Master honky-tonk stylist Carl Smith, the dashing “Country Gentleman” who was
among the most successful Nashville-based artists of the 1950s, died Saturday,
Jan. 16 at his home in Franklin. The Country Music Hall of Famer was 82.
“From the minute he came out, I wanted to look like him, tried to comb my hair
like him and learned every song he ever recorded,” Waylon Jennings
once said of Mr. Smith, who retired from music in 1978 and bred champion cutting
horses for decades. Many other artists of Mr. Smith’s generation spent
the 1980s and '90s working on stages. Mr. Smith preferred spending time
on his 500-acre Franklin ranch, with his horses, his dogs and, until
her death in 2005, his wife, singer Goldie Hill.
“I just wanted to play cowboy,” Mr. Smith told The Tennessean’s Tim Ghianni in 2003. “My philosophy is doing what I want to do.”
In his youth, what Mr. Smith wanted to do was sing country music. He was born
in 1927 in the small East Tennessee town of Maynardville, also the birthplace
of Roy Acuff. As a boy, he listened to Knoxville radio
stations WROL and WNOX, and to the Grand Ole Opry, and he mowed neighbors’
lawns to pay for guitar lessons. In 1944, while in high school, he began singing on
Cas Walker’s WROL radio show.
Three years later, after a Navy stint and several other radio residencies, he
appeared on the Grand Ole Opry as a guest of Hank Williams. In May of 1950,
he signed a recording contract with Columbia Records and a radio contract with WSM.
“My first job at WSM was six or seven days a week at 5:15 in the morning,” he
told The Tennessean. “The announcer would put me on and then just
leave. I started being on the Opry pretty regularly. They didn’t say you
were a ‘member’ of the Opry back then. You just were on it or you weren’t.”
Radio exposure on WSM and on the Opry helped Mr. Smith to gain notoriety, as
did his tours with Hank Williams and others. Beginning in 1951, he launched
a streak of 21 straight Top 10 country hits, including “Loose Talk,” “Hey Joe!”
and ”Let’s Live A Little” and eight-week No. 1
“Let Old Mother Nature Have Her Way.” His singles sold between 100,000
and 500,000 copies each, making him one of country’s most popular artists.
And that popularity was enhanced by a stage presence that blended an
East Tennessee drawl with a measure of refinement.
“He was on shows when I was real, real young,” said Hank Williams Jr. “The guy
was real striking to the ladies. I remember their reaction when he went on stage.”
One of the ladies impressed by Mr. Smith was June Carter, who married Mr. Smith
in 1952. They divorced after four years together and after the birth of
daughter Carlene Carter, who became a renowned singer-songwriter. In 1957, he married
singer Goldie Hill, who gave up her promising music career
to become a housewife.
“When I married her, I thought she was going to support me,” Mr. Smith
said in 2003. “Instead, I had to support her.”
Mr. Smith’s easy manner and sharp stage wear (he preferred elegant suits to gaudy
rhinestones) led to his “Country Gentleman” moniker, but his appeal was
not strictly visual. By late 1951, he was leading one of country music’s
finest bands, called The Tunesmiths, a group that featured steel guitarist
Johnny Sibert, now a member of the Steel Guitar Hall of Fame.
With Sibert, Mr. Smith forged a sound that, as journalist Chet Flippo
wrote in liner notes to Columbia’s The Essential Carl Smith: 1950–1956, “fell
almost precisely on the line dividing traditional from modern country.” Emotional
ballads nodded to the work of forerunners like Acuff, but Mr. Smith’s
uptempo recordings possessed a snarl that preceded rock 'n' roll by several
years and that came to be of great influence to new-era honky-tonk revivalists
such as BR549 and Chris Scruggs (whose mother, Gail Davies, had
a Top 5 hit in 1981 with her cover of Mr. Smith’s 1952 hit,
“It’s a Lovely, Lovely World”).
In 1954, Mr. Smith was one of four founders of the Cedarwood/Driftwood publishing
company, which grew into a place as a major Nashville publisher. He left
the Opry in 1956, and began working often on
television (he was a part of the first live television broadcast from
Nashville, on WSM Channel 4). His Carl Smith’s Country Music Hall show
ran for five years in Canada, bringing “hillbilly” music to our northern neighbors.
Mr. Smith’s run of hits cooled in the 1960s, though he reached
No. 10 on Billboard’s singles chart in 1967 with “Deep Water” and
had several other top 20 records. In 1973, after 23 years and around
15 million records sold, Mr. Smith ended his association with
Columbia Records. He recorded briefly for Hickory Records before deciding to
take what he called “early retirement.”
In the 1990s, many of Mr. Smith’s fans and friends began making noise
about the fact that the Country Gentleman had not yet been inducted
into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Waylon Jennings did
not attend his own 2001 induction, saying that he would not go into
any hall of fame that didn’t include Mr. Smith.
“People forgot about Carl Smith, because he got out of the limelight,”
said “Ring of Fire” cowriter Merle Kilgore in 2003.
“He made money and made good investments in property, and he stopped singing.”
When Country Music Association members voted Mr. Smith into the Hall in 2003,
Hank Williams Jr. said, “That took a while, didn’t it? Something
went right today.”
Informed of his induction on August 5, 2003, Mr. Smith said, "I appreciate
it very much. I was afraid I was going to have to die before this happened."
That fear was unrealized. Mr. Smith’s Hall induction was an acknowledgment that
his time as a hit-maker and innovator had not in fact been forgotten, and
that his quiet retirement years did not lesson the import and impact
of his bustling 1950s.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced. Mr. Smith is expected to
be buried at Franklin’s Williamson Memorial Gardens, alongside Goldie Hill,
his wife of 48 years.
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