A 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?
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.
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.
RX: 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.
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.