First Published in Country Music International – November 1998

Having scored a massive Number One hit in 1964 with Once A Day, Connie Smith enjoyed a further 18 Top 10 entries before quitting to raise a family. Now she’s back with a new husband (Marty Stuart) and a new album.

Connie Smith was the first country female to have her debut single go to a Number One. That was with Once A Day, a Bill Anderson song that spent eight weeks at the top in 1964, and it was a record that remained intact for 27 years until Trisha Yearwood’s She’s In Love With The Boy in 1991.

Though she never had another Number One, Smith was a consistent country chart-maker with a further 18 Top Ten entries and 11 Grammy nominations, and was a longstanding member of the Grand Ole Opry. Long revered as one of country music’s finest vocalists, family and not career was Connie’s priority. For many years she relinquished country music stardom to spend quality time with her children.

Now those children are grown, she has decided to record again at age 57. Though country music is going through a youth-driven phase with older, legendary artists quietly ignored or conveniently forgotten, Connie Smith has been given the opportunity to get her music out to the masses again for the first time in almost 20 years, with a self-titled album co-produced by her new husband, Marty Stuart.

“We recorded it just over two years ago,” she explains. “I’d cut a couple of times for Warner Brother with other producers, but never came up with anything that we liked. I told Marty: ‘I just can’t find the songs,’ and he said: ‘Why don’t you write them?’ It was something I was really interested in, but never had the time to do before when I was raising a family.”

From the time she topped the country charts with her debut single in 1964, Smith embodied everything good about classic country music and its commitment to home and family life. One of a family of 16, Connie was discovered by Bill Anderson at a local talent show in 1963, when she was a young mother and housewife married to childhood sweetheart Jerry Smith.

Pressurised by the sudden stardom and disillusioned by the phoniness of the music business, she often contemplated giving it all up. Her marriage ran into problems and in a few short years she went through two divorces. Finding solace in her Christian beliefs, she reduced her touring, remarried and devoted more time to church and family.

“There just wasn’t enough of me to go around,” says Smith. “It was at a point in my life when I had five children. My girls are now 22, 23 and 24, so they were all right in a row. I didn’t want to neglect my family, and as a Christian I didn’t want to neglect my beliefs.

She was actually only off the road for about six years, and when her youngest daughter started kindergarten, she returned to touring to support her family. While she was at home with her children, Connie continued to perform at the Opry, but concentrated on gospel music. She now feels this might have been a mistake, causing people to think she had changed career direction.

“The reason I did that wasn’t because I had become a gospel singer,” she explains, “but because I thought it would keep people from thinking I was still in the business. I think I actually confused people more. I also think if I'd never said I'd quit, nobody would ever have known it. They’d have thought I was somewhere out on the road.”

Even in her late fifties, Smith still possesses a powerful and emotional voice. Writing with Nashville’s finest, Harlan Howard, Allen Shamblin and Marty Stuart, Smith and her co-writers have created 10 staunch country classics that establish instant communication without sacrificing country credibility. Alongside Stuart, who plays mandolin, she has ace guitar player Steuart Smith, steel player Gary Hogue, and adding harmonies are fellow Opry stars Sharon White Skaggs and Cheryl White.

The vocal powerhouse leans full tilt into romance with Heart Like Ours, then treads more gingerly through Looking For A Reason. “I wrote that about Marty when he and I first got together,” she enthuses. “I’d been married three times, so I didn’t feel I would try that again. I'd been divorced several years when I started working with Marty. I began to suspect something was happening, and then he spoke up and I thought: ‘Uh oh, I’d better run.’ That song kinda came out of that.”

Connie first met Marty when he was 12 years old, but romance didn’t blossom for them until they started working closely together. The pair married last year, and though they have collaborated on songwriting and recording the album, they have no plans to tour together.

“We find time sometime to meet out on the road,” she says, “but as far as working together, I don’t think his screaming girl fans would want me on the stage with him. We have different careers. We did perform a duet on the Opry a while back, so we enjoy working together.”

Sounding better than ever, Connie Smith is overwhelmed by the opportunities offered by this first country album on a major in almost 20 years. “I’m able to go out on the road as I don’t have kids at home waiting on me, and I really enjoy it. There's much more freedom in doing it now. I still love to sing and still feel there’s a lot in me that I haven’t gotten out yet, so I'm free to do that. I want to continue to grow from day to day, but basically my heart hasn’t changed. I just love country music and I love music that comes from the heart.” 

Connie Smith - Whatever Happened To.....