Dolly Parton once said, “There’s really only three female singers in the world: Streisand, Ronstadt and Connie Smith.” That high praise from one Country Music Hall of Fame inductee to another holds up when diving into Smith’s back catalog of throwback country tunes from the days of the polished Nashville Sound.

Constance June Meador was born on Aug. 14, 1941, in Elkhart, Ind., and raised in West Virginia and Ohio. She grew up in an abusive household with 13 siblings. Like others from her generation, her respite from a less-than-ideal childhood came from hours spent listening to the Grand Ole Opry and other favorite country music programs.

In 1963, a talent contest won by Smith in Columbus, Ohio, included a chance to sing that same day as part of a traveling Opry program. Headliner Bill Anderson liked what he heard and eventually invited Smith to Nashville — first for a 1964 performance on Ernest Tubb’s Midnight Jamboree broadcast and later for demo recordings.

Smith's debut single, the Anderson-written “Once a Day,” arrived on Aug. 1, 1964, and became an instant success. Its eight weeks atop the country charts set a record for women artists held until Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” topped the feat in 2012.

Smith never recaptured the runaway success of “Once a Day,” but she did string together consistently solid singles and albums well into the 1970s. A Christian conversion in the ‘70s inspired her to juggle future country albums with equally solid gospel recordings. The following rundown of songs offers just a small taste of the great material made possible by one of the all-time-great debut singles:

  • 5

    “A Far Cry From You”

    Single (1985)

    Smith’s final chart appearance to date came with this song written by Steve Earle. The bluegrass-flavored single proved that Smith still belonged atop the list of all-time great vocalists.

  • 4

    "Ribbon of Darkness"

    From 'Connie's Country' (1969)

    Back when pretty much every country album included multiple cover songs, it was easy to judge how singers handled material sung by their peers. For instance, Smith’s take on this Gordon Lightfoot composition stacks up well against versions by Marty Robbins and Crystal Gayle.

  • 3

    “I Never Once Stopped Loving You”

    From 'I Never Once Stopped Loving You' (1970)

    As Smith’s career entered a new decade, her sound became even more of a throwback. This statement was true of both her growing gospel catalog and her secular singles, including this galloping ode to the 1950s.

  • 2

    “Ain’t Had No Lovin’”

    From 'Born to Sing' (1966)

    When Smith joined the pop-friendly, strings-adorned mainstream party, she further cemented herself as one of the best singers to hit Nashville in years. "Ain't Had No Lovin'" was written by Dallas Frazier, the singer and songwriter known for the future Oak Ridge Boys hit “Elvira” and the Southern gospel standard “The Baptism of Jesse Taylor.”

  • 1

    "Once a Day"

    From 'Connie Smith' (1965)

    Even back then, some country music fans craved older sounds over pop-friendly radio hits. A rare vocal performance on par with Patsy Cline herself and a signature example of Weldon Myrick’s pedal steel sound disrupted the Nashville Sound’s ownership of the charts.

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