She may not have been part of the legendary Outlaws album, but long before the Outlaw movement was a media craze, Smith was the living embodiment of it. Her country was tougher-edged and more forward than anything that country music had seen before, and while today she is best known for one hit, it’s a classic that not only stands the test of time, but knocked down topical barriers at country radio.
Smith’s journey to Music City was hardly a fairy tale. She dropped out of school at the age of eleven, and started singing in nightclubs the following year. She was married at fifteen, and had four kids in short order. She paid her dues in small joints for two decades, and when she finally moved to Nashville, she was a divorced mother of four, already in her mid-thirties.
Still, her talent couldn’t be denied. Her smoky vocals caught the attention of Columbia records, who signed her in 1968. A handful of singles went nowhere, and she was dropped. However, she found a new home at Mega Records, a small independent label. Nashville’s top songwriters weren’t exactly beating down her door to get a Sammi Smith cut, but she found a jewel of a Kris Kristofferson song to make all of her own.
“Help Me Make it Through the Night” had been recorded a couple of times before, including an upbeat spin on it from Ray Price, but only by male artists. The song was written by Kristofferson from the male point of view. When Smith changed the opening line from “Take the ribbon from your hair” to “take the ribbon from my hair”, she became the initiator of the sexual encounter. It would’ve been a forward lyric to hear on country radio in 1970 if a male artist was singing it. From a woman, it was boundary-breaking.
The record stirred up quite a bit of controversy, but it did so on its way to the top of the charts. The single was a stunning success, topping the country chart for three weeks and selling over a million copies. Smith won the CMA award for Single of the Year and the Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, while Kristofferson picked up a Grammy of his own for Best Country Song.
The song’s impact overshadowed the rest of Smith’s country career, but it was certainly a fruitful one. She was a mainstay on the country charts for the next decade. She found success with covers of “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “The Long Black Veil”, among other hits. She moved to Texas, and hit the rowdy scene dominated by Willie & Waylon. She continued to have moderate success, even as she switched to Elektra Records, and then to Cyclone Records.
In 1979, she moved to Arizona, and she became infatuated with Native American culture and music. As she faded from the national scene, she focused her energy on her new interest, even fronting a band of all Native American musicians.
Still, her biggest legacy continued to make a name for her. Her recording of “Help Me Make it Through the Night” was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and when country music historians David Cantwell & Bill Friskies-Warren published Heartaches By the Number: Country Music’s 500 Greatest Singles, Smith’s classic was placed at #1.
- “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, 1970
- “Then You Walk In”, 1971
- “I’ve Got to Have You”, 1972
- “Today I Started Loving You Again”, 1975
- “Cheatin’s a Two Way Street”, 1981
- Help Me Make it Through the Night (1970)
- Lonesome (1971)
- Today I Started Loving You Again (1975)
- CMA Single of the Year – “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, 1971
- Grammy: Best Female Country Vocal Performance – “Help Me Make it Through the Night”, 1972