LOOKING BACK: Connie Smith brings Hall of Fame voice to California

Published on April 12th, 2023

Connie Smith brings hall of fame voice to Stagecoach

 By Jim Dail

For The Californian

In 1964, a new first in country music happened. A young housewife from Ohio walked into famed RCA Nashville Studio B and cut the song called “Once a Day.” In a short period of time, the song would be the first debut song by a female artist to hit number one and would stay at the top for 8 straight weeks, which remains a record to this day.

For Connie Smith, that song was the start of a legendary career that culminated last year with her election to the Country Music Hall of Fame, made even more special by the fact that session pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, who played on most of her recordings, joined her in the same hall class.

“If you are a country singer that is really the pinnacle,” said Smith who will perform at the Stagecoach Festival in Coachella on Saturday. “It was an extra thrill because I didn’t know Pig was going in. We always tried to get him on all of the sessions and I just felt so comfortable having him in the studio with me.”

Robbins, along with pedal steel guitarist Weldon Myrick, guitarist Ray Edenton and producer Bob Ferguson, was part of creating the Connie Smith sound, which resulted in 39 Top 40 country hits, including twenty top ten hits, such as “Then and Only Then,” “I Never Once Stopped Loving You,” “I Can’t Remember” and “Nobody But a Fool,” among others.

“I was so fortunate that Weldon was so creative,” she said. “We’d pick the songs and he’d come in with a lick and something that would be very creative. The only thing that Bob Ferguson did when Weldon was there is adjust the knobs on the amp because he wanted a bright sound that was what they were doing out in California with Buck Owens.”

He also wanted to push Smith’s vocal range, taking advantage of her tremendous voice, which Dolly Parton has famously saluted, stating “There’s really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending.”

“I wanted to play it safe so there was a vocal note above and below me, but Bob would put me at the very height,” she said. “A lot of it had with the fact that everything was mono and the high tones cut through. When we would drive through places in the middle of the night we could hear those songs cut through.”

Her powerful voice is packed with emotion, which she acknowledges can be lost on some reviewers.

“One time I was reading a review overseas, and evidently they didn’t like the music or girl singers and they just tore up Loretta [Lynn] and Kitty [Wells] and I was the new one,” she said. “They wrote, ‘As for Connie Smith, we don’t know if she can sing but she keeps screaming!’”

But that voice, which served her so well in her career – is still as good as ever.

“I came from a family of 14 kids, and I had to talk and eat fast,” she laughed.

To prove “Once a Day” was no fluke, her follow-up single, “Then and Only Then,” narrowly missed hitting Number One kept down a little by another of her songs on the B side, “Tiny Blue Transistor Radio.”

“’Then and Only Then’ took off, but the flip side started to get attention, and I think that took some attention away,” she said. “The record company started to learn not to put another single on the flip side!”

Her success, popularity and voice were strong enough for RCA/Victor to bring her into the Nashville Sound recording style, which was aimed to make country more pop, generally by adding strings.

“I went in kicking and screaming,” she said. “I love strings, but the songs should tell you what to put behind me. I love the traditional sounds, the steel guitar and all that. I wasn’t a pop singer.”

She also didn’t feel as comfortable in RCA Studio A, the larger of the studios reserved especially for full string sections, as opposed to RCA Studio B, which is considered one of the most historic and best recording studios in history.

“Studio B was wonderful, just the perfect size for my voice,” she said. “They kept pushing me to record more pop and record in Studio A. My first day in there I actually cried. I would send out my voice in Studio B and I could judge my voice but the walls in the studies but in Studio A there was no control.”

While the hits kept coming, eventually she would leave RCA after a contract dispute and record a few more years for Colombia and then step away.

“It just never worked with Colombia, and I was having all my kids, my girls, and I didn’t want to leave them to go out on the road,” she said. “I’d go to leave and one of them would have a fever or other something. I just quit until my youngest went to kindergarten. I wasn’t in the business to make a lot of money in the first place. I just wanted to take care of my family.”

In fact, the devotion to family may be one reason why Smith is not a household name.

“When I first came to town, I loved to sing,” she said. “I was a wife and had a little boy. I wasn’t thinking about a musical career. I sang because I loved to sing. I sang in my teens and sang on a TV show, but I wasn’t imagining becoming a superstar.”

Eventually, a demo session with country star Bill Anderson after he heard her sing Jean Shephard’s “I Thought of You” at a talent show, led to a contract with RCA/Victor and suddenly she was the Cinderella story in Nashville.

“I did three albums a year and a single every few months, and it really wasn’t a good contract,” she said. “But I never went out like a lot of people. I took my son at first and then I’d go out every few days when he was four. I kind of fought the business the whole way. I was more of a mama.”

She was being pulled in so many different directions.

“I didn’t start with a manager, and I was making about $50 a day when ‘Once a Day’ was out,” she said. “I wasn’t business minded. If I didn’t become as big as some thought, it was my fault, but I have no regrets.”

Over time and as her children grew up, she ventured back into the business.

“I was at home one day and all my kids were gone and out of the house and one of my daughters was telling me what she was doing that weekend,” she said. “She asked me what I was going to do, and I could hear the concern in her voice. I didn’t want my kids worrying about me sitting at home.”

So she contacted Marty Stuart, who she had run into a few times, who was eager to work with her, though his schedule didn’t allow it right away.

“I knew that I couldn’t get the hit songs because they were for the younger artists who were charting regularly,” she said. “He told me, ‘Well you write don’t you?’ He told me to write the songs.”

However, she started to think more about Stuart as something more than a songwriting partner.

“He is 17 years younger than me, and I told him he needed to find a new songwriting buddy,” she said. “He said, “Too late!”

As a result, she is back on stage at venues all over the country, performing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry (which she joined in 1965), writing songs and recording records. Her latest, “Long Line of Heartaches,” is a throwback to the ‘60s sound that she made so popular; it also marked her return to RCA Studio B.

And, as most country fans already know, she is also now married to Stuart. And the two of them can be seen regularly on RFD-TV on the Marty Stuart Show, as well as the Grand Ole Opry.

And she is still in love with the music she grew up listening to and then recording.

“If you are having a bad day the songs actually help you,” she said. “You hear these songs and realize that other people have problems too, and maybe your problems aren’t as bad as what you are hearing.”

She also continues to help others deal with the business.

“I tell people you have to really find your calling and destiny and realize you may be changed into something you aren’t,” she said. “God loves them regardless and there is going to be rejection after rejection so you have to have a strong base to start from. You have to love doing it.”


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