Hazel Smith, 83, Matriarch of Country Music, Is Dead
By BILL FRISKICS-WARRENMARCH 22, 2018
Hazel Smith with the country singer Wynonna Judd. CMT
NASHVILLE — Hazel Smith, the Nashville music industry matriarch credited with coining the phrase “outlaw country” to describe the unvarnished alternative to mainstream country music, died here on Sunday. She was 83.
Her death, at Skyline Medical Center, was caused by heart failure, her son Terry said.
In 1973, while working as a publicist for the vocal group Tompall and the Glaser Brothers, Ms. Smith received a query from a radio station about what to call the rugged, rock-influenced country music then being made by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, the Glasers and others.
Her response, inspired by the title of Mr. Jennings’s recent hit single, “Ladies Love Outlaws,” was “outlaw music.” The phrase gained traction, and by 1976 — the year RCA released the million-selling album “Wanted! The Outlaws,” featuring Mr. Jennings, Mr. Nelson and others — a movement was born.
Ms. Smith’s legacy, though, extended well beyond her timely knack for nomenclature. Her nearly five-decade career in country music encompassed everything from songwriting and journalism to artist management and radio and television work.
Along the way she became a respected tastemaker, a trusted confidante of musicians and a prototype for women aspiring to break into the male-dominated country music industry.
“Hazel was one of the female pioneers in country music journalism,” said Beverly Keel, chairwoman of the department of recording industry at Middle Tennessee State University. “She was so strong in her opinions and her views, and she didn’t hold anything back. She championed what she believed in — which was traditional country music — and she wasn’t afraid to blast what she didn’t like, in print or to somebody’s face. She was the moral conscience of country music.”
Lamenting the state of country music in a 1997 interview with the weekly publication Nashville Scene, Ms. Smith observed: “We’ve got people writing songs who have college degrees. There ain’t nothing wrong with education, but I’d rather hear a song with feeling to it than a bunch of educated words written from the neck up that had no feeling at all.
Ms. Smith with Garth Brooks. She was credited with helping his career as well as those of many other country stars. CMT
“The songwriters now come dragging in about 9:30 a.m. wearing clean clothes,” she went on to say, alluding to the corporate approach to country songwriting prevalent in latter-day Nashville. “They’ve slept all night in their very own bed in their very own home beside their wife and not somebody else’s wife. They haven’t been chasing somebody at the Holiday Inn. I don’t know how they get their material.”
Hazel Ruth Boone was born on May 31, 1934, in Caswell County, N.C. Her parents were farmers, and her father worked for a time as the local sheriff.
After she graduated from high school, Ms. Smith worked in a hosiery mill and, later, for a tobacco company. She married at age 19 and had her son Terry and another son, Billy, while in her 20s. Her husband, Patrick Smith, played banjo and fiddle and encouraged their boys to become musicians, which they did, growing up to play country and bluegrass professionally as a duo.
Shortly after she and her husband divorced, Ms. Smith met the bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe at a music festival in North Carolina. She and Mr. Monroe began a romantic relationship that both parties wrote songs about, most notably Mr. Monroe’s “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine.” It became a Top 40 country hit for the Southern rock band the Kentucky Headhunters.
Ms. Smith and her sons moved to Nashville around 1970. She found a job there as a publicist for the iconoclastic Texas singer-songwriter Kinky Friedman. She also did publicity for the Glaser Brothers and, by the late 1970s, was working for the rock band Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show, which recorded several of her songs.
Ms. Smith also began writing a popular column for Country Music magazine in the late ’70s, and she played a significant role in the development of the careers of several major artists, including Garth Brooks and Brad Paisley.
Ms. Smith was host of CMT.com’s “Hot Dish” program, a popular country news and cooking show, and in 2001, she published the cookbook “Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ with Country Stars,” which featured contributions from Mr. Brooks, Trisha Yearwood and Alan Jackson, among others.
Ms. Smith is survived by her sons; her brothers, James Daniel Boone and William Henry Boone — the family traces its lineage to the frontiersman Daniel Boone — six grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.
“What set Hazel apart was her voice and her opinions,” Ms. Keel said. “Women coming up the ranks after her tried to fit in. Hazel never tried to fit in, and that’s what made her unique. I hope that that’s a message that will resonate with young women today.”