Connie Smith’s excellent The Cry of the Heart is proof that traditional country in 2021 doesn’t have to be mere museum curio.
While many of country music’s legacy artists have been as prolific in their elderly years as they were in their youth, Connie Smith has recorded only a scant three new studio albums since 1978’s New Horizons. Despite regular appearances on the Grand Ole Opry stage, these lengthy gaps in recording create significant anticipation around each new album, along with questions about whether or not Smith will deviate in any substantial way from the brand of traditional country that has been her trademark aesthetic. The Cry of the Heart, Smith’s first album since 2011’s Long Line of Heartaches, answers those questions with a resounding no: It’s an album that, sonically, could be dropped most anywhere in Smith’s discography without seeming the least bit out of place. Unlike other veteran acts who have collaborated with producers who pushed them in new directions — Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series with Rick Rubin, or Tanya Tucker’s recent While I’m Livin’ set with Brandi Carlile — Smith has elected to sit comfortably within a style that has served her exceptionally well for decades.
The Cry of the Heart is Smith’s third album to be produced by her husband, Marty Stuart, and both are staunch preservationists of the sounds of country music’s “golden era,” and it’s her third straight album to stand as a sterling reminder that an artist of Smith’s caliber is not in any way limited by sticking to what she knows. What’s immediately striking about the set is how undiminished Smith’s voice is at the age of 80: always the genre’s most underrated vocalist, she possesses an easy power that allows her to fully envelop songs of heartbreak, like the standouts “Three Sides” and a cover of “A Million and One,” originally a hit for Billy Walker that she here takes definitive ownership of with a commanding performance. While her voice has deepened slightly, her inimitable sense of phrasing remains unchanged, and that’s what brings such a powerful agency to “Here Comes My Baby Back Again” and “I Just Don’t Believe Me Anymore,” a new song by the legendary Dallas Frazier. Though Smith chose some tremendous songs here from the likes of Frazier, Carl Jackson, Melba Montgomery, and Merle Haggard, the original compositions she and Stuart contributed to the set are exemplary trad-country tracks that mine familiar genre tropes without being reductive. There’s always the chance that an album like The Cry of the Heart, for its dogged traditionalism, will stand as more of a museum curio than an essential contemporary release. Stuart’s instincts at the mixing board here are spot-on and are the key to avoiding that outcome: he knows exactly how to highlight Smith’s on-point songwriting and her still-formidable voice at every turn. Genre purists will be hard-pressed to find a better album of this sort in 2021.
Published as part of Album Roundup — August 2021.