"NBC lawyers are on the line..."
So, you're sitting in one of those wacky red Star Trek-meets-kidney-dialysis chairs on that new NBC TV show that just so happens to have the same title as our ongoing series on unique voices. You hear an amazing performance that sounds like an Appalachin grandmother singing to her grandchildren on a porch near the Cumberland Gap. You swing that enormous chair around to find that you have been compelled by a singer of Christian and Gospel tunes. You find you have to reassess this whole bias you might have had towards any music remotely religious, much the same way you felt when you first heard The Staples Singers, or Andrae Crouch, or The Louvin Brothers.
Listening to Connie Smith for the first time -- particularly her duet with Dr. Ralph Stanley on "Beautiful Star of Bethlehem" (also covered by The Judds, Emmylous Harris and, er, Clay Aiken) from 1998's Clinch Mountain Country or her frequent duets with George Jones -- I was reminded of watching Robert Duvall's wonderful film The Apostle, which circumvented the usual Red State hokum of a sanctified pilgrim being tested by life in favor of the sheer intoxicating sensation of religious faith -- with all its attendant consequences.
Connie Smith's debut, 1965
Between 1964 and 1977, when she went into an semi-retirement, Smith released around 50 records. Yet she is frequently referred to as one of the most underrated vocalists in country music -- she is one of those "singer's singers" respected by other vocalists (Harris, Jones, Dolly Parton). Wrote one critic: "In the '60's and into the '70's, country music had four great female stars - Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Connie Smith. Everyone has heard of the first three."
Her career began when the Nashville-dominated "Countrypolitan" sound spearheaded by producers like Chet Atkins and Billy Sherill was beginning to dominate the country charts. For purists, this was a much-reviled period, when syrupy string arrangements and slick instrumentation cut country music off from its organic, mountain-music roots and turned it into an arid soundtrack for retirement-community day rooms. Smith's early music was somewhat imprisoned by this trend (her producer Bob Ferguson was Chet Atkins' right-hand man), but Smith was unique for two reasons: the crisp sound of her steel-guitar player Weldon Myrick and Smith's own twangy, bluegrass-inflected vocals, which owed more to The Carter Family or Elizabeth Cotton than Kitty Wells or Tammy Wynette.
Connie Smith onstage with hubby Marty Stuart, 2008
Smith became a born-again Christian in the late-1960s and later pulled a punk-rocky move and like another Smith named "Patti," left music in the late 1970s to focus on domestic life. "I think of myself as just a singer," she told writer Joel Bernstein in 1998. "I never had any publicity. I had very little management. That makes a lot of difference. My focus was on the family. I sang to make a living. I didn't want to become a star." In that time, RCA and Columbia records let her extensive catalog lapse into out-of-print status for nearly 20 years, further obscuring her unique contributions to the canon. An example: her 1964 recording "Once A Day" (later covered by Van Morrison) was the first debut single to reach Number One on the charts and stay there for eight weeks, a record not broken for 26 years.