“There's really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.” - Dolly Parton
I fell in love with Connie Smith before I ever saw her. No other female country singer could pack as much heartbreak and hurt into a single note (without artifice) as Connie. Thankfully, her voice has never lost that quality. The 1967 LP "The Best Of Connie Smith" is one of my "desert island discs" - if (God forbid) I ever had to sell my collection, I'd still keep that one, with a handful of others.
By the way, Connie STILL holds the record for the longest run at #1 for a debut single (her first 45, "Once A Day", stayed at #1 for 8 weeks in 1964). Eat your heart out, Taylor Swift.
"The Hurtin's All Over" was the first song I ever heard by Connie Smith. It was the first song on an old reel-to-reel tape that my father had in his collection (discussed earlier on this blog in this post). It was sort of a surreal experience; the tape was recorded from an AM radio broadcast and Connie's song kept cross-fading in and out with a football game on another station on the dial. But through the football announcer and the 12 KHz whine, I heard a voice of such purity, mixed with incredible heartbreak, which just POPPED out of that old Scotch 7-inch reel. Unfortunately, I had no idea who it was that was singing.
It took a year or two, but I eventually found out it was Connie Smith. Since that day, I have been scarfing up every piece of Connie Smith vinyl (and CD plastic) I can find. When I had the radio show, I was one of only two DJs in the NY/NJ area (the other was my girlfriend Jess) that played Connie's 2011 release, Long Line Of Heartaches (you can find it here).
"The Hurtin's All Over", for me at least, towers above all of her other hits. If there ever was such a thing as "country soul" with emphasis on the country, with a little "girl group" heartache mixed in, this is it. The backing is pure country, but Connie's vocal is so soulful that it takes the record to another dimension.
Unfortunately, like most soul singers, Connie Smith drew her inspiration from hard times. Born Constance June Meador, August 14, 1941, in Elkhart, Indiana, Connie's childhood was not a happy one. Her father was an abusive alcoholic, causing Connie to have a nervous breakdown when she was just in her teens. Also, while in her teens, she nearly severed one of her legs off in a lawnmower accident. While recuperating in the hospital, she learned to play guitar. She was soon entering herself in various talent contests, and was already a seasoned performer by the time she graduated high school in 1959. By this time she was living in Ohio, and at the age of 20 Connie married for the first time, to Jerry Smith. They had their first (and only) child together in March of 1963.
Shortly afterward, though, Connie's life began to change in ways she could not have imagined.
In August, 1963, Connie entered another talent contest at the Frontier Ranch park near Columbus, Ohio, where she was heard by Bill Anderson, who encouraged her to go to Nashville and record. Connie couldn't, with a new baby in the house, but she continued to play concerts in the Columbus area. It was on another country show in January, 1964 that she ran into Bill Anderson again, and this time he invited her to sing with him on Ernest Tubb's "Midnite Jamboree" program in Nashville. Connie went this time, and returned to Nashville a few months later to record some demos of a new batch of songs that Bill Anderson had written. The purpose of the demos were to get established female artists to record the songs. Bill's manager sent the dubs to Chet Atkins at RCA Victor, who immediately asked who the singer was. Once he found out, Atkins signed Connie to RCA Victor on June 24, 1964. About a month later, she had her first session with the label, out of which came the record that put Connie in the stratosphere, "Once A Day". The record shot straight to #1 on the country charts. It had been a year to the day Bill Anderson first saw Connie in that talent show.
The hits just piled up after that; "Then And Only Then", "I Can't Remember", "If I Talk To Him", "Nobody But A Fool (Would Love You)", "Ain't Had No Lovin'", "The Hurtin's All Over", "I'll Come Runnin'", "Cincinnati, Ohio", "Burning A Hole In My Mind", "Baby's Back Again", "Run Away Little Tears" - ALL which hit the Top Ten from 1964-1968. But by the end of that incredible run of hits, Connie Smith was a mess. The pressures of stardom and the long periods of time away from her family had taken its toll. Her first marriage ended in a shambles in 1966, and she ended up marrying the lead guitarist in her band, Jack Watkins. One year (and another child) later, she and Watkins divorced. She began to contemplate suicide.
That's when Connie Smith made the decision to save her own life. She decided that God and family were more important than stardom and a career. In 1968 she became a born-again Christian, came off the road, and reconnected with her children. Her chart career suffered, but not much - she did manage another six Top Ten country hits from 1968 to 1972 - but her personal appearances became less and less frequent, and when she did appear, you were just as likely to get a gospel show as a program of Connie's greatest hits. In fact, she was nearly fired from the Grand Ole Opry in the early 1970s for sermonizing at length from the stage at the Ryman Auditorium.
Connie married again, to a telephone repairman named Marshall Haynes, and brought her family on the road with her (in a much-truncated schedule). They had three daughters together. In the meantime Connie left RCA Victor for Columbia Records, but managed to score only two Top Ten hits while there. She then signed with Monument in 1977, who tried to update her sound (her biggest hit on the label was a cover of Andy Gibb's "I Just Want To Be Your Everything", if you can imagine that), and when the contract ran out in 1980, she basically withdrew from the business, spending her time doing her favorite job - being a mother, though she did record an LP in a one-off deal with Epic in 1985.
Unfortunately, Connie's marriage with Haynes ended in 1992, and, with her children grown, Connie decided to get back into the business. She signed with Warner Bros. in 1996, and she was immediately paired with Marty Stuart, a country star in his own right, who co-wrote and produced the resulting LP. Their collaboration must have sparked a fire, because Stuart, a Smith fan since he was a child, married Connie the next year, and they're still married today. Stuart also produced her 2011 LP Long Line Of Heartaches, which received much critical acclaim, but not much in sales, probably because it was REAL country, not the country-rock that Nashville pushes today. It was her first album in 13 years, and we may have to wait another 13 for her next one, but it'll be worth it (guess this makes Connie Smith the Scott Walker of country).
Connie Smith could have gone down the path that so many other stars had gone down - depression, drink, drugs, an early death - but, lucky for us, she took stock of her life and made the decision to save her life, instead of giving it to her career.
Today (August 14, 2012) is Connie's 71st birthday, and she is still (in the words of a 1965 LP title) "cute 'n' country".
Happy birthday, Connie, and thank you.
Connie Smith - The Hurtin's All Over (RCA Victor 47-8964) - 1966