Artist In Residence: Connie Smith

For tickets to the final Connie Smith Artist-in-Residence show on September 12, click here.

August 29, 2011

Connie Smith highlighted her close relationship with songwriters during the second of three concerts as the 2011 artist-in-residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The program highlighted Smith’s knack for finding outstanding country songs while emphasizing her enthusiastic support for those who write them.

A tradition of the artist-in-residence series is that special guests aren’t revealed prior to the program, lending the evening an element of surprise. To the delight of a reverent, occasionally rowdy audience in the museum’s Ford Theater, Smith informed the crowd that songwriters Dallas Frazier, Kostas, and her husband, Marty Stuart, would join her on stage for segments of the concert.

“This week is kind of about the songs,” Smith said. “I’m so proud to have some great songwriters who are actually a part of my new CD.”

In her unassuming manner, Smith also established that she is a formidable songwriter as well. She opened the show with “You and Me,” a song she co-wrote with Stuart that appears on her fifty-third album, Long Line of Heartaches, released six days before the concert on Sugar Hill Records.

In all, Smith performed nine of her own compositions: four she co-wrote with Stuart, one she co-wrote with Kostas and Stuart, one she co-wrote with Curtis Wright, and three she wrote by herself. One of the latter, “I’ll Never Get Over You,” was the first song she ever wrote; it later appeared on her 1966 album, Miss Smith Goes to Nashville, a favorite album of Stuart’s mother.

Another song, “Constantly,” came from Smith’s 1976 album I Don’t Want to Talk It Over Anymore. Yet another, “If You’re Gonna Go,” has never been recorded; Smith said she wrote it for Dolly Parton but never had the nerve to pitch it to her. All three songs were performed in intimate fashion with Smith singing to the accompaniment of Stuart’s acoustic guitar.

Her set also included two songs written by Bill Anderson, who helped Smith launch her career in 1964 and who composed many of her early hits and album cuts. “Bill Anderson brought me to Nashville, and he’s one of our finest songwriters,” Smith said. “I’ve recorded thirty-three of his songs at this point.”

As her second song, she performed Anderson’s “Tiny Blue Transistor Radio,” which was among the first four tracks Smith recorded in 1964 that helped her get signed to RCA Records. It appeared on her self-titled 1965 debut album. Later she performed another Anderson song, 1964’s “Once a Day,” which was the first debut song by a country female singer to reach #1.

Before introducing Kostas, Smith performed “I’m Not Blue,” a song written by Kostas, Smith, and Stuart that appears on Long Line of Heartaches. The trio wrote the song while Smith and Stuart were visiting Kostas’s ranch in Montana.

“We were sitting out on the patio with a creek running by, with deer in the field and an eagle flying over,” she said. “We wrote some songs, and ‘I’m Not Blue’ was one of them.”

At Smith’s request, Kostas came on to sing “Blame It on Your Heart”-a song he co-wrote with Harlan Howard that Patty Loveless turned into a #1 hit in 1993-backed by Smith’s Sundowners band: pedal steel guitarist Gary Carter, bassist Rod Ham, drummer Ric McClure, and Fender electric guitarist Rick Wright. Acoustic guitarist Mark Casstevens and multi-instrumentalist Paul Martin occasionally joined the band, too.

After Kostas’s song, Smith performed “That Makes Two of Us,” with Kostas on harmony. He co-wrote the song with Loveless and her husband Emory Gordy, and Smith heard it because she had asked Kostas to send her some tapes of his demos, “just so I could listen to him sing ... I love his voice so much.”

Then Stuart emerged and joined Smith on the title cut of her new album, one of five songs they co-wrote for the collection, four of which were included in the concert. The couple performed another song they wrote, “Farmer’s Blues,” which Stuart recorded as a duet with Merle Haggard and released on his 2003 album, Country Music. Before starting, Stuart pulled out a letter from Haggard sent to Smith for the occasion.

Written in the verse of a song, titled “Too Much Boogie Woogie,” it included couplets such as, “Some of this mess they call country music ought to be down in the big abyss. There’s too much boogie woogie, and not enough Connie Smith.”

Stuart also introduced “Choctaw Fair,” a rockabilly number he wrote about his wife of fourteen years that he hasn’t recorded yet; and “Looking for a Reason,” another co-write by the couple, this one from Smith’s self-titled 1998 Warner Bros. album.

“When we first got together, she asked me to think about producing a record on her,” Stuart said. “I said, ‘I’d love to. Do you write songs?’ She said, ‘Sometimes.’ I said, ‘Everybody knows you can sing. I want to see if you can write.’ And she’s a great songwriter.”

Stuart stuck around to play acoustic guitar on “Ain’t Love a Good Thing,” a Dallas Frazier song Smith recorded in 1974 that also appeared in the movie The Road to Nashville. Smith’s partnership with Frazier is one of the most symbiotic and productive in country music history. She has recorded sixty-nine songs written or co-written by the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member, including the 1972 RCA Records album, If It Ain’t Love and Other Great Dallas Frazier Songs.

Smith shined on another Frazier song, “Run Away Little Tears,” which she described as “one of my very favorites.” It first appeared on her 1968 album, I Love Charlie Brown. She described Frazier as “my brother and my friend and my cohort. He has meant so much to my life. I started cutting Dallas Frazier songs early on in my career. It was so easy to sing a Dallas song because they were all so great.

Frazier stepped up to sing a couple of his country classics, “Fourteen Carat Mind,” a #1 hit for Gene Watson in 1982, and “If My Heart Had Windows,” a Top Ten hit for George Jones in 1967 and frequently covered since then. He got a standing ovation when it ended. He also sang harmony on “A Heart Like You,” a new Frazier song Smith recorded on Long Line of Heartaches.

Smith ended with the gospel standard “Peace in the Valley,” written by Thomas Dorsey and made famous by Mahalia Jackson, Red Foley, and Elvis Presley. Smith heard Foley sing the song shortly after coming to Nashville, saying she was blessed to be around town in the 1960s to hear many of her heroes.

Smith is the museum’s ninth artist-in-residence. She joins an esteemed list that includes Cowboy Jack Clement, Earl Scruggs, Tom T. Hall, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, and Buddy Miller.

At the start of the evening, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum Director Kyle Young explained that the artist-in-residence series “offers our stage for the creation of an intimate, unique musical experience totally of [the artist’s] choosing.

In her humble yet steadfast way, Smith took full advantage of that theme, fashioning an evening that was indeed intimate and unique. Moreover, she brought out all the qualities that mark Smith as one of country music’s most singular performers, showing off not just her exceptional voice, but also her special connection to songwriters and the musicians with whom she collaborates, and the professional-yet-warm way she conducts herself on stage. Ultimately, she served up an evening that exemplified the artist-in-residence ideals with a one-of-a-kind experience that celebrated everything that makes Connie Smith such an extraordinary American musician.

—Michael McCall