Saving Carl Smith

Wow, what happened to Carl Smith? Read the first few lines of his Wiki entry:

“Known as “Mister Country,” Smith was the husband of June Carter (later June Carter Cash) and Goldie Hill, and the father of Carlene Carter. He was one of country’s most successful male artists during the 1950s, with 30 Top 10 Billboard hits, including 21 in a row. Smith’s success continued well into the 1970s, when he had a charting single every year except one.”

Now, explain how Carl Smith is all but forgotten? His peak was remarkably narrow— those 21-in-a-row top 10s started with his first 7-inch, the stone classic “Let’s Live A Little” (the flip was a Hank Williams side) in 1951, and he had no more after 1959, even though he recorded through the ‘70s. He’s barely mentioned in John Morthland’s biblical The Best of Country Music, so he was falling off the map even 30 years ago.  Likewise, Bill Malone fleetingly acknowledges Smith, dissing him as being “Western” influenced and—crucially—a “crooner”. And if you listen to the reissues that package his Columbia hits (the two I have are Essential Carl Smith 1951-1956 and the more succinct, superior Columbia Historic Edition, which only overlap by six among their 28 songs culled from a five-year interval), you can hear what they mean: rhythmically simple vanilla-shake songs sung with Smith’s sui generis metro-country voice.

But a crack Nashville band that should not be overlooked is— always for Smith— backing up the hits. (Bocephus, a close friend, used some of the same musicians.) And if being a crooner makes the clear channel-raised Smith a square, he’s in good company—the same criticism gets throw at Floyd Tillman (who, coincidentally or not, I wrote about earlier here at Odyshape). But being a crooner also means being able to lean pop, and in the ‘50s revved up country-pop starts to sound a lot like rock and roll. In fact, there was that other country crooner—name of Elvis. This isn’t to say that Carl Smith ever rises to the King’s level, but there’s a world of Smith’s music beyond his country top 10 hits that sounds an awful lot like rockabilly and early rock and roll. “Go Boy Go!” for one is rockabilly that predates “That’s Alright Mama”. I’d go out on a limb and say that had Smith recorded in Memphis rather than Nashville, he’d have been a perfect plum for Sun Records.

Smith’s career ground down slowly from 1960 on, but he was a savvy businessman and retired rich to a 500 acre farm south of Nashville in his 50’s, one reason for his present obscurity. His biggest hits were often middle-of-the-road and few joined the country pantheon, that’s another. Perhaps quitting the Grand Ole Opry (a low-paying gig for the financially sound entrepreneur) impacted his legacy as well. Fortunately, Bear Family Records (for once succinctly) provides us a Carl Smith grace note: Hey Joe! Gonna Shake This Shack Tonight (2010) is not a hits collection, although there are a few among it’s 34-tracks-on-one-CD (drool on, Angry Samoans) that you’ll recognize, or at least find on the Billboard country charts. The treasures though are the deep tracks that tap Western Swing and even Big Band flourishes to flesh out a big beat that’s often several blocks west of Music Row (check out “Happy Street” or “Oh Stop!” itself). And when he really heats up, he’d fit right in among The King-Federal Rockabillys—he flat gives Eddie Cochran a run for his money on the contemporaneously recorded “Cut Across Shorty”, and “If Teardrops Were Pennies” is as close as Nashville ever got to the Chuck Berry sound.

Save a Willie Nelson covers project, it’s difficult to imagine Smith gaining rightful recognition for his place in ‘50s country music or his nearly unique place in between Nashville country and early rock and roll. Kudos to Bear Family for the fresh perspective they provide with Hey Joe! Of course, they made a Carl Smith complete-recordings box set, in case you live to be 200 years old.