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Connie Smith shines as an interpreter of heartbreak on 2 new releases

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

You may not know Connie Smith, but our rock critic, Ken Tucker, includes himself among the many hardcore country fans who consider her one of the greatest country vocalists ever. He's been listening closely to her two most recent releases. One is a new box set from the German reissue label Bear Family Records called "Latest Shade Of Blue - The Columbia Recordings 1973-'76," (ph) four CDs chronicling Smith's entire output at Columbia Records. The other is her most recent collection, 2021's "The Cry Of The Heart," produced by her husband, country music star Marty Stuart. Together, Ken says these two releases do a lot to confirm Smith's status as one of country music's finest song interpreters.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PASS ME BY (IF YOU'RE ONLY PASSING THROUGH)")

CONNIE SMITH: (Singing) Would you look at what came down the road today? Wanting me to be one more mistake you make. A bridge to burn to get to someone new. Hey, pass me by if you're only passing through. You sure look like...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In 1964, Connie Smith's very first single, "Once A Day," went all the way to No. 1 on the Billboard Country chart. Listeners knew instantly that this was one of the greatest sad song singers ever recorded. Over the course of nine years, Smith had 16 Top 10 country hits on RCA Records. But feeling that the label wasn't promoting her work very well, she signed a new contract with Columbia. To my ears, her first Columbia single, "Pass Me By (If You're Only Passing Through)," the song that began this review, is superior to the hit Johnny Rodriguez made of it the year before, and it signaled a fresh beginning for Smith as an interpreter of heartbreak. Here's the title song of the new box set that collects her Columbia work, "Latest Shade Of Blue."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LATEST SHADE OF BLUE")

SMITH: (Singing) Just when it starts to get better, right when your memory might end, when I've said goodbye to the old crowd, and I'm finding myself some new friends. Just when the sun shines the brightest and the nights are so hard to get through, I think of you and change into the latest shade of blue. Color me...

TUCKER: One reason this new box set is important is because it puts to rest a misconception about Smith's career that by the early '70s, she was on a downward slide. It's true that the flow of Smith's hit singles slowed to a trickle, but the singing here remains superb. The recordings on this collection feature more orchestration and backup vocals than Smith had had previously. At their best, however, they don't obscure the passion and pain she communicated so fearlessly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DID WE HAVE TO COME THIS FAR (TO SAY GOODBYE)")

SMITH: (Singing) When you were only friendly on my mind, before your love became my way of life, you knew that it would rain on down the line. Did we have to come this far to say goodbye? Why...

TUCKER: Smith's strong Christian faith inspired her to include at least one or two gospel songs on each of her Columbia albums. And in 1975, she realized a long-standing dream of putting out an all-gospel collection - her versions of the religious songs written by Hank Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE BOOK OF LIFE IS READ")

SMITH: (Singing) In life's many battles that you will have to fight, just stay close to Jesus and journey in his light. Then on that judgment morning when all pain has fled, you'll stand in God's kingdom when the book of life is read. When the seals...

TUCKER: On Connie Smith's new album, "The Cry Of The Heart," the voice is huskier. At 80, Smith's range is understandably constrained, but little of that matters. She remains an extraordinary singer, fully capable of every facet of emotion, and her material here is first-rate. It's no wonder she itched to get back in the studio after more than a decade, when she was offered a new song by one of the great bards of country music, the 82-year-old Dallas Frazier. The song is called "I Just Don't Believe Me Anymore."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I JUST DON'T BELIEVE ME ANYMORE")

SMITH: (Singing) I told my friends that you'd come back. You loved me way too much. I told myself, just wait and see, that soon you'd be in touch. I had us all convinced I knew exactly where you stood. But here I am still hanging on, and you're still gone for good. That's why I just don't believe me anymore. I told myself so many lies that I've quit keeping score. I wouldn't trust my eyes if you came walking through that door 'cause I just don't believe me anymore.

TUCKER: The album titled "The Cry From The Heart" is the answer Connie Smith has invariably given over the years when asked to define country music. No woman in the history of country has cried as eloquently as Connie Smith.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Connie Smith's "Latest Shade Of Blue: The Columbia Recordings 1973-'76" and her most recent collection, 2021's "The Cry Of The Heart."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how the Republican Party became the party of Trump with Jeremy Peters, author of the new book "Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party And Got Everything They Ever Wanted." He covers national politics for The New York Times. I hope you'll join us.

Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(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've found. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.