Long Line of Heartaches
Connie Smith is hailed by many as the best vocalist in country music history, and that distinction is clearly warranted. When it comes to tone, phrasing, and vocal power, the woman has no equal. In listening to Long Line of Heartaches, her first album of new material since 1998, it would be a great understatement to say that she is still in fine voice. Her voice may have picked up a few rough edges over the years, but she still posseses more than enough vocal chops to blow today’s hitmakers out of the water.
Perhaps one of the most important characteristics setting Smith head-and-shoulders above so many current artists is her firm grasp on one of the most important truths about great country music: Sincerity comes before power. “I believe that country music is the cry of the heart,” she says in the album’s liner notes. “It spans the whole of our emotions from the ecstasy to the agony. I believe the role of a singer is not just to perform, but to communicate this heart-felt cry to the audience.”
Right from the opening steel guitar chords of the title track, Long Line of Heartaches gives unshakable authority and authenticity to the above statements. Husband Marty Stuart acts as producer for this twelve-track set, backing Smith with vintage-sounding traditional country arrangements that consistently allow her incomparable voice to be the center of attention. The sound of this record is not far removed from the music of her 60’s heyday, yet it benefits from the clarity of sophisticated modern-day recording techniques. She wringes every ounce of emotion from each song’s lyrics, bringing a weathered been-there-done-that pathos to her delivery of “Long Line of Heartaches” and “The Pain of a Broken Heart,” both co-written with Stuart (Smith shares writing credits on five of the album’s twelve tracks).
Today’s mainstream artist’s often lean toward positive uplifting material so as to be accepted by country radio, but they all too often seem to forget the fact that country music’s signature theme is heartache. On this set, however, heartache is the central theme – treated often with undercurrents of pain and regret, but sometimes tinged with hope and dawning optimism. In the beautiful “That Makes Two of Us,” written by Kostas with Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy, Jr., Smith expresses a desire to set aside past differences and to reconcile with her former lover, and seeks to find out if her feelings are requited, entreating “Don’t you think it’s time to let the healing start?”
On “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry,” Smith is determined to walk out on an ill-fated relationship, completely self-assured of her decision, yet still taken back by the nonchalant ease with which her significant other watches her leave. In contrast, she puts on a confident air on the album standout “I’m Not Blue,” yet the lyric and performance betray the fact that she is in denial of her true feelings. (“If you think there’s teardrops in my eyes/ They’re only raindrops from the sky… The truth gets hard to say when pride stands in the way/ So just let me lie to you/ I’m not blue) In addition to these fine selections, we are treated to a well-chosen cover of the Harlan Howard/ Kostas composition “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel.”
Complementing the high caliber of songwriting, Smith is joined by some talented musicians on this album, including the members of her longtime backing band The Sundowners. Marty Stuart plays electric, acoustic, and hi 3rd guitars, while renowned steel player Robby Turner plays on six of the album’s tracks. As a special treat in closing, Smith’s own daughters – Jodi Seyfried, Jeanne Jaynes, and Julie Barnick – sing background vocals on the album’s final track, the spiritual ballad “Take My Hand.”
Long Line of Heartaches triumphs artistically thanks to its unerring focus on song and storytelling above all else, thus drawing on Smith’s formidable vocal prowess without exploiting it. It’s the same approach that has served Smith well throughout her Hall of Fame-worthy career. The result is an album that ranks among the best of 2011, and that effectively builds on the already well-established legacy of Connie Smith.