Connie Smith, Elizabeth Cook | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Connie Smith, Elizabeth Cook 

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Few female country singers from the 60s were as good or as consistent as CONNIE SMITH, who was a steady presence on the top-ten charts through the end of the decade. She scored her first (and biggest) hit in 1964 with Bill Anderson's "Once a Day," and the run that followed was nothing less than phenomenal. Though most acts on RCA's roster were subjected to the urbane, overdone Nashville Sound that label head Chet Atkins helped develop, Smith benefited from Bob Ferguson's twangier, more straight-ahead production style. Weldon Myrick's superb pedal steel embellishments on Smith's 60s hits were a perfect match for her powerful, naturalistic voice, melodic sweetness, and unfussy phrasing. It didn't hurt that she was working with top songwriters like Anderson and Dallas Frazier, who penned catchy variations on the usual Music City themes of heartbreak and longing. By the early 70s, however, she was gravitating toward darker themes and began embracing religious music; when she signed with Columbia in 1973 she requested permission to record one gospel album every year. She spent much of the late 70s and 80s raising her five children, performing only rarely, but in the mid-90s she resuscitated her public profile, making frequent appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and returning to the studio. In 1997 she recorded a self-titled album with Marty Stuart, 17 years her junior, who cowrote most of its songs and then married Smith later that year. Nothing on the disc, which came out in 1998, matches Smith's peak performances for RCA. ("How Long," which the great Harlan Howard helped write, comes closest.) But though her voice is a little lower and little tougher, its power is undiminished. ELIZABETH COOK, who opens, was spit out of Warner Brothers' Nashville division after one album, 2002's Hey Y'all. On last year's self-released This Side of the Moon the young singer displays much more honky-tonk grit and substance than she did on her forgettable mainstream bid. Sun 12/18, 7 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, 773-728-6000 or 866-468-3401, $22, $18 seniors and kids. All ages.

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