Published On: Tue, Aug 15th, 2017

Classic Album: Connie Smith – Connie Smith

On the surface it was a classic show-business fairy tale… the blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty, from small town Nowheresville, becomes an overnight country sensation. But as Randy Fox discovers, the truth was far more complex for Connie Smith…

Connie Smith

On a sultry summer day in July 1964, Connie Smith, a petite, young blue-eyed blonde stepped up to the microphone in RCA’s Nashville studio. The assembled group of musicians hit a four-note intro and the young woman unleased her voice for her first professional recording session.

By March 1965, Smith had scored two top ten country hits — Once A Day and Then And Only Then. Her first LP, simply self-titled Connie Smith, would become the most successful debut album by a female country artist to date.

In addition to her two hits, the album contained ten other first class songs with none of the typical filler such as covers of recent country hits or second rate songs thrown onto the album as a favour to a music publisher. The message was clear, Miss Smith had gone to Nashville and made the town her own. RCA’s publicity department presented Smith’s story as a classic show-business fairy tale – a 23-year-old housewife and mother from a small town becomes an overnight sensation.

But as with such tales, the truth was more complex than the press accounts. Born Constance June Meador on 14 August 1941, she endured the abuse of her alcoholic father in her early years, the divorce of her parents, a string of moves between West Virginia and Ohio and her mother’s remarriage.

Throughout her tumultuous upbringing, one constant was her love of music. She married Jerry Smith in 1961 and although the marriage lasted only a few years, the surname endured. Around the same time, she began singing at PTA meetings, county fairs and local fundraisers.

By 1964, she was a young mother and a regular singer on WSAZ in Huntington, West Virginia. A meeting with Bill Anderson at a show in Ohio, won over the successful singer and songwriter to her cause. With Anderson’s assistance, she signed with RCA Records in June 1964.

Born to sing
Nashville’s music industry was recovering from the loss of Patsy Cline and coming to terms with the changes she brought to country music. Before Cline’s success, Kitty Wells, the Queen of Country Music, was the only female artist capable of consistently delivering hits and competing directly with male country stars.

With the exception of Wells, “girl singers don’t sell,” was the common belief. Patsy Cline shattered that belief with a string of massively successful country hits that jumped to the pop charts. Cline’s songs and arrangements were specifically tailored for her voice and style in the same way that hits by Marty Robbins, George Jones and Johnny Cash were crafted for their personal styles.

Cline’s hits proved that a unique female stylist could be just as successful as the boys. Her death in a plane crash on 5 March 1963 left a void. Who would be the next great female stylist to rule the country charts? That was the question when Connie Smith arrived
in Nashville for her first recording sessions with RCA Records. Bob Ferguson was assigned to produce the session. A few weeks earlier, Chet Atkins, head of RCA Nashville, gave Smith’s audition tape to Ferguson, declaring her, “the greatest girl singer I’ve heard in years.”

One listen to the tape and Ferguson jumped at the chance to produce her first RCA sessions. Although Ferguson was still learning the ropes of producing sessions, he had been working in the country music field for more than ten years as a musician, talent manager, songwriter and music publisher, and had a good eye for potential hits.

As Smith recalled to music historian Colin Escott in 2001, she found an immediate rapport with Ferguson: “I couldn’t have asked for a better person to work with,” Smith said. “He’s one of the finest men I’ve known and he knew how to get it out of you, and how to get the most out of the musicians too. He had fresh input every session, and he knew when to call a halt to it.

He always asked me to sing as high in my register as I could, so I could barely hit the highest note. I wanted to have a little leeway on both ends, but they’re as high as I could rare back and get ’em.”

Once a Day
And get ’em she did. Starting with her first session, she captured perfectly wrought gems of domestic heartbreak and demonstrated her unparalleled ability to pack megatons of sheer emotional power into lyrics. Ferguson immediately recognised that Smith’s voice was best showcased by a clear, crisp, stripped-down hard country sound, and as a former steel guitar player, he knew that playing Smith’s vocals against bright and playful steel guitar work would enhance the emotional punch of the music.

For Smith’s session, he gathered musicians capable of turning up the twang and toning down the slicker aspects of the ‘Nashville Sound’. The assembled group included Ray Edenton, Jerry Kennedy and Jimmy Lance on guitars, Floyd “Lightnin’” Chance on bass, Leonard “Snuffy” Miller on drums, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano and most importantly, Weldon Myrick on steel guitar.

Lance, Miller and Myrick were members of Bill Anderson’s road band, and had backed Smith on her audition tape. Ferguson hoped to duplicate the impressive tone of the audition, and Ferguson hired them for the session.

It was an unusual decision for the time since ‘road’ musicians were rarely used on sessions in Nashville. It proved particularly astute in the case of Myrick, who shared a natural synergy with Smith in the interplay between her vocals and his acrobatic steel guitar work.

When Atkins signed Smith to RCA, Bill Anderson agreed to keep her supplied with new material. For her first session, he delivered three impressive songs, all perfectly suited for Smith’s talents. The first, I’m Ashamed Of You, was a driving country shuffle powered by a thumping bass line. Ferguson double-tracked Smith’s vocals, allowing her to sing a duet with herself and giving the recording greater presence. The second Bill Anderson song, The Threshold, was particularly striking.

Anderson had written the song with Kitty Wells in mind, but Smith passionately latched on to the lyrics and made the song her own. Once again, it was driven by a strong bass line, but Myrick stole the show with steel guitar fills functioning as precise punctuation to Smith’s powerful vocals.

With that masterpiece completed, Smith moved on to the final Bill Anderson number and captured pure lightning in a bottle, with Once A Day. Playing on the same type of wry heartbreak wordplay found in George Jones’ She Thinks I Still Care, Smith delivered an amazing performance showcasing her unerring vocal restraint and building tension towards a bombastic emotional release for the chorus.

With three top-flight songs recorded, the final number of the session could have just been filler. Instead, it was a true gem from two of Nashville’s hottest songwriters, Hank Cochran and Willie Nelson. Darling Are You Ever Coming Home was a slow country heartbreak ballad, revealing Smith’s superlative phrasing skills.

It’s Just My Luck
RCA wasted no time releasing Smith’s first single. Once A Day backed with The Threshold grabbed airplay within a few weeks of being released. Country music fans quickly agreed with Atkins’ assessment of Smith’s talent.

Once A Day entered the country chart in late September and spent eight weeks at number one, setting a record for the most number of weeks at number one by a female artist (unmatched for 48 years).

The record also crossed over to pop, reaching the top position on Billboard’s Bubbling Under The Hot 100 Chart. It was the first
time in Billboard’s country chart history that a debut record from a “girl singer” attained the number one spot.

Smith’s hard country sound made it all the more astounding.Riding high on the success of her first single, Smith returned to RCA’s studio in October 1964, to cut four more songs for her first album. At that time, most genres were still single-driven. Albums were simply a way for record companies to make extra money once a new star was established.

Country albums typically included songs drawn from previous singles along with several covers of recent hits by other artists in an attempt to attract sales with familiar songs. For example, Loretta Lynn’s first LP, released in December 1963, featured A- and B-sides from her first four singles combined with covers of well-known country hits such as Buck Owen’s Act Naturally and George Jones’ The Color Of The Blues.

Cute ’n’ Country
Bob Ferguson had a different plan in mind for Smith. He quickly pegged Smith as a true stylist and believed people would buy her records simply to hear her sing. She wouldn’t require familiar tunes to sell a record.

As Ferguson later told Country Song Roundup in 1967, “Connie approaches every album song as if it were a single. Consequently, we never have to go in for a single. Her album material is so strong we always find ourselves with something good enough to pull
for a single.”

For Smith’s second session, the same musicians were assembled. Bill Anderson contributed only one song, and Ferguson picked three first class compositions from a variety of writers. I Don’t Love You Anymore by Anderson was another example of ironic heartbreak wordplay that Smith injected with a high degree of class, once again punctuated by Myrick’s steel guitar.

Myrick’s playing especially shined on the country shuffle, The Hinges On The Door. Written by Baker Knight, (composer of Ricky Nelson’s Lonesome Town, I Got A Feeling and many others) the song was first recorded by Virginia honky tonker Darnell Miller on
the Challenge label and released in September 1964.

Smith unleashed the twang with a magnificent honky tonk style performance that transformed the song into a crackling hillbilly masterpiece.Tell Another Lie was written by Fred Wise and Randy Starr known primarily for the many songs they cranked out for Elvis Presley’s movies.

The fine heartbreak ballad displayed once again Smith’s mastery of emotional restraint, passion and sheer lung power.Don’t Forget (I Still Love You) was a weeper that slowed the tempo and allowed Smith to demonstrate some truly expressive singing. Written by Guy Louis (credited as Guy Lewis”) the song was also recorded by Bobbi Martin for Decca with her version hitting the shelves just as Smith recorded the song.

Tiny Blue Transistor Radio
Smith returned to the studio in the November of 1964. Bill Anderson contributed two more songs, the first, Then And Only Then was another soaring hillbilly heartbreak aria along the lines of Once A Day. It quickly became the favoured track for Smith’s next single.
The other, Tiny Blue Transistor Radio, was one of the songs Smith cut with Anderson’s band for the demo tape that won her an RCA contract.

Originally written for Skeeter Davis, both Anderson and Ferguson agreed that Smith’s performance was too good for them to pass the song on. The final two songs from the November session, The Other Side Of You and It’s Just My Luck both dealt with heartbreak, approaching the subject in different ways.

Written by William B. Morgan, the first was a grand heartbreak ballad that highlighted the interplay between Smith’s vocals and Myrick’s steel guitar. It’s Just My Luck was an expressive ballad of heartbreak and acceptance, written by Betty Sue Perry.
then and only then With Once A Day still riding high on the country chart, RCA delayed the release of Smith’s second single until January 1965.

Then And Only Then backed with Tiny Blue Transistor Radio was promoted as a double A-sided single. While the strategy resulted in the single nearly matching Once A Day in terms of sales, many radio stations chose to play one side over the other. The split in airplay meant that neither side matched Smith’s debut single in chart performance. Then And Only Then climbed to No. 4 in the country chart and No. 116 pop, while Tiny Blue Transistor Radio made it to No. 25 in the country chart. With both sides of the single climbing the charts, RCA released Smith’s first album in March 1965.

Ferguson’s gamble that well-known covers were not required paid off as the album shot to number one on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, spending seven weeks in the top spot and a total of 20 weeks on the chart. It also crossed over to the pop album chart, reaching No. 105. It was the first time a debut album from a female country artist achieved the number one position, a record that lasted until 1968 when the massive success of Jeanie C. Riley’s Harper Valley PTA pushed her debut album to the number one spot.

The elements that propelled Connie Smith to the top of the charts and into the hearts of country music fans are plainly evident. Great songs, outstanding vocals and bright, clean production combined to produce one of the most classic debut albums in country music history.

Beyond its surface charms, the album was the perfect encapsulation of Smith’s voice as an artist. While Smith conquered just about any type of song given her, the themes at which she truly excelled, and to which she returned time and time again, were the twin notions of survival and salvation.

Many of her contemporaries cut out their own niches in country music: Loretta Lynn with her feisty anthems of feminine strength, Tammy Wynette with her musical postcards from the pits of despair, Dolly Parton with her Southern gothic tales of romance and tragedy. Smith’s vocals worked best relating stories of sadness and heartache that may not be conquered, but will be weathered.

It’s was a rich legacy that Smith inherited from such grand women of country as Sara Carter and Kitty Wells, and those interlocked themes manifested themselves throughout Smith’s first album. Even after five decades, Connie Smith remains an album that demands to be heard at least once a day, every day.



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