54 Albums Later, Connie Smith’s Defiant Heart Has Plenty to Say

On Friday, Smith will release album 54, “The Cry of the Heart,” her debut for the independent label Fat Possum and first secular recording in about a decade, after intermittent forays into gospel. While country music is no stranger to a comeback, since the 1990s many of the genre’s figureheads have been resuscitated by studio wizards and the enthusiasm of younger generations. But “The Cry of the Heart” takes a different path, where resurgence doesn’t mean reinvention: It’s produced by the country musician Marty Stuart, 63, whom Smith married in 1997. The album’s tender piano chords, steel guitars and lush analog quality recall Smith’s ’60s era recordings, a template known as the “Connie Smith Sound.”

“Connie is the ultimate outlaw,” Stuart said in an interview. “Most people’s definition is get drunk, get crazy, act foolish. Her version is stick to your guns. Be who you are at any cost.”

Connie Smith’s fierce individualism sprouted from a tough foundation. “I was born a fighter because I was born into an alcoholic family,” she said. Raised in Southern Ohio by her mother, Wilma Lily, and stepfather, Thomas Clark, Smith came of age among 14 siblings and stepsiblings. Her stepfather played mandolin at square dances and her three sisters sang.

“I tried to sing with them but he’d run me out because I was messing it up when I was trying to learn harmony,” she said. The family would tune its battery-powered radio to broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry, and Smith became enamored with the music of Kitty Wells and the Louvin Brothers.

Smith made her stage debut during her senior year of high school at a local square dance, where she earned $3 for performing a cover of the pop standard “My Happiness.” A few years later, in August 1963, she entered a talent contest at Frontier Ranch, a bygone country music park near Columbus, Ohio, and won with a spirited rendition of Jean Shepard’s “I Thought of You.” She was awarded five silver dollars and a slot at the Grand Ole Opry opening for the singer and songwriter Bill Anderson. With his help, Smith landed a recording contract with Chet Atkins at RCA Victor in June the following year. She tracked her debut 45, “Once a Day” backed with “The Threshold,” both written by Anderson, on July 16 at the label’s famed Studio B.

Its immediate success was dizzying. “I’d have somebody pulling me on one arm, and somebody else pulling me on the other arm,” Smith said of a D.J. convention she attended amid the sudden burst of fame. The setting was new to her and a bit stressful, but while bouncing between meetings she saw a man coming up the hall. “Before I could almost recognize who it was, he was singing” — she lowered her voice in a countrified croon — ‘Once a daaay/All day looong.’” It was George Jones. Soon, another great, Loretta Lynn, was offering her advice, woman to woman.

“She told me who to trust and who not to trust, where to go and where not to go,” Smith recalled.

As the years went by, Smith repaid the favor and served as a beacon for a younger generation of women in the industry. “She’s one of those artists that’s always been great,” the country singer Tanya Tucker said in an interview. “She never goes out of style.”

2 of 3
Use your ← → (arrow) keys to browse