When Connie Smith was a young girl, she would often hide under the bed when someone would hear her sing. But that same girl had dreams bigger than her fear of sharing her voice, envisioning of one day performing on the Grand Ole Opry. Smith saw that dream come to light countless times as a 56-year member of the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame member, leaving a lasting legacy on a genre she made an immediate impression on with her 1964 debut single “Once a Day” that topped the country charts for multiple weeks. With several other hits and a whopping 54 studio albums to her name, Smith has released her first album in a decade, The Cry of the Heart, produced by her husband Marty Stuart. In this edition of Female Friday, the country legend shares how showing up to a George Jones concert a week late helped set her career in motion, the sage advice Loretta Lynn passed down to her, why she encourages today’s country artists to find their own identity and more.
When were you first introduced to music?
My momma’s favorite singer was Eddy Arnold and my daddy’s favorite singer was Ernest Tubb, and there’s a lot of leeway between the two of them that I remember hearing all my life. I remember when I was five years old saying, ‘someday, I’m going to sing on the Grand Ole Opry,’ because we’d listen on the battery radio. I loved a lot of other singers as well, but it was country music, The Louvin Brothers were really hot at that time, and that was my favorite performers on the Grand Ole Opry. I never thought of it as a career, I just loved it and I loved the Opry and I wanted to sing on the Opry and that was my little dream. Every kid needs a dream, something to keep you going, so I think that was my dream. I didn’t really think it would ever come to fruition, and thanks to Bill Anderson, it did.
Take me through that journey of being a kid and wanting to sing on the Opry stage and then having it come to life and becoming a member of the Opry. What were the steps you took to make that dream come true?
I was really bashful when I was little and [if] somebody heard me sing, I’d run and hide under the bed. But as I got older, my brothers and sisters sang at church or at school and I would go and sing with them, but I never sung on my own. Then later on I got married and was pregnant with my first son. I sang at a county fair and there was someone there they had a girl singer and she left a little while later after that and they had auditions. It was called the Saturday Night Jamboree in Huntington, WVon WSAZ television. They wanted me to audition, and I won the audition. So I get on the bus and go down to Huntington from southern Ohio and I would fly down to Huntington and do the show and come back. I was so scared the first time I was on the air singing the song and I realized all of a sudden that I was on TV and I totally blanked out with my words and I ran to the bathroom [laughs]. The host of the show when I came out said ‘that was not professional, and if you’re going to sing on television, you need to be professional.’
A friend of mine took the tape down to Owen Bradley at Decca [Records]. He had a bunch of girl singers and not long before that in ’59, Loretta [Lynn] was getting hot and he didn’t have time for another one, so he turned down the tape. I sang in a talent contest in Ohio in 1963 and I went up to see George Jones because he’s my favorite male singer. Someone had given us the wrong schedule, so he had been there the week before. I didn’t get to see George, but my friends and my husband talked me into singing in the talent contest and I happened to win. My prize was five silver dollars and a chance to sing on the Grand Ole Opry show that night. This frontier ranch and country music park had a Grand Ole Opry star every week, so the one that week was Bill Anderson. I sang on the Grand Ole Opry show that night and that’s when I met Bill. About six months later, my husband and I went to see Johnny Cash and June Carter. The Statler Brothers were on the show that day and so was Bill Anderson. June Carter was my favorite comedian, so I went there to get all their autographs. Bill was in the autograph line and he remembered my husband and I and he invited us backstage to go eat with he and his band after the show. He said, ‘you like music, so why don’t you come to Nashville?’ He invited me to come down and he was supposed to host the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in March of ’64, but it just so happened that Ernest had a rare date cancel, so he was hosting that night. I went down and Ernest introduced me and I got to sing on the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and I got to go to the Opry that night before and I met Kitty Wells. I got to sing at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and this guy came up to me, he said ‘my wife wants to meet you. Would you come back here?’ So I went back there and it was Loretta Lynn, and that guy was Doo, her husband, and she was pregnant with the twins. She said, ‘Patsy Cline did this for me and I want to do it for you. You’re going to make it.’ She told me who to trust and who not to trust and what to do, what not to do, things that she would never have had to do. Loretta and I have been friends for about 36 years now. She’s my favorite girl singer, even if I’d never done that, she was still my favorite girl singer, and still is. I love her to death.
What inspired you to officially pursue a country music career?
In May of that year, Bill Anderson called and said that he had cut some songs to pitch to some of the girls like Kitty Wells. Skeeter Davis and he wrote a duet that wound up being cut by Ernest and Loretta called “Our Hearts Are Holding Hands.” I came down in May and recorded that demo and I came back home and Bill went on the road. While he was gone, his manager took the tape to Chet Atkins at RCA Victor Records and Chet liked my voice and wanted to sign me to RCA Victor. I went down June 24th of ’64 and signed a contract with RCA. Then in July, I came back down and recorded my very first recording session. RCA when they signed me, they asked Bill if he would write me some songs. He went back through his songs and he found this one song he and his wife sang me. He says, ‘see if you like this song’ and they sang it to me and it was “Once a Day,” and I said, “I love it.” When I did my first session on the 16th of July in ’64, I recorded that song and it was released as a single and went to number one and was there for eight weeks, so that started it out. I didn’t know it was going to happen like that. I just wanted to hear myself sing on the radio one time and I didn’t intend to make it a life.
I tried to quit a few times. I finally quit when my three girls were a year apart because every time I’d start to leave town, one of them would have a fever or hurt their knee or crying around my legs and I said, “I can’t do that anymore,” so I quit. When my youngest daughter went to kindergarten, I thought, “I got to go back and help support the family.” So I did, and it’s been going on now for 56 years.
What were some of the biggest challenges that you had to overcome in your career and what did you learn from them?
The biggest challenge was leaving the kids and I finally couldn’t do that anymore when I had the three little ones and then the other two boys, so I quit for awhile. I never really got back into it until my youngest daughter was in college and I was there by myself and my middle daughter Jeanne called me and told me all about the exciting weekend she was going to have. I was divorced and at home by myself, so after she told me all she was going to do, she got real quiet. Then she said, ‘well mama, what are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘I’ll come up with something.’ After she hung up, I got to thinking, ‘what am I going to do?’ When all my kids were there, you go to whoever needs you the most, so I was there by myself and I thought, ‘I could get in the business, but who would I work with?’ I’m outdated as what’s going on in the music business at that time. I’d want to work with somebody that appreciated where I came from and that I still feel the same way about music, yet I need somebody who has a pulse on what’s going on today. The only person that came to my mind was Marty Stuart. I didn’t know he had produced anyone at that time. I saw him at the Opry one night and I asked him if he would be interested in working with me. He said ‘I’m pretty busy,’ because he was hotter than a cracker from Hillbilly Rock and Tempted and all those great records. He said ‘if you can wait a little while, I would be honored to do it.’ I said, ‘it’s been 20 years since I’ve done a record, I can wait.’ But a couple of days later, he came over to the house and we started talking guitars and music and all that and he said, ‘why have you not made a record in 20 years?’ I said, ‘at this point, the songwriters are making a living writing songs and they’ve got to give the songs to the hit makers. I haven’t had a record in 20 years, I’m not really a hit maker anymore.’ He said, ‘you write, why don’t you write an album’s worth?’ I said ‘I’ve never thought of myself as being a good enough songwriter to write a whole album,’ and he picked up the phone and called Harlan Howard, who we know is an awesome writer. The next day, we went to Harlan and wrote a song I had started in Branson when I was working there and we finished it and it was called “How Long.” That was the first song on that first album that Marty produced for me. We got to know each other during that album and writing and we wound up falling in love with each other. That was in 1994 and then [in] 1997 we got married. It’s been 24 years now. The more we work together, the more fun it is, the more easy it is, and the more I love it.
How did you and Marty meet?
I went to Mississippi to sing on a show that Bob Ferguson had booked in Philadelphia, MS where Marty was from. [Ferguson] had booked this show and he brought Nashville musicians and singers down, and that year it was my turn. I went down and I did not know Marty’s mother’s favorite girl singer was me. Marty on the radio heard that I was going to come, and he told his mamma he wanted her to take him to the store and buy him a yellow shirt so I’d noticed him. I did notice him talking to the musicians like an adult, but I did not have any idea of what was on his mind. He had never taken a picture in his life. Even though his mother took a picture of me and his sister, he didn’t think I noticed him enough, so he asked her if he could borrow her camera. The first picture he ever took was me sitting in a station wagon and he said, ‘if I take her picture, she’ll have to notice me.’ I don’t remember him taking the picture, but he told his mother on the way home that night that he was going to marry me someday, and he did [laughs].
Thinking about your extensive catalog of music, is there a song that you feel is most personal for you or that you feel really defines who you are?
I’ve cut 72 songs so far that Dallas Frazier’s written and a couple of songs he wrote about me. One was called “Where Is My Castle” and one was called “Just For What I Am.” At that point, I was really searching for somebody that I felt would really love me. I’ve always wanted to be who I am. I’ve never really been competitive in the business, except with myself, and I beat myself up pretty good because I never reached the height of what I want to do, but I’m still working on it. Of course “Once a Day” is a favorite because it started me off. But this one that Dallas wrote is called “Run Away Little Tears” and I’ve always loved that record. There are so many of them that I love, but that’s one of my very favorites. It’s a story of my life. I’ve always searched for the right person. This is my fourth marriage and we’ve been married 24 years, so I believe I got it. The record companies used to tell me, ‘you can do more than country music,’ and I’d say, ‘I don’t want to do more than country music because I think that’s what I am.’ I think I do my best when I do those songs that register in my heart, and I’ve always looked for a song that I could get ahold of that fit. The music fit, words fit my voice and the musicians. It’s magic when it all works together. I’ve been so blessed to have that so many times.
What inspired you to make your new album, The Cry of the Heart?
I’ve been blessed in so many ways, but to get the time when Marty was not busy, because I wanted him to produce it, and the time when I had the songs that I thought would work. He played a song that we actually have done on the television show called “A Million and One.” We did The Marty Stuart Showon RFD-TV for six years and that was 26 shows a year. I got to where I was doing songs, not necessarily my songs, but songs I had always wanted to sing. I was working with Marty’s band, The Fabulous Superlatives, and my steel player Gary Carter. We’d had Pig Robins and the different piano players and musicians come in and it was so fun to work. I wanted to do songs I had always wanted to sing, and I had sung this song called [“A Million and One”] that Billy Walker had a hit on years ago and when Marty heard it, he went by after the show and got a copy of it. He said, ‘this ought to be on a record.’ Then Dallas Frazier played me a new song he had written called “I Just Don’t BelieveMe Anymore” and [said] ‘we ought to go ahead and do a record.’ We didn’t take long to find the songs to finish that up. We did a couple of Carl Jackson songs and one he wrote with Melba Montgomery, and we did a couple of songs that we wrote and one that I had written with [Monty] Holmes called “Three Sides,” and then a few others. Marty and Harry Stinson, who was his drummer in The Fabulous Superlatives, wrote one for me called “Look Out Heart” and I did that one. It didn’t take long at all. Then we picked musicians that were excited about going in and doing a song like we used to do in the sixties. It was great, we loved it. I think it is as close to what we used to do at Studio B when I was with RCA Victor for nine years. That’s what I’m still comfortable [with] and what I love, and we got some of the musicians that loved it too. Marty is so knowledgeable and has so much creativity. They took that old sound and put a fresh coat of paint on it and it was great. I want to share with people the fact that the country music of the sixties was so wonderful and that’s why I feel like country music is “the cry of the heart.” It’s my heart crying out, and other people that have been through similar things or want to know about them, it’s something they can identify with and know that they’re not alone and that there’s somebody in it with them.
What advice or wisdom do you want to impart onto country artists today?
To make sure you know what you sound like and what’s in your heart to come out and not be a replica of something that’s already out there. When we first started in the music industry in the sixties, there was room for a million, but only one of each. If you weren’t an individual, if you sounded like anybody else, you couldn’t make it. We had so many, everybody from Lefty Frizzell to George Jones to Merle Haggard to Ray Price to Patsy Cline to Jean Shepard, Loretta Lynn. All those folks that had their own totally complete identity, their music was a little bit different. I want them to know exactly what their destiny is and what’s in their heart so they can bring it out because we’re all made as individuals, we’re not made as a group. That’s what makes it so exciting is to have all the individuality. When Chris Stapleton came on, there was nobody like Chris Stapleton at that time. He’s so good and he’s so pure. He and [wife] Morgane, they do it really great. I want that for all the new singers that they can find their own identity and find out what’s really in my heart that I want to sing? Am I called to do this? Is this my calling? Is it really what is in my heart to do and to be and is it what God has called me to be?