He was known to many as “Mr. Country”.Carl Smith died on January 16, 2010 and is remembered as the quintessential country artist, with a voice that rested somewhere between the whiskey scratch of Hank Williams and the honeyed drops of Eddy Arnold. He had a knack for picking songs that rode high on the country charts, and in the blossoming era of television, he also managed to be easy on the eyes. So who was he…?
Carl M. Smith was born to humble beginnings in Maynardsville, TN, March 16th, 1927. He cut his musical teeth listening to the Grand Ole Opry, as well as the other local country radio programs. While still a teenager, he was working with multiple local bands as a bass player before getting his first break from Cas Walker. While at WROL Knoxville he played with The Brewster Brothers, picking guitar, picking up a bass from time to time, and even doing some singing. He did some time in the military during the mid ’40s, and after returning to civilian life he migrated throughout the southeast, trying to find his place. He came back to WROL, and while playing in Archie Campbell’s band, his friend George “Speedy” Krise cooked up a demo of Carl and sent it to Troy Martin, with Peer Southern Publishing. A quick audition for WSM found Carl making guest appearances on air, which lead to his first radio show. This put him behind the mic 6 days a week at 5:15am. Soon after he had his first recording sessions at Castle Studios. Within a year it was regular appearances on the Opry, and singles that hit the top 10 every year from 1951-1955. He continued charting top 20 singles on a regular basis throughout the 50s and 60s. His star didn’t burn the brightest, but it was one of the most consistently seen.
He left the Opry in 1956 to join the Phillip Morris Country Music Show, a free traveling show through 1957 and ’58. As I mentioned earlier, he had a face made for television, which he used to his advantage. Numerous guest appearances on Red Foley’s Jubilee U.S.A. lead to his own show, Five Star Jubilee in 1961. He even broke through in Canada, hosting 190 episodes of Carl Smith’s Country Music Hall. Throughout the 60s he saw his popularity wean, and by the late 70s he gave up music for good, choosing to spend his time breeding horses.
And did I mention he was once married to June Carter, the one who would later be Mrs. Johnny Cash? They divorced in 1956 and had one daughter, Carlene Carter, who successfully followed both parents into a music career.
When you listen to a Carl Smith record, you’re instantly spellbound. His voice is a perfect blend of the rough and rowdy honky-tonk twang with the smooth effortlessness of the countrypolitan croon. He didn’t write his own music, but he knew how to pick a song. He knew how to make it believable. It moves, it flows, every song makes you want to get involved. Whether it’s a slow ballad like “Mr. Moon” or a jaunty number like “Hey Joe”, you can’t help but throw out a few coordinated dance moves (unless you’re like me, and don’t have the rhythm God gave a lemon).
More importantly is the fact that Carl was the first country performer to blend drums into the mix. It had always been looked down upon to give drums a place on the Opry stage. If an artist couldn’t sing without a drummer, they wouldn’t sing in Nashville. That’s what Memphis and rock n’ roll was for. Carl brought in elements of rockabilly and that newfangled rock n’ roll, making it more accessible to the young kids collecting Elvis records, like a dog collects fleas. To put it in perspective, listen to Johnny Cash’s ” I Walk The Line”; you’ll notice a shuffling rhythm that you’d expect is a cymbal or a snare beat. Instead, it’s a playing card that he stuck between the strings of his guitar that vibrated against the strings when he played. It’s a drum beat without the drums! Even the Man In Black couldn’t get away with using a drummer!
There’s only so much I will tell you about Mr. Country. If you want to know more, listen to the sound of his voice. Get carried away with the way the words bounce off the guitar, which in turns spins the bass around and resonates on the tops of the drum heads. If you’re around Nashville on a Thursday evening around 10:30, go down to Robert’s Western World. Grab a cold beer and listen to Dave Tanner; he sings Carl Smith almost as well as Carl did, and his band has some of the best country pickers around. Move your feet a little; you know you want to. I am right now.
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