Connie Smith hasn’t done much to update her sound. That point makes sense – she doesn’t need to. But it also seems that her voice hasn’t changed since “Once a Day” kicked off her career almost 60 years ago. That part’s a little less explicable. Maybe the Country Music Hall of Famer took the idea of being “timeless” too literally. On the new album The Cry of the Heart, Smith revisits classic Nashville while showing off an unexpectedly sharp voice with a series of smart and memorable tunes.
The sound of Smith’s album shouldn’t be a surprise. She works again with her husband Marty Stuart, a country music historian and legend who produces, co-writes, and plays on the album. The pair’s sensibilities keep the album grounded in tradition, but on a close listen, they don’t settle in a precise spot. You can hear countrypolitan and honky-tonk, a little more pop, or a little Merle Haggard (Smith covers his “Jesus Take a Hold” to close the album). The artists have the knowledge to dig through a vast swath of country history, the wisdom to know what to pick, and the skill to tweak it just enough to make the album still feel relevant.
The album opens with just Smith’s vocal on “A Million and One”. If you’d forgotten that voice or didn’t know it, you’ll quickly be paying attention. She has a big, rich tone, but Smith builds her art on her expressiveness, performing a character for a given track’s required emotions. This one’s hurt comes with steel guitar and strings that know enough not to get in the way. It’s Smith’s track and, after ten years since her last album, her moment, and even the first few seconds of the record declare it.
Nothing that follows disappoints. Smith is in her element with peers like songwriter Dallas Frazier (who has provided her with a startling 72 songs throughout her career) and pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins (whose work runs the gamut from Blonde on Blonde to work with Vince Gill and Shania Twain). She reaches back to cover Jack Greene’s 1967 chart-topper “All the Time”, hovering just on the right side of schmaltz, an example of how Smith and Stuart know how to pull the best parts out of history without giving in to potential pitfalls.
All this history and technique wouldn’t matter if the songs didn’t work, and, of course, they do. In the middle of the album, Smith tucks away “Three Sides”, an uptempo cut that points out that “There’s three sides to every story / Your side and mine and the truth.” The idea might be simple, but Smith sets it in the struggle of a relationship, and rather than making a philosophical statement (a Nashville Rashomon), Smith instead seeks reconciliation. She acknowledges the challenges of finding the whole truth while suggesting that the value of a long relationship is more significant than one particular issue. The song plays nicely against “Spare Me No Truth”, a co-write with Stuart in which the truth becomes more evident in silence and heartbreak. Smith embodies the hurt and delivers each line without the melodrama that such songs could engender.
Smith has been doing this country singer thing a long time now, as have the other artists involved in the project. At each moment, that history only serves as a boon. They avoid nostalgic traps without rejecting the past. If you wanted to understand what traditional country is, you could go to the same place today as you could have 50 years ago: a Connie Smith record.