n the '60's and into the '70's, country music had four great female stars - Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Connie Smith. Everyone has heard of the first three.
Connie Smith's name is not as recognizable to the young audience, even though a lot of people - Dolly among them - believe that she was the best singer of the group.
Smith's first new album in many years has just been released on Warner, and she hasn't lost one bit of her vocal skills.
Her relative obscurity is partly due to neglect on the part of her record labels (RCA and Columbia) who have made her hits unavailable for 20-odd years. RCA finally got around to putting out a 20-track "Essential" CD last year. A wonderful CD, it still does not even cover all of her hits for that label.
But much of Smith's low profile was her own doing.
"I think of myself as just a singer,"she says now. "I never had any publicity. I had very little management. That makes a lot of difference. My focus was on the family. I sang to make a living. I didn't want to become a star."
"When I was a little girl, I dreamed of being on The Opry. I never really thought of trying to fulfill that dream. It's like looking at a catalogue and picking an outfit you know you'll never be able to buy. My focus was to make sure my kids knew I was mama."
With her children grown now, Smith, 57, has returned to the music world.
Does she enjoy pressure-free obscurity more than her former stardom?
"Absolutely! It's not a have-to. I've enjoyed doing it." She compares this to the '60's, when "instead of me running it, it kind of ran me. I just wanted to sing.It took off so fast."
Until Trisha Yearwood came along, Smith was the only female singer to reach Number One with her very first record("Once a Day," hitting the top for eight weeks).
The hits, including "Then and Only Then"and "The Hurtin's All Over," continued.
The pressure eventually got to the Indiana native in many ways. "I'd be performing and I'd think 'Loretta Lynn's backstage listening to me' and I'd just forget the words. I'd just blow it."
While the hits kept coming through the mid-'70's, Smith did little to build her career. Since then, her emphasis was on raising her children, although she continued singing at such venues as the Grand Ole Opry.
In her heyday, Smith got her hits from the pens of great songwriters like Bill Anderson and Dallas Frazier. Today, she writes most of her material with husband Marty Stuart.
If you're expecting a drop in the quality of the songs, you're in for a pleasant surprise. For consistency of material, this is the best album Smith has ever made. Except for the punched-up drums, you could easily be listening to classic, vintage Connie Smith.
"I really enjoyed co-writing. I'm falling in love with some of the songwriters in town. Curtis Wright was a big fan." He cowrote "Looking For A Reason." "I love that song," says Smith.
"Marty and I wrote 'When It Comes To You.' Everyone said it was rock 'n' roll. I yodeled on the end just to be funny, and they kept it in."
There is one notable exception to the classic country sound, but it's a positive one. The fascinating closing cut"A Tale From Tahrarrie" puts Smith into a very different territory.
"Some people tell me 'It doesn't fit on the album.' I say it isn't supposed to fit on the album, it's supposed to show another side of me."
"We wanted to write a song that sounded like the 1700's. It came out sounding Irish. I made up the name "Taharrie" because it fit the sound."
"I never try to categorize the song. The song should dictate the music. Marty is a musical genius. He knows the whole spectrum of music. Justin (Neibank, co-producer) came out of rock n' roll. I wanted people who appreciate where I come from but had their pulse on today. I'm a country singer because that's the way it comes out. I love rock 'n' roll and soft jazz, Sarah Vaughan and The Beatles. I love anything that's good."
"I didn't go along. I'm just me. Someone has to set the style. I would like for the public itself to have a chance to decide."
That's the tough part for older country artists, since mainstream radio won't even listen to their new music, let alone play it.
"Being with WB is a good start. Jim Ed Norman has believed in me for a number of years. I've got good publicity. Marty knows the corporate thing inside out. We're playing by ear. If you can't go in the front door, you try the back door. You pry open the windows."
Talking about some of the people she has worked with, Smith says "Steve Wariner and I wrote a song together that has already been recorded. Bill Anderson(who just released an album a new album himself ) is a mega-talent, one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived. He knows how to please an audience. You don't want to follow him at radio stations (interviews). He's so glib. He's so good at it."
While Anderson discovered her (at an Ohio talent show) and wrote her earliest hits, the leading song supplier of Smith's career was Dallas Frazier, who wrote hundreds of pop and country hits starting with "Alley Oop" in 1960.
His first for Smith was "Ain't Had No Lovin'" in 1966. That began a long association.
"Dallas and I connected in our souls somehow. When he wrote a song, it was right for me. 'Where Is My Castle' and 'Just For What I Am,' he wrote about me. He didn't even know me that well, but he knew me. It just happened with his songs. It was one of those marriages that works."
Frazier eventually gave up songwriting and went into the ministry. Christianity is important to Smith as well. She was born-again in 1968, four years into her hit run and for many years has closed all her shows with "How Great Thou Art."
"I'm a big-mouthed Christian. I pray that everything I do has a spirit behind it. Whether it's inspiration or fun, I like having hope in everything. If it has God's approval, it'll go in his direction."
The most spiritual song on the new album is "Your Light," co-written with Allen Shamblin. "Allen started it as a gospel song, and we switched it to be ambiguous." Many love songs, especially in country music, go through this process. "You Light Up My Life" and "What A Difference You've Made In My Life"are two that Smith cites.
"I don't have regrets," says Smith about her earlier days. "I can look back and see all the things I did wrong as far as having a career. Some people said I was ungrateful and didn't give enough to the business. But I have five wonderful grown-up children."
"I'm finally learning the business end is something exciting too. There were a lot of things I knew at the time and chose not to do. Had I chosen the music to the extent I needed I believe my family would have suffered."
"I love the learning part," Smith says of her new career. "If the record does well, it may require things I'll kick and scream about. But I've made my choices. I intend to do more songwriting.. I do more traveling now. I'll keep singing one way or another."