I’m well aware that, especially in reviewing country albums, I hand out superlatives like they’re Halloween candy, cheapening their value by getting bogged down in needless specifics and qualifiers. So I’ll keep this one simple: Connie Smith is the best singer in the history of country music. She may not have Patsy Cline’s tragic legacy, Martina McBride’s string of industry awards, or Carrie Underwood’s rabid Internet fanbase, but in terms of power, tone, and phrasing, there’s never been another singer who can match Smith. What makes Long Line of Heartaches, her first proper studio album since 1998, all the more remarkable is that, at age 70, Smith has lost precious little of what makes her an incomparable vocalist.
Produced by Marty Stuart, Smith’s husband and a longtime hero to country traditionalists, Long Line of Heartaches plays out as a continuation of the fantastic singles of Smith’s late-‘60s heyday. From the pedal steel that cries in the background on “Pain of a Broken Heart” and “A Heart Like You” to the western-swing bassline that drives “Anymore,” Stuart approaches the album with a steady, assured hand, creating a believably vintage-sounding country album that takes full advantage of the clarity and precision of modern recording techniques.
It’s Stuart’s decision to place Smith’s vocal tracks front and center, however, that pays the biggest dividends, and from the first notes of the title track, Smith is in tremendous voice. More than 50 years into her career, she still sings as though she’s trying to derail a train, but standout performances like the melancholy “I’m Not Blue” and the stern “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry” prove that Smith isn’t just about volume. There’s a deep, lived-in well of emotion behind all of her vocal turns, from the guarded optimism of “That Makes Two of Us” to the fully developed regret of “Anymore.” In her notes for the album, Smith writes that she believes “the role of a singer is not just to perform but to communicate [a] heart-felt cry,” and there isn’t a track here on which she fails to meet that standard.
That the songs Smith has chosen truly demand thoughtful, sincere emotional expression makes Long Line of Heartaches more than just a singer’s showcase. Smith and Stuart co-wrote many of the better cuts, alongside choice covers from some of country’s most iconic songwriters, including Harlan Howard and Johnny Russell. “My Part of Forever” and “I’m Not Blue” trade in the economy of language that has long been one of the genre’s main signifiers, and Smith is such a gifted interpretive singer that she can take the minimalism of those songs and use it as the basis for complex, multifaceted character sketches. Smith has been years overdue for this kind of a comeback, and, considering she can still out-sing artists a third her age, Long Line of Heartaches should earn her a place alongside genre vets like Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash, whose late-career albums have ranked among their strongest work.