In one of her most famous quotes, Dolly Parton said, "There's really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith." It's high praise from one Country Music Hall of Fame member to another, and it rings true when listening to Smith's songs about real-life pain ("The Hurtin's All Over") and boundless faith ("God is Abundant"). Like Parton, Smith took a rags-to-riches journey to the spotlight, where her religious beliefs still keep her focus steady in a turbulent business.
Born Constance June Meador on Aug. 14, 1941, in Elkhart, Indiana and raised in West Virginia and Ohio, the future Connie Smith grew up with 13 siblings in an abusive household. Among the happy memories from her childhood were hours spent listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio.
An Overnight Success
Fast-forwarding to adulthood, Smith won an Ohio talent contest in 1963, singing Jean Shephard's "I Thought of You." Bill Anderson caught the winning performance and invited the promising young talent to Nashville. The following year, Smith performed with Anderson on Ernest Tubb's Midnight Jamboree program and recorded the demos that'd ultimately land her a deal with RCA Records.
At her first Chet Atkins-produced session, Smith recorded Anderson's "Once a Day." It became an instant number one hit, propelling her from meager beginnings to instant stardom.
It wasn't all wine and roses from there. Smith hated unsavory elements of the music business, from the unscrupulous behavior of DJs and club owners she'd encounter on the road to her favorite country stars' self-destructive habits. Past pains, professional frustration and personal life struggles put real feeling behind such country hits as "Then and Only Then" (1965), "I Can't Remember" (1965), "If I Talk to Him" (1965), "Nobody But a Fool (Would Love You)" (1966), "Ain't Had No Lovin" (1966), "Cincinnati, Ohio" (1967), "Ribbon of Darkness" (1969), "You and Your Sweet Love (1969), "I Never Once Stopped Loving You" (1970), "Just One Time" (1971), "If It Ain't Love (Let's Leave It Alone)" (1972) and others.
"God is Abundant"
By the late '60s, the trappings of stardom left Smith feeling helpless until the Christian faith changed her world view for the better. Later albums with RCA Victor and her eventual jumps to Columbia and Monument found the weary yet mighty voice that really knew about a "Long Line of Heartaches" recording more hymns and gospel albums--without abandoning her talent for emoting great country songs.
Her self-titled 1998 comeback album on Warner Brothers Records--just her second full-length release since 1978 -- was co-produced by Marty Stuart. The two country singers married the prior year. Since then, the couple have bolstered each other's careers as co-stars of The Marty Stuart Show and as two of the most visible ambassadors for old-time country music.
Faith keeps furthering her career, too, with the 2003 trio album Love Never Fails, featuring Barbara Fairchild and Sharon White, ranking among the top ten country-gospel albums of the century.
Smith's legacy as a country artist and her real-life Cinderella story landed her a deserved spot in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012.