‘Someday I’m gonna sing on the Grand Ole Opry:’ Uncovering Connie Smith
In spite of never-ending butterfly grappling, passionate alto Connie Smith declares in an exclusive conversation how she was discovered singing at a theme park talent contest. The prize for the future Country Music Hall of Famer and faith-propelled wife of roots rocker Marty Stuart — a whopping five silver dollars and a chance to meet singer-songwriter “Whisperin’” Bill Anderson.
The Connie Smith Interview, Part One
Do you have a special message for your fans?
I just wanna extend an appreciation for them being my fans. A lot of the people that come see us have stood by me going back to my first record “Once a Day” b/w “The Threshold” [both written by “Whisperin’” Bill Anderson for RCA Victor] 55 years ago. I joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1965 and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.
I love kids with all my heart. Not in comparison to my older fans, but there’s so many more young people coming to our shows that are interested in traditional country music. It’s always been that way in Europe. If they hear a record and like it, they research the artist. They know liner notes from a 50-year-old album, shows we did, marriages, just everything.
My kids every now and then will tell me, “Mama, you’ve got so many hits on YouTube.” I’m really too busy to get on social media much, and I’m not that technically minded. There’s so many more ways for folks to get to know us today, and that’s a great thing.
Do you use a computer?
Very little [laughs]. I know how to turn one on. When you’ve got five kids and eight grand-kids, you gotta learn a little bit. When you call, you can’t catch ’em. But if you text, they’re right there [laughs].
Which country artists do you prefer?
My two favorites have always been George Jones and Loretta Lynn. You can’t beat Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Kitty Wells, or Dottie West. I like anything that’s good. Of the newer artists, Lee Ann Womack is a wonderful, wonderful singer. One of the most amazing performers that we have is Keith Urban. He’s so talented on the guitar and isn’t strictly country. I discovered Chris Janson performing on the Grand Ole Opry in 2013. He knows what he’s doing, too.
When was the first time that you sang in front of an audience?
My very actual first memory of singing in front of somebody was when I was about five years old. We’d moved from one place to another, and my parents were moving stuff into our new home in Forest Hill, West Virginia. Some friends were giving them a hand.
I was sitting out in this big overstuffed chair in the yard that was waiting to be moved inside. I was singing away. I looked up and saw the couple standing on the steps grinning. Of course, I ran in the house and hid under the bed [laughs]. I was scared to death.
Do butterflies still inhibit you?
When I introduce a new song today, I can get pretty antsy sometimes as I’m still trying to learn how to do it. My biggest problem is I get to thinking and singing at the same time. If I hear a different lick that I’m not used to hearing or get to thinking about something that someone’s said, I’ll remind myself, ‘Uh-oh, I’ve gotta get back on track and be in the present.’ You can’t live in the future or past. There’s nothing like living in the moment. I really love to sing, and I love the people. Our greatest shows are when the people acknowledge that they’re enjoying it. I’m more of a fan than an entertainer.
What is it like experiencing a concert from the audience?
I remember Marty’s mama Hilda Stuart and I being in the audience for one of Marty’s photo exhibits at the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries in Saint Louis, Missouri [October 3, 2014]. My husband is a great photographer and has several books of photography out.
Later that night Marty and His Fabulous Superlatives had a show. I was sitting out in the audience and didn’t know that Marty was gonna call me onstage later on. I was really enjoying the show and listening to the comments that people say. Sitting there shaking my head because it was so good and hearing the sound all over the room. I love being a part of seeing the people really identifying with, being touched by, or totally just enjoying what they’re hearing.
Who was the first singer or musician that you met?
I don’t know that I got to meet them, but the Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia had some entertainers. Doc Williams and his wife Chickie [e.g. 1948’s “Beyond the Sunset”] came to a school that was around where we lived. That was the first show I remember seeing.
As far as the first Grand Ole Opry artist I ever saw, we attended the Pan Theater in New Boston, Ohio. Martha Carson [her 1951 gospel rave-up “Satisfied” influenced Elvis Presley; Smith later earmarked it for the Sings Great Sacred Songs album in 1966] was playing that guitar like she did — bouncing up and down — and singing with all of her heart. I think if she had left the stage with that guitar and started walking down the street, everybody in there would have followed her. It was awesome.
When I was five years old, we started to hear the Opry on the radio every Saturday night because I was crazy about the Louvin Brothers. I distinctly remember saying, “Someday I’m gonna sing on the Grand Ole Opry.” It was one of those dreams that you have that you don’t really think is gonna come true for you. I didn’t really aim for it, I just wanted to sing.
What prompted your professional debut?
A representative from the Saturday Night Jamboree, a long-running [1953–1964] WSAZ-TV live television show based out of Huntington, West Virginia, came to the Washington County Fair near my hometown of Marietta, Ohio, because somebody had told them that I could sing. After graduating from high school in 1959 I’d sung with a band at square dances, PTA meetings, and Grange meetings [a national society of farmers].
The guy that had me singing at that point was an older banjo player named Floyd Miller that had started a group, and I was their girl singer. Floyd went up to the people at Saturday Night Jamboree and said, “I’ve got a little girl that you need to hear.” Announcer Dean Sturm replied, “I think it would be good to have some local talent on our show, so we’ll just make her a guest tonight.”
I sang “Pick Me Up on Your Way Down” [written by Harlan Howard and cut by Charlie Walker in 1958]. Since I was used to square dances, I thought everybody was just standing to signal me to get off the stage. I eventually found out that I’d gotten a standing ovation. I was so scared I just wanted to get off the stage [laughs].
A few months later Norma Lee, the Saturday Night Jamboree’s girl singer who had been with them for at least a decade, got married and moved to California. So they held auditions. They called and asked me to come to Huntington. I rode the bus to my audition and won. I can’t remember the song I sang. I started every week on the Saturday Night Jamboree for about nine months.
How did you get from Ohio to “Music City USA”?
George Jones, my favorite male singer, was gonna be at a place called Frontier Ranch near Columbus, Ohio. We wanted to go see him. Somebody unfortunately told us the wrong week when he would appear, and we got there the week after his show. We found out Frontier Ranch had a contest every week. My first husband Jerry Smith and some of my friends that were there talked me into entering. The reason I was so hesitant to be in the contest was you had to play your own accompaniment, and I could only play guitar in the key of C [laughs].
Jean Shepard was one of the iconic figures in my life. I loved how true and strong she hit her notes. She meant every word she said. I sang Jean’s song “I Thought of You” [the B-side of Shepard’s “Beautiful Lies,” 1955], and I won the contest. I have to admit that one of the reasons I think I won is because for seven weeks in a row a little seven-year-old banjo player had won [laughs]. If I had entered the contest earlier, I’m sure he would have beaten me. My prize was five silver dollars and a chance to meet a singer-songwriter I had never heard of named Bill Anderson.
Bill was in the audience when I sang “I Thought of You” and had started as a disc jockey but made it on his own as an entertainer. About six months later I saw Bill again at a Johnny Cash show also featuring June Carter [years before she wed the Man in Black], the Carter Family, and the Statler Brothers. It was the night that Johnny announced that Columbia had signed the Statler Brothers to a recording contract. June had on a chartreuse green chiffon dress. I’ll never forget because she was my favorite comedienne.
[Author’s Note: Lead vocalist Don Reid, eldest real life brother and bassist Harold Reid, original tenor Lew DeWitt, and baritone Phil Balsley played their first Cash shows on the afternoon and evening of March 9, 1964, at the Canton Memorial Auditorium in Canton, Ohio, the date when Smith would have been in the audience. By April 3, 1964, the Statler Brothers were tracking their debut single 45, a cover of Cash’s “The Wreck of the Old ‘97” b/w “Hammers and Nails” containing a Cash recitation. They remained part of Cash’s touring entourage for nine years and were still racking up hits through the Vietnam tearjerker “More Than a Name on a Wall” in 1989].
We stood in line after the show to get John and June’s autograph. Bill was also signing and recognized us from Frontier Ranch. Bill invited us to go eat with him and the band after the show. He said, “If you like country music so much, why don’t you come to Nashville?” I thought, ‘Oh yeah, like I can just go to Nashville.’ I had a little bitty son [Darren], and I wasn’t thinking about getting in the music business.
Bill wasn’t finished. “I’d love for you to be my guest on Ernest Tubb’s Midnite Jamboree [started by the Texas Troubadour in 1947, Midnite Jamboree is one of the nation’s most enduring programs, airing on WSM Radio from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop after the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights]. I’m supposed to host in March” . So I flew down in my very first airplane flight to Nashville. Waiting for my Midnite Jamboree appearance, I actually got to see Kitty Wells [e.g. “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”], who’s always been a hero of mine, onstage at the Opry.
Kitty was and always will be the Queen of Country Music. Not only did she open up the door for us other girls, she also continued to be such a lady, mother, and grandmother. Marty told me a story about being backstage at the Opry one evening. There were a couple of young girl singers that were a little upset because they came in to do a special performance and were all wearing the same dress. A little rift developed, which Marty helped with his usual back and forth teasing [laughs]. Finally towards the end of the night he got them together and said, “Girls, look at this.” Kitty Wells was walking out carrying her own guitar case. “That’s all you need right there.”
I actually kept Bill Phillip’s little seven-year-old boy while he went out onstage that night [Phillips’ biggest hit was a No. 6 C&W rendering of Dolly Parton’s “Put It Off Until Tomorrow” featuring the driven blonde bombshell on harmony vocals in 1966]. Man, I thought I was famous [laughs]. I sang at the Midnite Jamboree, and I got to meet Opry announcer Grant Turner, Ernest Tubb, and Loretta Lynn. Shaking Loretta’s hand was unbelievable.
Then I went back home and did what I ordinarily did [Smith was a devoted housewife]. Bill called one day and said, “We’d like you to come to Nashville and do some demos.” Bill had written songs that he wanted Skeeter Davis and Kitty Wells to consider recording. Some were also intended as duets, and Bill likely wanted to hear a girl’s voice like mine on the demo alongside his. I came to town and did the demos. Bill left Nashville and went on the road. I left town and went back home.
Bill’s first manager Hubert Long sent the tape to Chet Atkins. He loved it and wanted to sign me to RCA Victor [Atkins commanded RCA’s Nashville division]. However, Chet was too busy with so many hot artists that he was producing already [and he was a pioneering guitarist releasing his own records], so he turned me over to a new guy that he had just hired to help out named Bob Ferguson.
Bob wound up producing me for nine years, starting with “Once a Day” [cut on July 16, 1964, at the famed RCA Studio B in Nashville, Anderson’s composition became the first-ever debut single by a female country artist to reach No. 1] until I switched over to Columbia Records [Smith’s debut Columbia recording was the rollicking No. 10 C&W “Ain’t Love a Good Thing,” tracked on January 22, 1973, with George Richey manning the console. Smith soon chose Ray Baker as her production muse, sticking with him for the remainder of the ’70s, including her brief tenure on Fred Foster’s Monument Records]. Bob also produced Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s material as well as Chet. He’s the one who produced the majority of my hits [27 Top 40 C&W singles], helped create my sound, and found my steel guitar Weldon Myrick. Everything just seemed to fall in line for me. I didn’t really aim for it.
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