The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where I discuss classic country songs.
In the everlasting “tradition versus progression” debate within the country music genre, the discussion always centers around the right direction for country music – not how it actually affects the industry as a whole. On one side of the debate, performers who fit well within the basic definition of country music find themselves looking for alternate pathways to reach fans, rather than through traditional means of, say, airplay singles; and only because they don’t fit the mold of what the country music industry currently wants.
Now, ask yourself – is that a commentary for country music now, or then? Or both? This isn’t a conversation centered around that, necessarily, but it does pave the way for today’s discussion. In country music’s fight to stave off the rock ‘n’ roll onslaught of the ‘50s and ‘60s, performers had to either adapt to the ever-popular “Nashville Sound” or find exposure through other means – and whether we’re talking about then or now, country radio is king. Country songs with traditional country instrumentation – like this one, for example – rarely made an impact then like they had just a decade before when Hank Williams was king.
Again, though, the reason it’s called a “debate” to begin with is because one has to examine the entire picture. Though he’d later adopt the popular styling he once fought against, Ray Price initially resisted the rock ‘n’ roll tide. Price’s choice to perform traditional country music as a lead artist was risky then, but not as risky as when one considers the reinforcements he had. Country music’s era of rising songwriters – which included Roger Miller, Harlan Howard, Bill Anderson, Willie Nelson, Hank Cochran, Mel Tillis and Tom T. Hall, among others – began around 1958, when Howard and Anderson began supplying songs to Price and others who shared his mindset regarding tradition. They may not have performed their own material the same way – Nelson being the prime example of that bunch – but other writers who supplied hits to artists at least found some way to “make it” in the industry.
Anderson desired his own singing career, of course, and between 1962 ad 1963, his recordings of “Mama Sang A Song” and “Still” became major hits. Before that, though, Anderson’s writing was often thought of as too quirky for country radio airplay, not unlike fellow songwriting contemporary Roger Miller. His breakthrough, then, came in 1958 when Price recorded Anderson’s “City Lights,” a reflection of urban loneliness and, perhaps ironically, anonymity within a social scene that shot to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart.
It’s the classic tale of the outsider persona that provides somewhat of a segue into Connie Smith’s entry into country music. By 1963. Smith was a housewife and mother, spending her days and nights working and taking care of her family. She found a personal escape through singing at local events, fairs and other stage shows in the area. One occasion would prove to be more than just a simple escape, however. In August, Smith entered a talent contest at the Frontier Ranch Country Music Park near Columbus, Ohio. Anderson was scheduled to perform there, and he was asked by management if he could spare some time to help judge the contest. Smith sang Jean Shepard’s 1955 top 10 hit, “I Thought Of You.”
Smith, as Anderson noted, sounded refreshingly different from every other performer of the time. Of course, the truth of the matter is that this was the same year Patsy Cline died in the infamous plane crash that also claimed Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and Randy Hughes; the industry wanted the next female country music superstar. With the way Smith wrapped her voice around each word, Anderson thought then he’d found her. She won the contest as well as Anderson’s praise, and though she brushed off his invitation to come to Nashville as just polite chit-chat, Anderson was serious. Five months later, in January of 1964, Smith saw Anderson at one of his shows in Canton, Ohio. She wanted to take him up on his offer.
When Smith moved to Nashville, she landed a gig singing on Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree, which aired each week on WSM following the Grand Ole Opry broadcast. Anderson had Smith record a few demo tracks, which he then sent to producer Owen Bradley. As unfortunate as it is – and as unfortunate as what it said of the industry even then – Bradley had just signed Loretta Lynn and didn’t think there was room for another female singer.
So Anderson turned to producer Chet Atkins, who, while initially supportive, eventually took the same stance as Bradley, given that he was already working with Skeeter Davis, Dottie West and Norma Jean. Anderson’s insistence eventually won out … sort of. Smith signed a deal with RCA Victor in June, but Atkins, who was busy working with other artists, assigned producer Bob Ferguson to helm Smith’s recording sessions. One unfortunate caveat to the deal, however, is that Anderson had to promise to write enough material for Smith so that she didn’t take anything away from the other female artists on the roster. Initially, Anderson wrote “I’m Ashamed Of You” and “The Threshold” for Smith, either of which could have been her debut single. Instead, Anderson, who didn’t think either hit was commercial enough, came up with a tune he considered perfect – “Once A Day.”
Sure enough, it was.
The single was rush-released to radio in August, and it didn’t take long for customers to call in to radio stations and record stores asking them about “that once a day song.” It was unheard of for a female artist to have such huge success so quickly. “Once A Day” reached the No. 1 position on November 28, and stayed there for eight weeks. It set a record as the first debut single by a female country artist to top the chart, and didn’t happen again until Trisha Yearwood released “She’s In Love With The Boy” in 1991.