in 1972 Smith departed the label for Columbia Records, signing a contract that allowed her to make more gospel albums.
By the late 1970s, Smith’s charting power was fading and she switched record labels again. She recorded two moderately successful albums for Monument Records, before returning to CBS – on the Epic label this time — in 1985. She released two singles for Epic, “A Far Cry From You” which peaked at #71 in 1985 and “Hold Me Back”, which was released in 1986 and failed to chart. She was dropped from the Epic roster and would not record for the next twelve years.
By the late 1990s, Smith – now divorced from Marshall Haynes –became interested in returning to the recording studio. Since she’d been off the charts for so long, she knew it would be difficult to obtain first-rate songs. She had written a few songs years earlier and was persuaded to take up songwriting again by fellow Opry member Marty Stuart. The two began working together on songs for Smith’s comeback album. Seventeen years her junior, Stuart was a long time fan of Smith’s, having met her at a concert in his hometown when he was 11 years old. That day, Stuart told his mother that when he grew up, he was going to marry Connie Smith. In 1997, he made good on that promise, when he became Smith’s fourth husband. He produced her 1998 comeback album for Warner Brothers. Titled Connie Smith, the album was generally well-received by critics, but it failed to produce any major hits.
Had Smith been more ambitious about her career, she could have been as big a star as Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette, but her family was always her first priority, and she has no regrets. Today, she continues to be a regular fixture on the Opry, and at age 67 she can still hold her own against any of today’s female vocalists. Remember, this is the woman about whom Dolly Parton once famously said, “There’s only three real female singers: Barbra Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.”
Listen to Connie Smith at Last FM:
I Never Once Stopped Loving You
Nobody But A Fool (Would Love You)
The Essential Connie Smith, a 20-track anthology of Smith’s RCA years, is available from Amazon.
Information for this article was obtained from Wikipedia and from Colin Escott’s liner notes to Connie Smith: Born To Sing, released in 2001 by Bear Family Records.