"Cute 'N' Country" was what they called Connie Smith, and the description certainly fit. Her super-stardom in the 1960s was a storybook tale: a housewife from Ohio, she performed only as an amateur until she was discovered by Nashville songwriter Bill Anderson, and was quickly signed to RCA in 1964. From then on, her life was a string of #1 hit records, until she gradually dropped out of the Music City limelight, choosing to concentrate on her family and her religion. In 1998, Smith reemerged with a new album, co-produced with her new husband, country singer, Marty Stuart, and has also recorded some new gospel material.
What's wonderful about the early stuff by Connie Smith is her unflaggingly rural voice -- she is a for-real country singer. Despite recording during the height of the Nashville Sound, and working in the midst of the most ornate countrypolitan studios, she hung onto the rough, twangy edges of her voice. Even more remarkable was the stylistic pairing of this country-girl voice with the girl-groupish perky pop arrangements from producer Bob Ferguson... the combination could have been disasterous, but instead it was heavenly. Here's a look at her work...
Connie Smith "Born To Sing" (Bear Family, 2001)
A four-CD box set of her early work on RCA, with a generously informative booklet to boot... if you want to get all of Smith's early material in one nice, shiny new package, then this might be just the thing for you. It's jaw-droppingly great, though like many Bear Family boxes, perhaps also a bit overwhelming.
Connie Smith "The Essential Connie Smith" (RCA-Nashville, 1996)
I was (and am) thrilled that RCA put this out as part of their Essentials series... But even as I was queueing up the Connie Smith reissues cheeringleading squad, I had to shake my head in disbelief that they put out such a tepid retrospective. Yeah, it's got a few of the good ones on it, but not enough. If you've never heard Connie Smith before, and you're curious -- yes, this is pretty much the place to start. If it'd been up to me, though, this disc would not be so lopsided towards the goopy Nashville Sound songs, and would have included way more of the fun, upbeat material which made her so unique, way back when.
Connie Smith "Connie Smith/Cute 'N' Country" (Sequel, 2000)
CD reissue of her first two albums (reviewed below). Great stuff.
Connie Smith & Nat Stuckey "God Will" (Music Row Talent, 2001)
A highly welcome CD reissue of her classic gospel duets recorded with Nat Stuckey in the late 1960s. This disc combines all the material from the much sought-after Sunday Morning album, and some tracks off of the earlier Young Love LP. Country gospel fans in particular will be ecstatic that Stuckey's family was able to convince RCA to let them reissue this album, so that fans no longer have to contend with extravagant collector prices to hear this fine Nashville-politan gospel material! (Also see my Country Gospel section.)
Connie Smith "Greatest Hits On Monument" (Sony, 1993)
Yeesh. There was certainly better material buried on her various late-'70s Monument LPs (particularly on the Pure LP...) However, this disco-tinged best-of was enough to scare me off for a while. Definitely not her best material, and also not well-chosen from this particular era... You're much better off searching out the old, original albums.
Connie Smith "Connie Smith" (Warner-Nashville, 1998)
(Produced by Marty Stuart)
All things considered, a pretty fair "comeback" album, co-produced by her hubby, bluegrasser-gone-"young country" idol, Marty Stuart. Clearly Stuart shares her old-school rural sensibilities, and makes appropriate decisions about how to frame her vocals. This album varies; basically it's not bad when she tackles upbeat material -- mainly Texas shuffles -- and it founders on the slow and sentimental numbers. If you're a fan, it's definitely worth checking out.
John Prine "In Spite Of Ourselves" (Oh Boy, 1999)
One of my favorite recent country albums. Connie joins the craggy-voice John Prine for a couple of great tunes on this fab duets album. Other guests include Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Patty Loveless and Melba Montgomery. This may well have been my favorite country album of the year... The song selection is flawless, ranging from straight-ahead weepers like Don Everley's "So Sad" or Felice Bryant's "We Could," to goofy oldies like "The Jet Set" and "Milwaukee Here I Come." The arrangements -- particularly the pedal steel by Dan Dugmore -- are picture perfect; understated and expressive but wholly in service of the lyrics. Prine proves a point he's made many times over the years, that sometimes the secret to good singing is just keeping thing simple. And his choice in singing partners is nothing to sneeze at either. Connie fans really oughtta check this one out!
Connie Smith "Live In Branson, MO, USA" (LaserLight, 1993)
Connie Smith/Sharon White/Barbara Fairchild "Love Never Fails" (Daywind, 2003)
(Produced by Ricky Skaggs)
A noteworthy Christian country-pop set, with three highly regarded country gals, and strong production assistance from Sharon White's hubby, Ricky Skaggs, who gives this disc a lot more rhythmic ooompf than most albums on this popular Southern Gospel label. I'm a big fan of Connie Smith, and it's always nice to hear her doing something new... She's in fine form, as is Barbara Fairchild, another former Top Forty country singer from the countrypolitan era who dropped out of the Nashville rat-race after she got born again and decided to record only religious material. Fairchild's voice sounds better than ever, and still has that Dolly Parton-esque timbre to it; it sure would be nice to hear her tackle some nice traditionally-oriented secular material sometime, as long as she could round up a backup band at least as strong as this one (which includes Nash-grass stalwarts such as Stuart Duncan and Bryan Sutton, among others...) This album is probably too rowdy for most Southern Gospel fans (who really like tinkly pianos and less-twangy vocals), and while it probably won't wow many country listeners, for folks who are fans any of these three singers, this is kind of a treat. Plus, it's certainly a heartfelt performance, with a nice harmony sound among the trio... Very Jesus-y, but the emphasis is on inspiration and self-affirmation, rather than the evangelical side of things, so it may be more accessible to secular listeners. Worth checking out.
Marty Stuart "Ghost Train: The Studio B Sessions" (Sugar Hill, 2010)
(Produced by Marty Stuart)
A real humdinger of a classic country album, with a lot of great twang-tunes evoking the style of the 1950s and '60s. There are also a slew of cover tunes and new originals that sure sound like old songs we all oughtta know: the bouncy twang and rollicking rhythms all ring true, and this is an album that just invites you to play it over and over again, loud, and sing along with gusto. A special treat are two songs co-written with Stuart's wife, (our heroine) Connie Smith who also sings some really sweet harmonies, particularly on the majestic "I Run To You," which has some very satisfying, Billy Sherrill-esque countrypolitan piano chords. Great record -- highly recommended!
Connie Smith "Long Line Of Heartaches" (Sugar Hill, 2011)
(Produced by Marty Stuart)
Connie Smith is one of my favorite Nashville artists from the 1960s and '70s; a joyful singer with a crystalline voice who recorded some of the brightest hits of the countrypolitan era. She's been mostly off the radar since the late '70s, and this new record is only her third studio album since 1978, and her first since 1998. Although her voice has aged and the tone has changed, she's still a keen stylist with an ear for great material. Along with producer Marty Stuart, she's crafted a strong set of traditionally-minded country tunes. Songs like "Long Line Of Heartaches," "That Makes Two Of Us" and "My Part Of Forever" hearken back to the heyday of pop-country heartsongs, with robust musical backing by Stuart and his crew. Also joining Ms. Smith are her three daughters, who sing harmony on the closing track, "Take My Hand." Known mostly as a song stylist in her youth, here Connie Smith asserts herself as a composer, co-writing nearly half the songs on this album; other songs come from the likes of Roy Drusky, Dallas Frazier and Harlan Howard. Longtime fans will welcome this new record, which shows that the old gal's still going strong. Check it out!
Connie Smith "Connie Smith" (RCA, 1965) (LPM-3341)
(Produced by Bob Ferguson)
Well, heck, no wonder she clobbered everyone else on the country charts for all those years. This is Nashville "girl group" at its best, a truly stunning debut. A bunch of these early songs made their way onto her first "best-of," and little wonder why. "Tiny Blue Transistor Radio," "Once A Day," "I Don't Love You Anymore" are all classic examples of the style... and the lesser known tracks such as "The Hinge On The Door" and "I'm Ashamed of You" are pretty darn good, too. Them folks at the label could make a lot of people really happy if they just reissued this album whole, as is, and let us hear what Smith sounded like coming out the gate. A doozy.
Connie Smith "Cute 'N' Country" (RCA, 1965) (LPM-3444)
(Produced by Bob Ferguson)
Not only cute, but man -- what a singer! This has so much going for it: great material, straight-ahead bouncy, Bakersfield-y production, and man, what a voice. She's got a more rural twang this time 'round, and sounds rather Loretta Lynn-like... though that's probably putting the cart before the horse! I wouldn't trade my battered-up old Mono copy for a lifetime pass to Opry.
Connie Smith "Miss Smith Goes To Nashville" (RCA, 1966) (LPM-3520)
(Produced by Bob Ferguson)
Even though the title implies that this is an effort to show off the sophisticated "Nashville Sound" -- that heinous mix of the traditional country and pop vocal worlds -- and even though the liner notes threaten to expose us to "all mood and manner of songs", the normal Nashville warning signs prove misplaced on this one. Sure, it's got a shaky, slightly sluggish start, but it doesn't take long for this record to pick up some steam. "(Her Name's) The Same As Mine" and "If I Talk To Him" are pure girl-group teen angst tunes, and other, more country, songs (such as "I Don't Have Any Place To Go") have a suprisingly bluesy feel to them. Flip the disc over to Side Two, and it's still mostly uptempo material... and even the weepers are pretty punchy. Go, girl, go!!
Connie Smith "...Sings Great Sacred Songs" (RCA, 1966) (LPM-3589)
(Produced by Bob Ferguson)
A pretty decent Nashville gospel album. Things only bog down when the session players try to get all artsy (with classical guitar licks, etc.) but even then it only slows things down a little. Not as all-out fun as her earlier pop stuff, but pretty solid.
Connie Smith "Born To Sing" (RCA, 1966) (LPM-3628)
(Produced by Bob Ferguson)
Early countrypolitan; mostly slower pop material, but a few bouncy tracks such as "Five Fingers To Spare," "A Touch of Yesterday," and an excellent version of "Ain't Had No Lovin'." Her rural, bluesy voice still comes through the thicket of Nashville production, and is still a joy to hear.
Connie Smith "Downtown Country" (RCA, 1966) (LPM-3725)
Yoiks! Producer Bob Ferguson steps out of the limelight and gives free reign to music arranger Bill Walker, in order to show the world what a real "Nashville Sound" record is supposed to sound like. Well, okay, so this isn't as scary as you might think at first, although there are definite excesses, such as the loopily lush version of "It's Now Or Never", but there's still plenty of other tracks that are pretty strong. Surprise! Her version of the Petula Clark hit, "Downtown" is actually okay, "Everybody Loves Somebody" also holds it's own, and the gender politics of "Born A Woman" should give future generations of Women's Studies classes something to think about. ("It makes no difference if you're rich or poor/Or if you're smart or dumb/A woman's place in this old world/Is under some man's thumb... And if you're born a woman/You're born to be hurt...") It's a great record, even though it's incredibly cheesy, and her vocals were never better. What can I say? When it came to countrypolitan, Connie Smith was one of the few who could really pull it off.
Connie Smith "Connie Smith Sings Bill Anderson" (RCA, 1967) (LPM-3768)
...and the absolutely amazing thing is that this record is so fun! Anyone who's ever slogged through Bill Anderson's own music will be amazed at how cool this album sounds. Anderson was a great songwriter, but an hopeless milquetoast as a performer; his records were some of the most syrupy and lethargic discs that Decca (or anyone) in Nashville ever released. But, hey, then along comes Connie. Maybe it's 'cause he got her her first big break, and maybe it's just because she likes his material, but for whatever reason, Smith poured everything she had into this record, and it's stunning. If they ever wanted to do some serious Connie Smith reissues, this is one record that could come out just as it was on the day of its original release.
Connie Smith "Soul Of Country Music" (RCA, 1968) (LSP-3889)
Not quite the Dusty Springfield-style blue-eyed soul implied by the title, but still a nice album. These are mainly soft, slow ballads -- an album untempered by her usual dose of girl-groupish up-tempo numbers. But she hits home on many of these lyrics, so it's worth checking into.
Connie Smith "I Love You Charlie Brown" (RCA, 1968) (LPM-4002)
Wow. This would be an easy one to miss, what with the goofy title and all, but what a mistake that would be. Side One isn't that great, but Side Two has some real doozies, especially the sex-drenched, "Let Me Help You Work It Out," and the devastating, remorseful, "Burning A Hole In My Mind". Keep an eye out for this one.
Connie Smith "Sunshine And Rain" (RCA, 1968) (LSP-4077)
(Produced by Bob Ferguson)
The liner notes boast of "Connie, The Song Stylist..." Those of us who have figured out how to read between the lines on these old Nashville albums will instantly hear big warning bells go off for that one... And sure enough, this is a deliberately "classy" album, full of ponderous folk-country and over-written country-pop tunes, including the song that put the great John Hartford on the map, "Gentle On My Mind." Produced by Bob Ferguson, this record is much better than most early countrypolitan efforts (even though the notes also talk about the "syncretism of contemporary music..."). Still, there are plenty of sour notes, culturally speaking, but it ain't all bad.
Connie Smith "Connie In The Country" (RCA Camden, 1967) (CAL-2120)
Less of an odds-and-ends collection than a traditional country covers album... As far as I can tell, these tracks are not collected from albums or singles, and were cut just for this album (even though Camden was RCA's budget reissue label...) Features good renditions of songs such as "Foolin' 'Round," "I'm Little But I'm Loud," "Cry, Cry, Cry" and newer tracks such as Loretta Lynn's hit, "You Ain't Woman Enough" and the Buck Owens' classic, "Love's Gonna Live Here". One of her easier albums to find, and well worth checking out.
Connie Smith & Nat Stuckey "Young Love" (RCA, 1969) (LSP-4190)
Moderately goofy, but fairly solid, countrypolitan. The late Nat Stuckey was never one of my favorites among the young Nashville crooners, but he does okay on this one -- in fact, I'd say he did better while working with Smith than he did on most of his solo albums. And even with the occassional wah-wah guitar or studio frill, Smith also gets in some good licks on this album. Not earthshaking, but not complete drek, either.
Connie Smith "Connie's Country" (RCA, 1969) (LSP-4132)
A remarkably effective countrypolitan album. Bob Ferguson hands over the conducting chores to another feller (Brenton Banks), and the resulting string arrangements are punchy and upbeat, and do a surprisingly good job playing off the loping backbeat. Includes a couple of Merle Haggard songs, one by Gordon Lightfoot, and several by lesser lights in the folk-countrypolitan scene. But on the whole, wow. This is an album ripe for reissue.
Connie Smith "Back In Baby's Arms" (RCA, 1969) (LSP-4229)
A less than stellar album. Although not overtly blechhy or overproduced, this is uniformly sluggish and flat. It's unobtrusive, but not engaging.
Connie Smith & Nat Stuckey "Sunday Morning With..." (RCA) (LSP 4300)
A gospel duets album that also includes popular tunes such as "Daddy Sang Bass" The original LP is a highly sought-after collector's item, but if you just wanna check out the music, it has (hoorah!) been reissued on CD under the title God Will on an indie label run by Stuckey's family. (See CD reviews above for more info...)
Connie Smith "I Never Once Stopped Loving You" (RCA, 1970) (LSP-4394)
A nice, solid album with loping bass lines, clear-cut pedal steel and nary a string section is sight. Connie mopes and emotes, and all is well in the country lover's heart. It's a goodie.
Connie Smith "Just One Time" (RCA, 1971) (LSP-4534)
This is pretty iffy territory. Smith's voice is shifting into a huskier tone, and the arrangements are pretty goofy early-'70s Nashville fare. The uptempo "perky" numbers lack the bounciness of the past, and the slower stuff -- particularly the gospel numbers with top-heavy pop choruses -- are kind of hard to take. With the rise of newer countrypolitan gal singers such as Lynn Anderson and Anne Murray, you get the sense that Connie's records around this time were sort of like the tail wagging the dog. Usually she made the best of it, but this album seems particularly lackluster.
Connie Smith "Come Walk Along With Me" (RCA, 1971) (LSP 4598)
A hopelessly overwrought, countrypolitan gospel album. Even with Bob Ferguson on board, this record came out sounding way too lethargic... I think this may have been one of those religious records that nobody but Connie wanted to make; she's the only one who sounds into it at all; the studio musicians sound like they were asleep on the job.
Connie Smith "Where Is My Castle?" (RCA, 1971)
It's funny how flip-floppy her records were around this time. Not so much that they were uneven releases, but that one would be good, and then the next would be bad. This one was suprisingly solid, defined by a loping bass line, and pinched, Loretta Lynn-style vocals on Connie's part. Some of the slower stuff is really cheesy, but on the whole this holds up pretty well. Of note: the apocalyptic "Jesus Take A Hold" is one of the better gospel tunes she recorded over the years, and is also a good reflection on the social tensions of the Vietnam War era. Also has a particularly nice reading of the Conway Twitty hit, "Hello Darling". (He also contributes the original liner notes...) Worth checking out!
Connie Smith "Ain't We Havin' Us A Good Time" (RCA, 1972) (LSP-4694)
Connie Smith "If It Ain't Love And Other Great Dallas Frazier Songs" (RCA, 1972) (LSP-4748) (LP)
This is okay, but a little bit on the overdone side... I think Frazier had so few chances to control his own music that they kinda overdid it on this one. The country-folk guitars, churchy Hammond organ, and plunky pickin' are all overly ornate, and some of the vocal choruses by the Nashville Edition are completely out of control. It's nice to hear Frazier on a couple of these tunes, but this record is a real victim of the times. Still, it ain't a record to toss out without a good listen or two... It's got Anne Murray production, but Connie Smith soul.
Connie Smith "Love Is The Look You're Looking For" (RCA, 1973) (LSP-4840)
This is really sort of a crypto-best of collection, with some of her contemporary singles thrown in for good measure. Includes proven favorites such "Cry, Cry, Cry" and "Ain't Had No Lovin'". The title track is a lite & fluffy Lynn Anderson-style perky countrypolitan number; her Freoch-language version of "Once A Day" ("Pas Souvent") is pretty silly, though. Still, despite the dreadful accent, it charted in Quebec. Overall, a pretty fun album.
Connie Smith "Dream Painter" (RCA, 1973) (APL1-0188)
Also a crypto-best of, with oldies such as "Tiny Blue Transistor Radio" and "Born A Woman", as well as the follow-up to "Pas Souvent", a jaw-droppingly terrible French-language cover of "Love Is No Excuse" ("L'Amour N'excuse Pas")... I guess Connie and RCA must have been having their little falling out around this time, what with two of these singles-and-oldies collections in a row. There's some great stuff on here, but it's a weird package. Oh, yeah: the title track -- a Dallas Frazier tune -- is a really goofy, over the top countrypolitan disaster... it sounds like a parody of the style! Must be heard to be believed.
Connie Smith & Nat Stuckey "Even The Bad Times Are Good" (RCA-Camden, 1973) (ACL1-0250)
Reissue of material on the 1969 Young Love album.
Connie Smith "A Lady Named Smith" (Columbia, 1973) (KC 32185)
Okay, so I'm not gonna sugar coat this one... This is a pretty terrible album... unless, of course, you actually like the tepid thoughtlessness and strained nature of second-string '70s country-pop. Her voice isn't at it's best, either, but that ain't the big problem. It's the goddawful arrangements. They suck. There are a few almost okay tracks on here, but the ineffective version of "Window Up Above" that closes the album really tells you all you need to know about this one... Sigh.
Connie Smith "God Is Abundant" (Columbia, 1973) (KC 32492)
Uh, would it come as a surprise if I told you this was a gospel album? What is surprising is how thoroughly Columbia cast Connie as a Loretta Lynn-style yelper. Most of the songs on here are either too drippy or bombastic, but there are a couple of exceptions. "You Can Move That Mountain" has a nice chicken-pickin' bounciness to it, and "The Baptism Of Jesse Taylor" is a pretty good novelty song (about a hell-raiser who gets religion & leaves all the bars and loose wimmin high and dry...) There's also an okay duet with Larry Gatlin ("Help Me") where she's able to draw you in a bit, at least more than the rest of the ho-hum tent-revival cheerleading on the rest of this album.
Connie Smith "That's The Way The Love Goes" (Columbia, 1974) (KC 32581)
Maybe it just took her a while to hit her stride on the new label, but this was one of her best albums from the 1970s. It has a couple of predictable cover tunes -- an unremarkable version of "Tie A Yellow Ribbon 'Round The Old Oak Tree", one of Lefty Frizell's later, minor hits -- but it also has a bunch of great material where Connie (and the band) loosen up a bit and get funky. "The Baptism of Jesse Taylor" is a great novelty-gospel tune about a local ne'er-do-well who finds religion and lets all his rowdy pals down. There are also several upbeat chicken-pickin' tunes like "Be All Right In Arkansas" that never made it onto her Columbia best-ofs... Pity, 'cause this is a good'un.
Connie Smith "I Never Knew (What That Song Meant Before)" (Columbia, 1974) (KC-33055)
Connie Smith "Connie Smith Now" (RCA, 1974) (APL1-0607)
Connie Smith "I Got A Lot Of Hurtin' Done Today" (Columbia, 1975) (KC 33375)
Ouch. So did I, when I put this album on.... It starts with some of the most over-written, belabored songwriting that Nashville had to offer, and limps along with some of the most leaden performances the studios could muster. Mostly it's the songs that are to blame -- pretentious and uniformly devoid of interesting hooks.
Connie Smith "Connie Smith Sings Hank Williams Gospel" (Columbia, 1975) (KC 33414)
All gospel material... To be honest, this is pretty lackluster and indifferently produced, though she does hit the mark on a few songs. But really, there's better Hank, there's better Connie, and there's better gospel.
Connie Smith "Joy To The World" (Columbia, 1975) (KC 33553)
This Christmas album includes a mix of traditional carols such as "The First Noel" and "O Come All Ye Faithful", along with non-holiday specific spiritual numbers such as "Go Tell It On The Mountain".
Connie Smith "I Don't Wanna Talk It Over Anymore" (Columbia, 1976)(KC-34270)
A pretty woeful mix of overproduction and over-singing... This mostly misses the mark, although there are a couple of "almosts" on here... Most of Smith's passion seems to have been reserved for the gospel song that closes the album, "I Wonder If The Angels Could Use Another Singer", and the title track could have been fun if delivered with a bit more bite. A pity, though, that her version of "Storms Never Last" doesn't measure up... It would have been great to hear her excel on such a great song.
Connie Smith "The Song We Fell In Love To" (Columbia, 1976) (KC 39918)
(Produced by Ray Baker)
A mix of gospel and secular songs, with goofy, countrypolitan-pop arrangements... Some of this is okay, but it's definitely a work of its time.
Connie Smith "Pure Connie Smith" (Monument, 1977) (MG-7609)
Surprisingly, her first album following a much-needed label switch is pretty darn good. Judging from the lackluster outings before this, the folks at Columbia had obviously long since written her off, but second-stringer Monument wanted to make the most of having a big star in their stable. The material is all secular, and in a sense this could be considered Smith's "swinger" album, with a much looser, casual sense of morality in evidence. Plenty of songs delivered in an offhandedly sensual, "yeah, we broke up, but don't forget about me" mode. Admittedly, at times the songs are as preposterously overwritten as any other countrypolitan outing, but at least they're interesting, and Smith's delivery is also engaging. If by chance you've heard the Greatest Hits On Monument best-of (reviewed above) and thought it was disappointing, you might consider tracking this album down, just to get a more balanced picture of her tenure at Monument.
Connie Smith "New Horizons" (Monument, 1978) (MG-7624)
Connie Smith "Long Line Of Heartaches" (Sugar Hill, 2011)
(Produced by Marty Stuart)
Ms. Smith's been mostly off the radar since the late '70s, and this new record is only her third studio album since 1978, and her first since 1998. Although her voice has aged and the tone has changed, she's still a keen stylist with an ear for great material. Along with her husband, producer Marty Stuart, she's crafted a strong set of traditionally-minded country tunes. Songs like "Long Line Of Heartaches," "That Makes Two Of Us" and "My Part Of Forever" hearken back to the heyday of pop-country heartsongs, with robust musical backing by Stuart and his crew. Also joining Ms. Smith are her three daughters, who sing harmony on the closing track, "Take My Hand." Known mostly as a song stylist in her youth, here Connie Smith asserts herself as a composer, co-writing nearly half the songs on this album; other songs come from the likes of Roy Drusky, Dallas Frazier and Harlan Howard. Longtime fans will welcome this new record, which shows that the old gal's still going strong. Check it out!
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