Many viewers of episode seven of Ken Burns' Country Music, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way? (1973-1983)," instantly fell in love with the unabashed honesty of longtime publicist, journalist and songwriter Hazel Smith. In her interview clips, Smith rightly takes credit for naming outlaw country while working at Tompall Glaser's Nashville studio "Hillbilly Central." That alone would make her a legend, but there's a lot more to learn about Smith's life and legacy.
Smith (May 31, 1934 - March 18, 2018) was born Hazel Ruth Boone (a descendent of frontiersman Daniel Boone) in Caswell County, North Carolina. At age 19, she married a banjo and fiddle player named Patrick Smith. Their sons, Billy and Terry Smith, went on to pursue music careers of their own. Terry sang and played bass for the Osborne Brothers, co-founded the Grascals and cut an album with his brother for Epic Records in 1990.
After divorcing her husband, she kept Smith's surname professionally and entered a relationship with bluegrass' father, Bill Monroe. She allegedly inspired Monroe's "Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine," a future hit for the Kentucky Headhunters.
Smith wrote several songs over the years, including Dr. Hook's "Bad Eye Bill," Monroe's "Thank God for Kentucky" and Tammy Wynette's "Between Twenty-Nine and Danger."
Smith and her sons moved to Nashville in 1970. There, she found work as a publicist on Music Row, representing Kinky Friedman, the Glaser Brothers, Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
As noted on Ken Burns' Country Music docu-series, Smith coined the term "outlaw country" when a radio station called to ask what to call the independent-minded country music being made by artists such as Jennings, Nelson, Jessi Colter and more. Smith responded quickly to give a name to the artists "living on the outside of the written law" of the Nashville music industry: "outlaw."
"I leaned back in my chair and I said, 'That's it,'" Smith says in episode 7 of Ken Burns' series. "'They are not going along with the Nashville establishment; they're doing their own thing.'"
Smith also began a career as a journalist in the '70s, with notable gigs including a gossip column for Country Music magazine. Her championing of Garth Brooks and Brad Paisley helped launch both men to superstardom. In addition, Smith ran a news service for country radio stations and became a beloved radio personality in her own right and the self-described "Mother Hen of Country Music."
Long after outlaw country faded into the sunset, its matriarch remained relevant within country music circles. Other gigs beyond the outlaw years include a personal assistant gig for Ricky Skaggs and Sharon White.
Later in life, Smith hosted CMT's Southern Fried Flicks as a film presenter and chef and authored a cookbook titled Hazel's Hot Dish: Cookin' with Country Stars.
Smith died in 2018 from heart failure, leaving behind a legacy that should not be limited to the ground level of the outlaw movement.