In the tradition of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, singer/songwriter Sammi Smith was considered a country music outlaw, unafraid to sing songs that reflected the sometimes gritty realities of modern life. She first came to fame singing Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night" and was noted for her husky voice, the result of spending many years singing in smoke-filled clubs. She was born Jewel Fay Smith in California, but spent her childhood living in different southwestern states. At age 11, Smith dropped out of school and the following year began singing professionally in clubs. She married at age 15 and gave birth to four children. At songwriter Gene Sullivan's urging, a newly divorced Smith moved to Nashville in 1967. A year later she had her first minor hit, "So Long, Charlie Brown, Don't Look for Me Around." In 1970, she had another minor hit, but it was not until the end of the year that she had her first major smash with "Help Me Make It Through the Night," which made it to the top of the country charts and also became a Top Ten pop hit. Later that year, she wrote "Cedartown, Georgia," which became a major hit for Waylon Jennings. In 1973, Smith moved to Dallas to join Jennings and Willie Nelson and become an "outlaw." Through 1975, she had several hits including "Then You Walk In" and "Today I Started Loving You Again." She moved to Elektra in 1975 and remained with the label for three years. During that time, she had several chart entries with such songs as "Loving Arms" and "Days That End in 'Y'" (both 1977) and "Norma Jean" (1978), a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. In 1979, she signed to the independent Cyclone label and had a Top 20 hit with "What a Lie." In 1980, she moved to Sound Factory and had one Top 40 and two Top 20 hits including "I Cry When I'm Alone." Her last hit came in 1986 with "Love Me All Over."
© Sandra Brennan /TiVo
© Sandra Brennan /TiVo
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Country - Released January 1, 1996 | Varese Sarabande
Sammi Smith was a difficult singer to categorize. Straddling the line between lush country-pop and idiosyncratic outlaw country, she didn't belong to either world, which didn't effect the quality of her music but at times could mean that she slipped through the cracks between critical acclaim and commercial sales. She didn't want either, but neither arrived at the level she deserved, as Varese Sarabande's excellent 1996 compilation The Best of Sammi Smith illustrates. Smith's big break came in 1971 with her rendition of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night." The song had been kicking around for several years and had been recorded many times before Smith's aching, wearily sensual version finally made it a crossover smash, bringing it to number one on the country charts and within the sights of the top of the pop charts. Her version wasn't just a hit, its production -- which managed to feel rich and opulent while retaining country grit and sexiness -- provided the template for the rest of her work on Mega, where she was given lush, layered arrangements that managed to place her husky yet nuanced vocals front and center. Which is right where they should be, since Smith's interpretations were original and unpredictable, finding new spins on familiar material (her take on "Long Black Veil" is one of the eeriest cuts; "City of New Orleans" doesn't sound shopworn in her hands; she turns the tables on Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again"; just when you think she's a little low-key, she cuts a mean rug on the Bob Wills standard, "My Window Faces the South") and cutting definitive versions of songs by writers like Kristofferson, Dallas Frazier, Wayne Carson, and Shel Silverstein, among others. As a vocalist, she was on par with anybody in the outlaw movement, but her music, as exploratory as it was, was closer to country-pop, which meant that some didn't give her the credit she deserved at the time. This collection restores her reputation by putting those Mega sides back in print (along with a couple of subpar singles cut for Cyclone in 1979) and proving that Smith was one of the most interesting female country voices of the '70s. © Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo