By Jeff Kollath
On January 16, the world of country music lost another one of its legendary figures. “Mister Country” Carl Smith. who had over thirty top ten hits from 1951 to 1965, passed away after suffering a recent stroke. Smith was one of the first major stars to crossover into television and pop music - his looks, brightly colored sequined suits, and his sophisticated, crooner-like voice making him a natural for the screen. Many of his songs were fast-paced, with a backbeat and catchy choruses, giving them almost a rockabilly feel. Early steel guitar legend Johnny Sibert was a featured player on many of his early hits as well (he’s playing on the above clip).
By 1950, Smith had his own radio show, had signed to Columbia Records, and was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. Smith gained additonal fame by marrying country sweetheart June Carter in 1952, with whom he had future country singer Carlene Carter. After the couple divorced in 1956, Smith left the Grand Ole Opry, joining the Philip Morris Country Music Show, an eighteen month, 250 city tour. Leaving the Opry in the 1950s was akin to career suicide – the Opry was the seal of approval for the established and the starmaker for the hopefuls. Dwindling record sales and radio play tended to follow a departure - ask Little Jimmy Dickens. Even men like bluegrass legend Jimmy Martin, who went his entire career without so much as an invitation, and Hank Williams, who was famously ousted by Roy Acuff for his hard living, sustained, but struggled without Opry membership.
Although Smith charted a single on the country charts every year until 1973, he never fully regained the fame and success he saw in the early 1950s. He eventually retired from performing in 1978 and became a horse breeder, hearkening back to some of his early album covers that featured Smith riding high in the saddle. With his biggest hits coming nearly 60 years ago, Smith’s legacy is obscured by contemporaries like Ray Price, Hank Snow, Lefty Frizzell, and Webb Pierce, whose legacies have been carried forward by country stars from Willie Nelson to Tim McGraw. Yet, in terms of short-term success, Smith’s career is nearly unparalleled. So, next time you’re crate digging, or happen upon WJVL (99.9FM – Janesville) on a Sunday morning, check out Carl Smith – you won’t be disappointed.