It’s been a landmark year for the household of Connie Smith and Marty Stuart, what with Smith’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the 20th anniversary of Stuart joining the Grand Ole Opry. No two active musicmakers are more qualified or enthusiastic champions of traditional country or of each other’s accomplishments. So it only seemed right to get them on the phone together the week before Stuart’s Opry celebration to talk about what the past 12 months and the journey have been like.
CMT Edge: Connie, how did you get the news that you would be in the Hall of Fame’s class of 2012?
Smith: We were in the kitchen. I was cooking supper, and Marty was sitting at the table. The phone rang, and Marty passed me the phone when he saw the number. He must’ve recognized who it was or suspected what it was when he saw that name. It was [Country Music Association CEO] Steve Moore saying, “I get to be the lucky one to tell you that you’re being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.”
So, Marty, you had a hunch that that was what the call was about.
Stuart: Well, that was the only reason I could think that Steve might be calling about dinnertime unless he wanted to come over. What was pure Connie Smith about it was I sensed what she was talking about, and I was so happy. And when she hung up the phone, she just went back to cooking dinner.
Smith: Well, when you first hear it, you want to cry. That’s the first thing that hits you. You just kind of want to pucker up and cry. But still after this long — I think that was in March, and the induction was in October — to this day when someone announces that I’m a member, sometimes I can’t believe it.
You had input into who would take part in the medallion ceremony.
Smith: I was really tickled that they asked who would I like. I was so thrilled with the way that people responded. I think especially I was surprised when I asked Merle Haggard if he would be the one to induct me. He said, “I knew you were going to ask me something I couldn’t … .” And I thought he was gonna say “no.” And he said “refuse.” … Knowing Merle, that’s just the way he would do it. Right up to the moment, I thought he was gonna say “no.”
I was just so honored and so proud to have him as part of the ceremony, as well as the Quebe Sisters. Marty and I have kind of adopted them into our big family. We just love those girls. They’re just precious to us and they’re so talented. … If you see them backstage, like the Whites used to do, they’re sitting there watching every lick that anybody hits. Of course, the Whites also recorded one of my [singles], “If It Ain’t Love,” and they had a great hit on it several years after I had my record. They’re like family as well, and so good. …Wanted them involved, as well.
Then when we were talking about someone to sing something, I thought, “Just for my own personal enjoyment, I would love to hear Lee Ann Womack do a song I wrote, “You’ve Got Me (Right Where You Want Me).’”
I watched a video of you singing “Louisiana Man” in 1970. Merle Haggard and Johnny Gimble were playing twin fiddles behind you. How far back do you and Merle go?
Smith: I’ve been in the business 47 years, and it wasn’t all that long after I got here that I met Merle. I’m such a fan. … He’s just an artist in every way. His songwriting makes your mouth fall open, his singing is perfect and his perspective is just totally individual.
Stuart: The thing I loved about that evening, more than anything else, was the heartfelt aspect. The medallion ceremony is probably one of the most heartfelt things that happens in this town. Everybody that gets selected into the Country Music Hall of Fame and invited to be a part of that circle, it’s such an honor. … Everybody gets in there for various reasons, but the thing that I appreciated about Connie’s induction was she sung her way into that place. She absolutely sung her way into the heart of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The induction used to be a televised part of the CMA Awards show, but hasn’t been in a while. It was great to see that they made a point to recognize Connie during the show. What did you make of that?
Smith: I know they do ordinarily get a shot of the inductees if they’re in the audience, but I had no idea. Actually, I was watching Brad [Paisley] and Carrie [Underwood], and I didn’t even see the camera overhead. [laughs]
Stuart: I miss that part of the CMA Awards. I really do. It was kinda like the divine moment of the show all those years. Along the way we stopped, and I understand [the importance of] advertisers or more performance-driven shows. I miss the world getting in on the greatness of that moment. … The fact that they honored Connie was great. That doesn’t happen all the time.
Then again, Connie, who was it that said when they saw your picture on TV they said, “Oh, Connie Smith passed away?” (laughs)
Connie, what’s it been like to be thrust back into a brighter spotlight with last year’s release of Long Line of Heartaches and this year’s induction?
Smith: I’ve totally enjoyed it because I have been here for 47 years. I was privileged to be in the business when I was with so many of the greats that are the legacy of country music from Kitty Wells to Roy Acuff and Marty Robbins and Dottie West and so many people that we don’t have with us now.
I got to be the first woman that ever was an artist-in-residence at the Hall of Fame last year. We did three concerts there. Then having the induction announcement and the induction, and [the Nashville listening room] Douglas Corner a few weeks ago did a tribute for me. Everybody sang my songs. I loved that. My three daughters were there, and I got a kick out of watching my daughters see everybody kinda sing my licks.
I have to say that to be able to have somebody like Marty to walk alongside me — my greatest promoter, my greatest admirer, my greatest supporter — that makes the richness. … All my family that could come [to the induction] were there. They were more excited for me, I think, than I was. … And having Ray Edenton sitting behind Marty and me, who played high third or rhythm or some kind of guitar on almost every record I ever did, and then going in the same day that [session pianist] Pig Robbins went in, who played on “Once a Day” and every other record I could get him on, it couldn’t have been better, I don’t think.
Marty you’re celebrating a significant landmark yourself with 20 years as a member of the Opry. Who had the honor of welcoming you as a member 20 years ago?
Stuart: I think it was Mr. Dickens. That 20 years went away fast.
Twenty years ago, I think you had at least four singles on the country chart that year alone.
Stuart: That was my focus at the time. It was about chasing charts and being in the whole parade.
The Opry was something that has been a part of my life since I was 13, when I went to work with Lester Flatt there. I actually picked up the phone one day during those times [in the 1990s] and called a fellow named Hal Durham, who was the manager at the Opry at the time. I think my words to him were “I’d like to come home.” So they talked about it, and they invited me to come out.
After they invited me [to join the Opry], I said, “Well, I have to talk to two people and get their endorsement before I can give you an answer. I need to talk to Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff.” I went to talk to Roy Acuff about it, and he said, “Yeah, we need people like you out here that understand what the Grand Ole Opry was about, is about and oughta be about.” Then I went to see Minnie Pearl. She was toward the end of her life and she was in bed at her home. I asked somebody to get me, I think it was, a hundred white roses. I heard she liked white roses. I walked into her bedroom toting a hundred roses, and she looked at me and she said, “Oh, boy. Look at them tight pants.” [laughs]
After I left there, I had her blessing. So I called Hal on the way home and said, “I’d love to be a member of the Grand Ole Opry.”.
Do you happen to remember what you performed that night?
Stuart: I think I did “Long Black Veil.”
I’ve been here for 40 years too. … If you look down through the past 40 years, the sound of country music has changed, the look of country music has changed, the stars have come and gone, executives have come and gone, labels have opened and folded, and about the only two things that have been steady forces are the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Grand Ole Opry.
It’s an honor to be a part of the Grand Ole Opry because when I was growing up in the South, the Grand Ole Opry was simply part of the atmosphere, and it still is. I look at myself and Vince [Gill] and Ricky [Skaggs] and the likes of us and realize that we’re the old guys now. And it’s our job to bring the young ones along. And it’s our job to make sure that the elders get home safe and warm. I love that role.
Did you have a hand in picking the performers for your Opry anniversary show?
Stuart: Absolutely. I sat down and talked with [Opry general manager] Pete Fisher, and we talked about our culture of traditional country music. If you go back to my hometown of Philadelphia, Miss., where it all started, Philadelphia’s a very unique place. It’s actually a tri-racial community, black, white and Native American Choctaw culture. I said, “Why don’t we just do a reflection of what the Opry means to so many cultures and what those cultures mean to me?”
Connie [needed to be on there], of course, and Mr. Charley Pride. Chief Phyllis Anderson is the first Native American, as far as I know, to ever appear on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. She’s the first lady Choctaw chief in the history of the tribe, coming up and bringing some Choctaw dancers. The Old Crow Medicine Show, they’re kids that I kind of found and loved and have enjoyed watching grow up. And the Superlatives and Opry Square Dancers. It’s an hour of what the Opry was designed to be — a frolic, a great barn dance and a good reason to throw a celebration.
Since Connie has also been an Opry member all this time, did spending time around each other there contribute to you two getting together?
Smith: Actually not.
Stuart: Yes, it did.
Smith: Well, I wasn’t aware. (laughs)
Stuart: I went out there on a Christmas Eve in the early ‘90s. It dawned on me, “I don’t have anybody to talk to tonight, and I’m a Grand Ole Opry member. I could go see the Grand Ole Opry.” So I was just standing around in the green room, minding my own business, and I felt this presence walk up behind me and touch my hand.
Smith: I had my daughter Jodi with me. And Marty was there by himself and not really talking to a lot of people. And I just thought, “He ought not to be alone tonight.” I said, “Do you want to go with me to take Jodi back to the house?” And he did. And we just had a great visit.
Stuart: I think we wound up at the place I was staying, and we listened to country records until about midnight, then Connie went on home. … It was just hanging out with a fellow Grand Ole Opry star.
Well, it must have planted a seed.
Smith: It must have. It worked.
Stuart: It did. It did.