Connie Smith has been called the “Queen of Broken Hearts” and the “Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry”, but after a career that’s spanned 54 albums and nearly 60 years, it may be more appropriate to rechristen her as simply the Heart of Country Music. On her latest effort, Smith soars across 11 new and classic cuts from her favorite songwriters and collaborators including longtime contributor Dallas Frazier as well as her husband/producer Marty Stuart. Smith is joined by a wealth of talent in Fabulous Superlatives Harry Stinson, Chris Scruggs, Kenny Vaughan, and Paul Martin, but also by famed Nashville Cat Hargus “Pig” Robbins, the legendary pianist present for Connie’s very first RCA session back in 1964! The Cry of The Heart finds Connie Smith at the top of her sonic game wielding a lean yet countrypolitan style that refuses to sound anything but fresh and delivering songs that champion the best of country music’s yesterday, today, and hopefully, tomorrow. Calling from the streets of Music City just days before personally welcoming her husband into the Country Music Hall of Fame, Connie regaled me with tales and teased a few details for her next project. The Cry of The Heart is available now from Fat Possum Records.
AI- Before we jump into The Cry of The Heart, I noticed on your Facebook page that you’re just passing the anniversary of a God Is Abundant! It came out back in ’73! That’s gonna get a new release from Bear Family on the Latest Shade Of Blue box set, right?
CS- Yes, it is! It’ll be out pretty soon!
It’s cool to consider not only with this new album but with the back catalog, new listeners hearing Connie Smith music today.
I like it, and I’m really proud! That’s my third Bear Family box and I’m tickled to death about that ’cause I really appreciate them, all the work they put into it, and they do ’em right! This is the first one that’s out of my Columbia stuff. I was with RCA for nine years, but [Latest Shade Of Blue] has to do with Columbia.
The Cry of The Heart marks album number 54 and that’s just amazing! What made you want to go back into the studio? ‘Cause there’s been a lot said about this being your first album of country music in over 10 years. What made the decision for you?
Well, it’s not that I never wanted to do another one. I always intended to do more records, but I think there was 20 years between a couple and there was 10 or 13 years between one. And then there was about 10 before this one! There’s just so much goin’ on with Marty and followin’ him around and gettin’ a chance to work with him and record with him. He produced the last three albums that I did. And then I’ve got five children and six grandchildren– and I have a one-year-old grandbaby girl in Norway that I haven’t gotten to see yet! But hopefully, soon they’ll open that up (laughs)! And then you’ve got the home, so there’s plenty going on– and then I’ve got the Grand Ole Opry, which I do very often.
Is that how you stayed in such wonderful shape? Because vocally, you sound amazing, just beautifully strong! With not being in the studio and not having an active tour schedule, is that what’s kept your voice so strong?
Quite honestly, I haven’t kept it as well as I should. Of course, I’ve been goin’ through therapy for quite some time now because I had a severe case of COVID, was in the hospital 11 days on oxygen and eight breathin’ treatments a day, and double pneumonia and sepsis and all kinds of things. I am blessed to be here, and I just know that singing is my calling, and as long as God wants me to sing, I will! I quit for a while when my three girls, who were a year apart when they were little because I just couldn’t stand leavin’ ’em. And then I had the two boys as well. So I quit the business for several years ’til my youngest one went to kindergarten, and then I started back doin’ a little bit at a time.
I’ve never traveled as much as a lot of people. I can’t really say I have been as career-oriented. I love the music, I love the people, and that’s the main thing that’s kept me goin’. Plus, it’s fed my kids and I’m thankful for that! I am very blessed! I was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012, and shoot, I can’t believe that even still! And I’m fixin’ to induct my husband, who went in last year, but they never had the induction because of the pandemic. When they told him he was gonna be one of the newest members, he said, “Can Connie induct me?” ‘Cause you can have who you want to induct you, but they have to be a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. So that worked out good!
Let’s talk about Marty in the producer’s role. If we take the fact that he’s your husband out of the equation, he’s still got to be the biggest Connie Smith fan walkin’ around. How does that affect the dynamic when the two of you are in the studio buildin’ somethin’?
That works both ways– ’cause I’m his biggest fan! I have to share that with his mother, I have to say! I married Marty to get her for my mother-in-law, you understand (laughs)! But it’s so wonderful ’cause we started out writin’ songs together. We both have similar tastes. He’s far beyond me in things, and he knows a lot more about a lot more music than I do. I’m pretty well just classic country music, although I love all kinds of good music. When we were little, I couldn’t hear the Opry a lot, and I loved Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett and Brook Benton, Nat King Cole, and just so many of the great ones that were out at that time. I got to learn a lot of that stuff when I was young as well. I like all good kinds of music. I love it when it’s melodic and I love it when the lyrics mean something. I am a definite music lover. One of mine and Marty’s favorite things is just to go and get in the car and take off ridin’. I’ll take all the things that I’ve heard that I don’t think he has and he’ll take what he’s heard that I haven’t, and we play ’em back and forth to each other. That’s one of our favorite pastimes, to go out in the country and drive (laughs)!
That sounds amazing– and I’m picturin’ you doin’ that right now! Can you share what one of your favorite discoveries or one of the biggest surprises you’ve given him and he’s given you has been when you’re doin’ that with songs?
Shoot, he’d have to tell you about his, but getting to really know Rosetta Tharpe was a really big treat for me ’cause I should’ve, but I’d not been familiar with her before he presented her to me. Now I’m a huge fan of her music and her guitar playing! I’m not a musician. If I was, I’d be a steel guitar player if I was an instrumentalist! Marty’s one of the greatest musicians and his Fabulous Superlatives are awesome! The first time I met Keith Urban, one of the things that impressed me is I think he knows every chord that there is! He’s a great musician as well, but he’s also a great entertainer and singer. He’s one of the newer ones that I really enjoy listening to. “But for the Grace of God”, I think was the first record that I was familiar with of his. It really impressed me with his voice and with his musicianship.
I love all kinds of music, but especially the ones that really touch my heart. I have to say, things like “The Cold Hard Truth” that George Jones did. When I heard that, I was driving toward the Grand Ole Opry and I rolled down my windows, and I hollered out the window, “Country music, folks!” (Laughs) I love Merle Haggard and Ray Price! I love all of ’em and I think everyone should have their shot, but I still never have found any reason not to hang into what I’ve always done because I think that’s my niche.
I love rock n’ roll. I mean, Tom Petty was my favorite rock n’ roller, and I was very honored to meet him because Marty and he were buddies. but I couldn’t do it! I love it, but I couldn’t do it. I love the Beatles! My son introduced them to me. Those were his favorite singers when he was growin’ up. I’ve learned a lot from my kids and a lot from Marty and a lot from other friends of mine. I am so blessed, Aaron! I am just so blessed!
Selecting the songs for the album… Now, you and Marty have a couple of co-writes on there. Did you write those specifically for The Cry of The Heart or do you two write often enough that you have some that are just waitin’ to come into the world?
We were just in a bus ridin’ down the road! There’s always a guitar. Anywhere Marty’s around, there’s a guitar around, and if it’s around, he’s gonna pick it up! He started playin’ and we started just singin’ and doin’, and so we wrote two songs that day in the bus. “Here Comes My Baby Back Again” was one, and one of ’em was “Spare Me No Truth Tonight”. Just ridin’ down the road! There’s songs that I have started, and I’ve said, “Honey, see what you think o’ this,” and we would go from there. But as far as sittin’ down and sayin’, “Okay, we’re gonna write one?” It was one afternoon, I think it was Labor Day weekend one year, and we were sittin’ by the fireplace just hangin’ out. When we were sittin’ there, we started singin’, and we wrote three songs!
One of ’em was the one that he recorded with Merle Haggard. They did a video on it. It’s called “Farmer’s Blues”, and I’m really proud to be part of the writin’ on that one. We’ve written probably 30, 40, 50 songs. Some of ’em we’ve recorded, some of ’em we will. The Wandering Hearts, a group from overseas, recorded one of ’em that we wrote called “Dreams”. There’s one on [The Cry of The Heart] that I wrote with Monty Holmes. I love him! He’s a great writer –and very successful writer! I was honored to write with him, but I love him as a person as well! He and his wife are dear people. The one we wrote was “Three Sides”.
You also did “I Just Don’t Believe Me Anymore”, a Dallas Frazier song. That is your 72nd recording of a Dallas Frazier song? Is that right?
What is it about a Dallas Frazier song that speaks to you?
The heart of it. Dallas, when he writes or when he sings, he’s all heart. We just kinda clicked in the ’60s. He started presentin’ me with songs and I just loved ’em! I told him a while back, I said, “You know, this is the 72nd song of yours I’ve recorded. But I last time I counted, George Jones had 80 and I would like to at least catch up with him. So get busy!”
In addition to that, you said that you’ve got songs of the 30 or 40 that you’ve written with Marty that you will record. Did I see that you have already begun planning for the next album? That it won’t have to be another 10+ years for a Connie Smith album?
Oh yeah! We’ve actually got seven songs already finished for the next album. So yeah, we’ll be ready and waitin’ when it’s time for it to come out!
You recently helped induct Mandy Barnett as an official member of the Grand Ole Opry, and I know that was one of your biggest dreams to not just become a member, but to simply to play the Grand Ole Opry. You were on the 5,000th edition of the Opry– is it still a thrill for you now?
It is still a thrill! I still get scared and forget my words! That night that we did the 5,000th, it was a joy from start to finish! It was so much fun! We had so many of us! Of course, the Opry’s a family and that night, the family just came together! It was just so special! We were all honored to be there for the 5,000th consecutive Saturday night for the Grand Ole Opry. I’ve been a member for 56 years of that, you know? So I’ve done a lot of ’em! But to be on the 5000th, it was quite an honor.
I got to sing with The Isaacs, my favorite gospel group! They’re dear friends of mine, and they can sing anything they choose to sing. They’ve got a great album out right now! And then John Conlee, who’s also one of my favorite people in the world, but also sings as good as he did when he come out with “Rose Colored Glasses”! Jeannie Seely was there and she’s been there 55 years now, so that part was family, and then gettin’ to sing with a couple of new ones like Chris Young, it was just pure fun! To be able to ask Mandy Barnett, who had been a guest on the Opry for 519 times before she was asked to be a member– she was a part of the family way before she was officially inducted– I don’t know if you could pick which one of us was the most excited and pleased to have her as an official member! Country music is fun and there’s so many great people involved in it. I’m glad I’m still a part! I’m glad I’m able to do it!
Your husband, when I first started doin’ this kind of work, Marty was I think either the second or third interview I ever did. Of course, it was a joy and he made it so easy and he was so just so cool and indulged me in all of my questions. I saw recently where he has called you the ultimate outlaw because you stick to your guns and you stand up for what you think is right. When I asked him about Johnny Cash, he said the same thing about Johnny Cash, so I have no doubt that it’s 100% the truth. How do you see yourself at this stage in your career in Nashville and in country music?
I see me as one of the old-timers. I think I’m one of the teachers now. Marty and I both are very adamant about keeping the traditional country alive, you know, the roots of it. That’s what we want is the roots. I was honored to have Kitty Wells as my friend. I mean, that is a great honor. I’ve got one of her cookbooks that she signed “To one of my best friends,” and it’s one of my biggest treasures that I have. And just to know Roy Acuff! He’s the one that named me “The Sweetheart of the Grand Ole Opry”. Minnie Pearl! She asked me to sing at her service when she passed away, and every time she would ask me, I’d say, “No, you’re gonna sing at mine!” One day, she said, “Well, how am I gonna finish my will, if you won’t tell me if you’re gonna sing?” And I said, “Oh, you know I’d be honored. I just don’t want even to think about the thought of losing you!” She wanted me to do “In The Garden”, which I did. Merle Haggard was a dear friend, and he had Marty and I in his service as well. He had written out everything he wanted.
There’s just so many dear people that we’ve gotten to know in our life– not just people that are entertainers, like those names I just dropped (laughs)! But some of my greatest friends have been fans! I’ve got one girl, she was 12 years old and broke her arm, and her parents told her if she really handled it well when she went in to get her arm set that they would take her to see my show that Saturday night and get her cast signed. So I met her at 12 and she’s one of my dearest friends in the world! She’s in California and I’m here, but we get together anytime we can. There’s so many great people! Music as a whole brings people together, but country music is the heart of music. That’s why I called it The Cry of The Heart because I believe that’s what it is. I feel like it’s my calling because if I can sing my heart out to the people and hit a song, something they’ve been through or are aware of with somebody that they know, they don’t feel so alone. It’s a matter of just being family and bein’ there for each other.