He was an enormously successful and popular country music star, a man who recorded over 90 chart hits with a unique style that wasn’t exactly rockabilly, but certainly influenced the shape it hillbilly rockers to come. He was related to hillbilly royalty through his marriage to June Carter, not to mention that his daughter became a country music hit maker in her own right. You know who I’m talking about of course – the one and only Carl Smith. (He also wore black on occasion, but to the point…)
Born in 1927, and hailing from Roy Acuff’s hometown of Maynardville, Tennessee, Carl Smith grew up like many Southern boys of the depression, idolizing singing cowboys in the movies and hillbilly musicians on the radio. Acquiring his first guitar at the age of ten, Smith took advantage of any opportunity to play music at local dances, socials and school programs. He found work as a professional musician while he was still in high school in various bands centered around Knoxville and Cas Walker’s radio show on station WROL. But his pursuit of a fulltime music career was temporarily interrupted by his stint in the U.S. Navy in 1945-46.
After returning from the service, Smith found fulltime work as a musician in the Knoxville area where WROL was becoming a triple-A farm team of sorts for the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and a prime location for record companies to discover up-and-comers in the hillbilly scene. In 1950, with Hank Williams selling records hand over fist for MGM, every major label was looking for stars that could deliver the new, post-war, hard-edged honky tonk style. For Columbia Records, the then 23 year-old Carl Smith was just what they were looking for. Smith found himself in the fast lane to hillbilly stardom, signed to both the Grand Ole Opry and Columbia Records in less than a month. While he might not have been the tortured hillbilly poet that Hank was, Smith had many other assets including a strong, clear voice, his country boy good looks, a head full of wavy hair, and perhaps best of all, he lacked the self-destructive tendencies that were constantly derailing Williams’ career.Smith quickly proved himself a master of just about any form of hillbilly music he set his sights on — from Eddy Arnold-style crooners to Hank Williams-style honky-tonk heartbreakers, to heartfelt gospel that any mother would approve of. But the style that Smith really made his own came from Saturday nights, not Sunday mornings. It was “honky-tonk stomp.” Up-tempo slices of hillbilly bravado and swagger like “(When You Feel Like You’re in Love) Don’t Just Stand There,” “Trademark,” “Hey Joe!” , “Dog-gone It, Baby, I’m In Love” and “Back Up Buddy” where Smith really made his mark on the evolving palette of hillbilly music.
It was a style that Hank Williams had pioneered with songs like “Honky Tonkin’” and “Mind Your Own Business” and that he referred to as “sock rhythm.” But ole Hank’s “sock” was just the 2-4 backbeat that had marked the dividing line between white and black popular music for so long, and that more and more hillbilly musicians were picking up on in the late forties. Smith was a natural for this younger, hipper and hotter form of hillbilly music, but he never came across as the threatening rebel. “The Country Gentleman,” as he became known, could deliver a heartbreaking ballad that brought tears to the eyes of the bluest blue-nose and then toss off a stomper that thrilled the budding teeny-bopper crowd with his down home machismo.
While seldom acknowledged as such, Carl Smith, along with other honky-tonk stompers like Webb Pierce, Faron Young and Hawkshaw Hawkins were adding the final ingredients to the musical gumbo that would spit out rockabilly in just a few years. The young, hot shot attitude, combined with a driving beat and the good looks of many of these honky tonkers provided true swoon appeal to a generation of corn-fed gals, whose younger sisters would be screaming for the “Memphis Flash” and his fellow rockabilly cats in just a few short years. But of course you gotta have a hot band to play hot music, and that’s exactly what Smith assembled with his road band, The Tunesmiths. Featuring top session men like Junior Husky (on bass) and Buddy Harman, but most especially the master steel guitarist, Johnny Silbert (then 17 years old), the Tunesmiths developed a hot style that drew from both Western Swing and the nascent rock’n’roll beat. Other Tunesmiths’ members included drummer Farris Coursey, ex-Hank Williams’ Drifting Cowboys Sammy Pruett on lead guitar or future Jordanaires’ Gordon Stoker on piano. There’s never been any fiddle in Smith’s hillbilly boppers, another sign of him being ahead of his time.
A perfect example of the musical style that Carl Smith and the Tunesmiths developed is their 1955 recording of “Baby I’m Ready.” It’s a song that both swings and rocks as Smith declares his readiness to show his lady a hot time on the town. And all with a charm that probably left the young lady’s mother and father smiling and waving from the front porch as that “good boy” took their daughter out for a night of hillbilly whoopee.
“Baby, I’m Ready”
Ricky Van Shelton “Baby I’m ready” (1987)
Also take a listen to the proto-rockabilly (by rhythm and lyrics) “Go Boy Go” or “No, I don’t believe I will”
“Go, boy go”
In June of 1952, Smith married June Carter, daughter of musical matriarch Maybelle Carter. The couple settled just north of Nashville in the suburb of Madison. Smith cut several gospel recordings with the Carter Sisters, and in 1954 the couple cut a pair of novelty songs with June playing comedic foil to the more straight-laced Smith in sort of gender-switched hillbilly version of the shtick that Louis Prima and Keely Smith were conquering Vegas with. The couple’s next collaboration, their daughter, and future country star Carlene Carter arrived in 1955.
But even among hillbilly royalty, matrimony is not without its challenges. The couple split in 1956 with Smith marrying fellow Grand Ole Opry star, and hillbilly music’s first “glamour queen” Goldie Hill the following year. Smith left the Opry near the end of 1956 in a swirl of behind-the-scene politics to take top billing on the Phillip Morris Country Music Show, a free traveling revue sponsored by the cigarette company that ran through 1957 and ’58, often playing the same cities and dates as the Opry-sponsored road show. Smith then made the leap to TV stardom as the co-host of Five Star Jubilee and later the Canadian-produced Carl Smith’s Country Music Hall.
The Tunesmiths: “Oh! stop“
Although his hottest period was in the pre-Elvis era, Smith continued to produce solid country hits through the sixties and early seventies. He even managed to hold the strings and vocal chorus of the then popular “Nashville Sound” at bay on his recordings, staying true to a more traditional honky tonk sound. He left Columbia Records in 1973 and after a short stint on Hickory Records made the rare move of voluntarily retiring from the music business in 1978.
He spent his later years enjoying the fruits of a country boy’s dream, on his 500 acre horse and cattle ranch in Williamson County, Tennessee. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003. His wife Goldie, passed away in 2005 with Smith following her in January of 2010 at the age of 82.
Reflecting on his decision to retire from the music business Smith told Tim Ghianni in a 2003 interview for the Tennessean, “I just wanted to play cowboy. My philosophy is doing what I want to do.” A darn good philosophy for a country boy, but of course we can all be grateful that for a time, bringing a hot beat, a snarl and a swagger to country music was just what Carl Smith wanted to do and what he was best at.
Biography and pictures taken from the net. Scans and music mostly from private collections.