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With Her 54th Album, Connie Smith Re-Affirms That She 'Is' Country Music

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today, the country music legend Connie Smith releases her 54th album - at least that's what she understands to be true.

CONNIE SMITH: I'm not very good on time 'cause time just don't mean a lot to me (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPARE ME NO TRUTH")

SMITH: (Singing) My heart's heart it all before.

CHANG: To be fair, Connie Smith's music often feels timeless. She's a standard-bearer for traditional country sounds. It was actually her collaborator for 25 years, her husband Marty Stuart, who did the tabulation.

SMITH: We used to do three albums a year and a single every three months, you know, for years and years. So - but I just - if I find the songs, then I think, I want to sing that, you know? And then Marty will say, OK, let's start a record (laughter).

CHANG: More on Marty in a bit. That new record, "The Cry Of The Heart," extends a career that began with a debut single in 1964. She reached country stardom shortly after that, took a hiatus for about 20 years in the middle and reemerged with a new album back in 1998.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SMITH: So you just might as well relax in who you are and enjoy it.

CHANG: That's when Connie Smith last spoke to NPR. And when I talked to her recently, I asked her if she's still feeling relaxed.

SMITH: Well, I'm learning to be.

CHANG: (Laughter).

SMITH: I think I even like me a little bit, and I didn't for years (laughter). Maybe I'm just accepting more.

CHANG: So this is a way you feel not just about music but outside of music, too, in other parts of your life.

SMITH: Oh, of everything. Oh, no, I've got to get better at my music. That's for sure.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: So I'm not a very competitive person, except with myself. So it's hard to please me, for me to please me.

CHANG: Yeah. No, I can relate to that. Well, when it comes to music and trying to stay comfortable with who you are, how do you balance that comfort with also wanting to try new things out as an artist - new sounds, new ideas?

SMITH: I love anything good. If it's a good song and I think I can sing it, I don't care what you call it; I just want to sing it, and I want to do it well.

CHANG: You just feel it. You just know when it's the right song.

SMITH: For me, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MILLION AND ONE")

SMITH: (Singing) How many teardrops have I cried over you? A million and one tears, a million and two.

CHANG: You know, you represent to so many people what traditional country music sounds like. I mean, people praise you for the fact that your sound has remained so consistent over the decades. But I'm curious. Do you think that you have evolved and changed more than people give you credit for over the decades?

SMITH: I hope I sing better, but I...

CHANG: (Laughter).

SMITH: You know, I have those that say, why don't you sing it like you used to? So it's - you know, it's all a matter of how you are today. I mean, 'cause I know I've changed, so probably in some ways, my music has changed. But I still love the traditional sound so much. I love the steel guitar.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONNIE SMITH SONG, "TO PIECES")

SMITH: But when I'm singing, I'm just into it. And if I can't get into it, then I don't want to do the song (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO PIECES")

SMITH: (Singing) I don't haunt the same old places we used to hang around. I can't take the chance of seeing you with the new love that you found.

CHANG: Well, I want to travel back in time to when you first arrived in Nashville. It was 1964, and you had said very early on that your favorite female country singer was Loretta Lynn. She's one of mine, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER")

LORETTA LYNN: (Singing) Well, I was born a coal miner's daughter...

CHANG: You know, one of my favorite stories I read about you is how you first met Loretta. Can you tell me that story?

SMITH: Yes. Actually, it was my first trip to Nashville, and I had never recorded or anything. But I came in, and I sang a song. And this guy came up to me and said, my wife wants to meet you, and there was Loretta Lynn right before she had the twins. She was back there sitting and resting before she went on. And she told me - she said, you're going to make it; you got what it takes. And it's just something that - there's no way that she had to do that, but she did. And of course, we've been friends now for about 56 years, something like that. And - but she was my favorite singer before I got here. And I couldn't believe that I got to meet her on my first trip.

CHANG: How did her advice pan out over the years as you navigated the music industry?

SMITH: I have to honestly say I never really thought of singing as a career. And - but it's great to have a job that you love. And what they say is if you...

CHANG: Absolutely.

SMITH: ...Work in a job you love, you don't ever work, and I think that's about it.

CHANG: Well, now I want to, you know, fast-forward a little bit to 1997 because that is the year that you got married to Marty Stuart. You and Marty have been musical partners in all the years since, writing and recording songs. He's all over this latest album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOOK OUT HEART")

SMITH: (Singing) I know you've had your troubles and your heartaches. I know how long that we've been on the mend.

CHANG: When I was reading about your love story, I thought, God, what is that like to share what you do with the person you love, when your life partner is also your professional partner? What is that like?

SMITH: Well, it's gotten better and better and better because, well, we've gotten to know each other better, not only know each other as person - as people, as wife and husband, but to know each other musically. And I trust him more. I wasn't sure at first because he was so current and all, and I was so old-time. There's nobody - I mean, we just get in the car and go down the road and listen to music together, and we love that. So we have a lot of the same likes of music, and we get a lot of the same things out of it and the same things out of the people 'cause we both love people. And it's just a - I think it's just one of the greatest things there could ever be.

CHANG: I mean, it sounds like you have everything that matters.

SMITH: That's right. That's right. I'm very, very blessed, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE TIME")

SMITH: (Singing) All the time - yes, darling, all the time, tenderly, constantly.

CHANG: You have said that country music, to you, is the cry of the heart. It's the title of this new album. What did you mean by that, the cry of the heart?

SMITH: Well, I just really feel like country music is a gauge of the people. But ultimately, down inside, we're all basically the same. And when you write these country songs, it's like Hank Williams said, you know? I don't write the songs; I just hold the pen. You know, basically, it's got to come from within or, you know - the songs that touch my heart are the songs that came from my heart. They're not the songs that came from my head.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE TIME")

SMITH: (Singing) But don't let that bother you.

When you connect with someone how your heart feels, then they don't feel so alone when they identify with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE TIME")

SMITH: (Singing) I'll never be untrue.

CHANG: Connie Smith - her new album is called "The Cry Of The Heart." Thank you so much for being with us today, Connie.

SMITH: Oh, I've enjoyed it, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THE TIME")

SMITH: (Singing) All the time - yes, darling, all the time. Through the years, through smiles or tears, I'll love you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 21, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Connie Smith has released her 52nd album. It is her 54th.