My Kind of Country

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

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.

RX: Why did you leave RCA?

CS: Because I felt taken for granted and unappreciated and just a lack of respect. When it came time to renew my contract, they put it in the mail with a note to return it to them by Monday morning. Well, I was out on the road and didn’t get home until after Monday. Back in those days, I didn’t have a manager and when I’d signed the first contract, I took what I got. Even when I talked to them, I didn’t change very much. But when that contract arrived in the mail, it  just showed such a lack of respect — after nine years. And then they lost the contract! And that’s when I just decided, if I was that unimportant to them, then I just wasn’t going to re-sign with them.

RX: So you moved on to Columbia.

CS:Yes, I was at Columbia for about three years.

RX: What producers did you work with at Columbia?

CS: I worked initially with George Richey, who was a very good producer, but it was not like working with Bob Ferguson, so that relationship only lasted for the first album. After that I worked with Ray Baker and he produced the rest of the albums I did for Columbia.

RX: Do you have a preference between the recordings that you did for RCA and your later work for Columbia and Monument?

CS: I definitely prefer the RCA recordings. When I was with RCA, my career was really hot and I was selling well. I had access to the best songs from writers like Bill Anderson, Harlan Howard and Dallas Frazier. I’ve recorded over 60 of Dallas Frazier’s songs. The only reason I stopped is that he quit writing for 30 years. But he started writing again and I’ve got one that I’m going to record for my next album. But by the time I got to Monument, I wasn’t selling as well and it was harder to get good songs. And then I quit, to stay home and raise my family, because as much as I loved singing, I loved being a wife and mother more. By the time my youngest went to kindergarten, I needed to have a way to feed them, so I went back to music.

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RX: Speaking of Dallas Frazier, do you still keep in touch with him?

CS: I sure do, he was on our TV show just last week (The Marty Stuart Show which airs on Saturday nights on RFD-TV).

RX: When you got your start, there weren’t a whole lot of female country singers to act as role models. Who were some of the female artists that influenced you?

CS: I don’t know that there was anyone that really influenced my music. George Jones was my favorite male singer and I loved Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, and Dottie West.  And Patsy Cline. And Tammy Wynette was just a wonderful, wonderful singer. But I wouldn’t say that any of them influenced my music. I listened to the Opry on the radio when I was growing up but we couldn’t always get country music, so when we couldn’t I’d listen to people like Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald.

RX: Now for what may be somewhat of a loaded question – what do you think about contemporary country music and what gets played on country radio today?

CS: Well, let me say that country music is alive and well, but it isn’t being represented on the radio. Everybody should have a chance. And I’ve been very fortunate, so I certainly can’t complain, but what’s being played on the radio is not country and they really shouldn’t call it that. And this is what happens when you lose touch with the past.

RX: I can’t disagree with that. I think there’s a real danger of losing country music’s rich heritage. There’s a whole generation of new country fans – and a whole generation of new country performers – who have absolutely no idea about country music’s past.

CS: It’s not their fault, because no one taught them. How are they supposed to learn when we didn’t teach them, and there isn’t any outlet for them to hear that classic music? As I said, I’ve been very fortunate, so I can’t complain, but there shouldn’t be a day that goes by when you can’t hear George Jones or Waylon Jennings or Loretta Lynn on the radio. There are some young people out there making great country music, but they aren’t getting airplay and aren’t being heard.

RX: What do you think about Pro-Tools and autotuners and the other types of technological wizardry used in the studio today?

CS: Good talent doesn’t need to be masked and altered to sound good. It’s a lot more expensive to record that way, but if you’ve got the talent then you don’t need those things. There are a lot of young people out there with great voices. Sometimes I’ll hear someone who has a great voice and I wonder if he’ll ever really find out who he is because all he’s really doing is repeating the same licks that he’s heard other people do. I’ve had record executives admit to me, “I don’t know a thing about music but I know how to market.” So what are they doing running record labels? Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley were accomplished musicians, and they were musicians first.

Today you don’t need to be good to make it; you just have to be pretty. And we have videos to thank for that. In the old days, it didn’t matter what you looked like if you had the heart and soul and talent. We had people who may not have been great phonic singers, but they had the heart and soul and talent. They had what we called character. And they were individuals. Two notes into their records, you knew whose song it was. When you hear David Ball sing “Thinkin’ Problem” or George Jones sing “Cold Hard Truth”, that’s music from the heart and soul. Now, all the heart and soul has been taken out and it’s all very manufactured.

And that’s why when people ask me how to break into the business, I tell them to find out where you are with God first, because you need to know that you’re loved unconditionally no matter what. If you’re called to be there, if it’s your destiny, then you will be. But you have to know who you are, because they may spend a lot of money and marketing on you but where are you when that stops and they’ve moved on to pouring money and marketing on the next big thing. If you know where you are with God, then you haven’t lost your whole sense of self-worth.

marty-connie-photothumbnailRX: Your relationship with Marty Stuart began when you collaborated to write songs for your comeback album on Warner Brothers. How well did you know each other before that? Was there already a friendship in place?

CS: No, I did not know him well. He knew me well, because when he was growing up I was his mother’s favorite singer and she always played my records. We met at one of my shows when he was twelve years old . I had forgotten, but when it was called to my attention, I remembered him because of the the way he had been so confident and the way he talked to all of the musicians. He has a really good heart, so I got to know him really quick, but even after twelve years of marriage, I’m still getting to know him.

RX: Have you ever pitched any of the songs you’ve written to other artists?

CS: Reba recorded a song I co-wrote with George Richey called “You’ve Got Me (Right Where You Want Me)” for one of her albums, and Conway Twitty and Charley Pride both recorded “I’ll Come Running”. And Moe Bandy did another one called “Ring Around Rosie’s Finger”. Marty and I wrote a song called “Farmer’s Blues” that he recorded with Merle Haggard. And there are some local artists that have done some of them but no, I’ve never actively pitched any songs to other artists.

RX: Are you aware of any plans to reissue more of your work on CD – either another Bear Family boxed set or some Sony Legacy reissues, since they now control the bulk of your catalog?

CS: Not that I’m aware of, but I would love to work with Bear Family again for another boxed set. The pictures included in that set are all mine. They did a great job on that set (Born to Sing, released in 2001), but it contains about four different cuts of some songs, and it only covers my first three years at RCA. I think if they were to do a set on the next three years, that was probably my best period.

RX: Do they have an option to do another set?

CS: No, if they’re interested in doing another one, they’ll contact me and then we’ll talk. But as of now, there’s nothing in the works.

RX: I’d love to see another Bear Family set, too. The first one was great, but it really left me wanting more. I consider that whole era to be a Golden Age in country music and it’s a shame that so little of it is available on CD.

CS: Have you seen our television show?

RX: No, unfortunately I don’t get RFD, so I’m limited to watching the odd clips on YouTube when I can find them. I wish I could get it, because it seems like it is a lot like TNN used to be, and I really miss it.

CS: It is. The network is only 8 years old. Keep asking for it. It’s available down here on Comcast and on DirecTV. If enough people ask for it, they may add it. They’re even thinking about offering it in Europe. But we’ve featured a lot of the classics every week. Newer acts, too, but primarily the classics.

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RX:You alluded earlier to a new album that you’re planning. When can we expect to hear that?

CS: I really don’t know. We’ve set aside some songs, and when we’ve got enough and have the time, we’ll go into the studio and record them. The truth is, finding a record company that’s interested in me isn’t too likely to happen, so it’s probably something we’ll just have to do ourselves. We’re thinking of doing three albums – one country, one gospel, and one acoustic – and offering them as a boxed set. But when that will happen, I can’t really say at this point.

RX: You are performing on the Opry tonight and tomorrow night, correct?

CS: Yes, I am.

RX: Can you tell me what you’re going to sing?

CS: I don’t know yet. I always wait and see how the show is flowing and try to find what will come across good on the radio. If there are people on before and after me that usually sing ballads, I’ll try to do something uptempo to keep the show flowing. If it’s someone that usually does something uptempo, I’ll do a ballad. I may do a gospel song if I know it’s someone who doesn’t usually perform gospel music. I won’t know until just before the time comes.

RX: Well, I will be listening. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

CS: Thank you.

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22 responses to “Heart, soul and talent: Connie Smith’s recipe for great country music

  1. Occasional Hope March 9, 2009 at 3:48 am

    Great interview.

    I didn’t realize Connie had done any writing.

  2. Robert E Filhart March 9, 2009 at 10:12 am

    Hey Razor X-

    Thanks for the great interview.

    Take care-

    Robert E. Filhart
    Dottore-DuBois Artist Management

  3. Leeann Ward March 9, 2009 at 12:49 pm

    Excellent interview. She was very candid about the state of country music today.

  4. CMW March 9, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    Nice interview, Razor. Knowing what a big Connie Smith fan you are, I can only imagine what a thrill it must have been to chat with her.

    • Razor X March 9, 2009 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks, everybody. Yes, it was a huge thrill for me. She’s a very nice lady and I really enjoyed talking to her.

      She was surprisingly candid about the state of modern country music. It’s clearly not a case of sour grapes, but she’s concerned, as many of us are, with the direction that radio and the major labels have taken.

  5. Leeann Ward March 9, 2009 at 3:23 pm

    It definitely didn’t come off as sour grapes…just candid honesty. I love Loretta and Dolly, but it’s just hard for me to believe them when they say they like Jessica Simpson’s music. While perhaps I just don’t want to believe them, I’m more inclined to believe that’s not exactly true. So, I’d much rather the veterans speak their minds rather than look like they’re “playing nice.”

    • Razor X March 9, 2009 at 8:11 pm

      Loretta Lynn won’t say anything against anybody. She ran into a lot of jealousy when she first went to Nashville. A group of female Opry members were so upset that she was being invited to perform so often, that they held a meeting at the home of one of them to discuss “what to do about it”. They made the mistake of inviting Patsy Cline, who not only attended but brought Loretta along with her. I don’t think she ever forgot that and it’s caused her to go above and beyond the call of duty in being “nice”.

      I too appreciated Connie’s candor. I actually felt validated because I’ve said a lot of the same things myself — almost word for word — in the past. I will say that I don’t think it’s right for performers to name names when talking about music they don’t like. As Connie said, everyone deserves a chance. I think it’s unprofessional to mention people by name. Connie showed how it should be done — be honest and say how you feel, while still being polite.

    • BK March 10, 2009 at 6:07 pm

      Loretta & Dolly have just as much right to their opnion as anyone else does..And,like the person said,Loretta won’t say anything negative about anybody,because she is a great lady.So is Dolly.So,even if she doesl ike Jessica’s music,that is her right and opnion.While I don’t likeJessica’s music, I do love Loretta,and she will forever be my no.1 favorite singer.

      Great interview with Connie by the way.

  6. J.R. Journey March 9, 2009 at 7:20 pm

    Very candid and fascinating interview, Razor. Educational too – I didn’t know she was a songwriter or how she got her start – so that’s really cool to read.

    Nice job!

    • Razor X March 9, 2009 at 8:14 pm

      Thanks. I know you have to be familiar with “You’ve Got Me (Right Where You Want Me)” which is the closing track on Reba’s My Kind of Country album. Check your liner notes and you’ll see Connie and George Richey (Mr. Tammy Wynette) listed as the co-writers.

  7. Steve from Boston March 12, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    Razor, congrats on a great interview with a great artist and legend.

    “……but what’s being played on the radio is not country, and they really shouldn’t call it that.”

    I love that quote, Connie couldn’t be any more clear or direct, and that certainly IS vindication from a very high source indeed!

  8. Merle Grant March 30, 2009 at 7:22 pm

    Great Interview. As a former RCA RECORDS emploee
    I can say how CHEAP they were. Connie at her age NOW, Is The GREATEST COUNTRY FEMALE PERFORMER ………!!!!!!!!!!! It will take JESUS to bring Roy Acuff back from the dead to get her into THE COUNTRY MUSIC HALL OF FAME. SHAME ON THE OPRY MEMBERS FOR NOT GIVING THIS GREAT LADY SINGER, PERFORMER, HER DUE REWARDS WHILE SHE CAN ENJOY IT.

  9. country singer Connie Smith September 27, 2009 at 3:40 am

    Hello Connie,
    I want to tell you how much I Ilike you and the way that you sing. I like every thing about you. I cannot seem to find your c.d. in walmart dept. stores. how can I obtain a C.D. OF YOU SINGING COUNTY MUSIC and gospal music. I WOULD LIKE A PICTURE OF YOU ON THE GRAND OLE OPRAY. Kassie Lunt flylady43@hotmail.com

  10. Paul W Dennis September 27, 2009 at 10:27 am

    Great interview – about time someone got around to interviewing the best female country vocalist ever.

    I found it interesting that she mentioned Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. I’ve always viewed Sarah, Ella and Connie as the three greatest female singers in the English-speaking world and nothing has transpired to ever change that opinion. While it would be a stretch to call Sarah and Ella great influences on Connie’s style, she does share their ability to stay on pitch and to phrase accurately and precisely

    Connie is almost correct when she states that the second three years of her RCA career contains her her best recordings – I disagree only to the extent that I’d say that the peak extended to the time she left RCA. I love songs like “Where Is My Castle” and “Just One Time” which fall in the latter third of her career . And, of course, she had the great Weldon Myrick playing steel on many of her hits

    I think I have all of her RCA , Columbia and Monument albums, but I sure would like to have them issued on CD. Are you reading this Legacy or Bear Family ??

    • Razor X September 27, 2009 at 12:50 pm

      Bear Family is working on a second box set which will cover the remainder of Connie’s RCA years. It’s due out sometime next year.

    • Merle Grant October 15, 2009 at 8:01 pm

      Paul I have all of her albums. Just buy yourself a
      USB Record Player and turn those Records into
      CD’s for yourself. I agree that Where Is My Castle
      and Just One Time Albums are the best but again
      there are a lot of Jewels on her albums that never
      got any play time.

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  13. Joanna June 30, 2010 at 11:44 pm

    If you know anything at all about music, you would have to realize that Connie Smith is the greatest voice since Patsy Cline; there is probably nothing out there that she couldn’t sing. She emotes with sincerety, she has a tremendous range, and a “trueness” to her voice that few singers possess.
    You know what else? she is a lady! I like the way she carries herself, her humility! You don’t find that often these days! God bless you, Connie, you are the best!

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  15. Marvin Christman November 19, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    Just read your interview with Connie. She is a lady first class. Every one buy her new cd on Sugar Hill Records. It is Connie at her best, and that is something. How do you say it is her best, when all of her recordings are the best.

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