On New Year’s Day 1964, Connie Smith — then still an aspiring singer — met Grand Ole Opry star Bill Anderson at a concert in Canton, Ohio. It was actually their second meeting: The first followed Smith’s victory in a talent show in Columbus, after which Anderson invited her to perform on the Ernest Tubb radio show and record some demos.
It was a whirlwind, and by summer of ’64, Smith had her first hit for RCA with the record-setting Anderson-penned smash “Once a Day.” A year later, Connie Smith herself joined the Grand Ole Opry. In the nearly 60 years since her induction, she has been one of the country-music institution’s brightest and bubbliest stars, with a powerful, emotion-packed voice.
In 1969, four years after country-pop icon Marty Robbins reached Number One with “Ribbon of Darkness,” Smith cut her own distinctive take on Gordon Lightfoot’s moody folk tune. It was another major hit that reflected her own turbulent life at the time, including a divorce from her first husband. Nearly eight years later, Smith was a guest on an episode of Robbins’ Spotlight TV series, sharing the stage with the “El Paso” singer to perform her 1965 song “Then and Only Then.” (Robbins delivered the Carter Family classic “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.”)
Coincidentally, in the late Sixties, Smith met 11-year-old superfan Marty Stuart at a concert in his hometown of Philadelphia, Mississippi. Stuart told his mother — who had named him after Marty Robbins — that he was going to marry the blue-eyed Smith. In fact, he did, tying the knot with her in 1997.
It’s Stuart’s words that introduce an extraordinary new box set devoted to Smith. Out now on Bear Family Records, Latest Shade of Blue collects nearly 100 of her recordings for Columbia Records, a mix of country and gospel-oriented material that represent an artist in her prime. The set is augmented by a 96-page hardcover book featuring career-spanning photographs, detailed biographical notes by journalist Barry Mazor, and the introduction from Stuart — whom Smith inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in November.
Still, 2021 wasn’t all about looking back for the 80-year-old. In August, Fat Possum Records issued The Cry of the Heart, Smith’s 58th album and one of the year’s best. Coming a full ten years after the excellent Long Line of Heartaches, it’s the latest jewel in the crown of one of country music’s queens.