In November 1964, the talk of Nashville's annual Country Music Disc Jockey Convention was young Connie Smith, whose debut hit, "Once a Day," was among the hottest items on the DJs' playlists. A year before, Smith had been a small-town housewife in Ohio; now she was a breakout RCA artist with a country voice as powerful as any the seasoned jocks had ever heard. Indeed, she has been cited as a favorite singer by dozens of country stars. Dolly Parton once said, "You know, there's really only three real female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt, and Connie Smith. The rest of us are only pretending."
Born Constance June Meador in Indiana in 1941, Smith grew up in West Virginia and Ohio in a family of fourteen children. Her parents were migrant farm workers, and her father's drinking made life at home difficult. As a teenager she listened to both the Grand Ole Opry and pop radio, paying close attention to Kitty Wells and Jean Shepard on the former and to Sarah Vaughan and Nancy Wilson on the latter. Though not serious about a music career, Smith taught herself to play guitar and sang at local square dances and Grange halls. For a time she performed in the traveling band of a man named Floyd Miller, and then later with the cast of Saturday Night Jamboree, a live TV show carried on WSAZ in Huntington, West Virginia.
On August 4, 1963, Smith won a talent contest that preceded an Opry-troupe concert in Columbus, Ohio. First prize included the chance to sing on the Opry program, which included Opry headliner Bill Anderson. Anderson took note of Smith's talent, and when the two met again at a New Year's Day concert in Canton, Ohio, he suggested that she consider coming to Nashville.
At Anderson's invitation, Smith flew to Music City and sang on the March 28, 1964, edition of Ernest Tubb's Midnite Jamboree. In May, Anderson invited her back, this time to make a demo recording of four of his songs. Anderson pitched the tape to RCA Nashville's Chet Atkins, who signed Smith to the label. On July 16, with Bob Ferguson producing, she recorded Anderson's "Once a Day," her debut single. It eventually spent eight weeks at #1 and propelled her to Grand Ole Opry membership in 1965.
For the next few years Smith recorded a succession of albums and Top Ten singles of consistent quality and dramatic impact. As producer, Ferguson sometimes employed Nashville Sound techniques, but Smith's most effective work was usually with straight-ahead country backup highlighted by Weldon Myrick's pedal steel guitar. Her material leaned heavily toward standard themes of lost love and heartache, as exemplified on Anderson's "Then and Only Then" (#4, 1965) and Dallas Frazier's "Ain't Had No Lovin'" (#2, 1966). As 1970 approached, however, Smith's song choices (such as Gordon Lightfoot's "Ribbon of Darkness" and Rex Griffin's "The Last Letter") seemed to grow more darkly personal.
Never comfortable with the trappings of stardom, Smith was rapidly moving toward a spiritual crisis, and she eventually joined the Rev. Jimmie Snow's Evangel Temple congregation. In 1973, she left RCA for Columbia, which agreed to let her record one gospel album per year along with secular material. By then she was retreating from the road and limelight anyway, devoting herself more to home and family. She recorded briefly for Monument in the late 1970s and then disappeared from the charts until 1985, when her Epic single "A Far Cry from You" became her final Billboard chart-maker.
Since then, Smith has returned to more active work on the road, in the studio, and at the Grand Ole Opry, where she remains an audience favorite for her renditions of secular material and gospel favorites such as "How Great Thou Art." In 1998 she recorded a self-titled Warner Bros. album of new material, produced by Marty Stuart. Though it had little commercial impact, it did signal her resurging interest in recording. She and Stuart married on July 8, 1997. Love Never Fails, a gospel album Smith made with Barbara Fairchild and Sharon White (of the Whites), appeared on Word Records in 2003. Smith released the album Long Line of Heartaches on Sugar Hill Records in August 2011. Produced by Stuart and including songs written by the husband-wife team, the album was recorded in Historic RCA Studio B, where her recording career began.