The death of Whitney Houston struck me with the same small, quiet desolation I felt when Karen Carpenter died in 1982. Such enormously talented, beautiful women succumbing to the toxic inner demons that were at once invisible, but also gigantically real.
How could the folks around these ladies not see the approaching train wreck, how could they not have been whisked off the squirrel-cage of celebrity life, and rescued by a contented quietude? Why are there so many amazing stories of American success in the pop entertainments that end in such heart-breaking squalor? Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, Michael Jackson, Cass Eliot, Hank Williams, Jim Morrison, Tupac Shakur, Keith Whitely and on and on and on…
Whitney Houston’s heartbreaking demise brings up so many unaccountable questions. But, I am reminded of a quick tale that Mark Steyn had once told about his only encounter with Ms. Houston. I paraphrase, but the gist was that Steyn had been a guest speaker at an event that also featured some sort of an appearance by Houston, and he found himself briefly alone with her on the far side of a security cordon. Awaiting her arrival on the far side of the street was a dense sea of her entourage, and various other groupies and hangers-on. In the few words they exchanged, Steyn was struck by how empty and souless her existence seemed, even then. There was no one nearby they cared about her, there was only a vast throng of media and entertainment parasites hoping to get their daily piece of her.
Finally, in the end, she was utterly, utterly consumed.
Why does this happen, seemingly so often, to such gifted folks? And why do others seem to escape it?
For an insight, consider Connie Smith..
Dolly Parton once famously quipped: “There are only three lady singers: Barbara Streisand, Linda Ronstadt, and Connie Smith. All the rest of us are just pretending.”
Connie Smith began a remarkable Country Music career in the mid-1960’s, after “Whisperin'” Bill Anderson heard Smith sing at a local hoe-down talent show in southern Ohio. Anderson quickly arranged to have some demo recordings made of Connie, and within months, she’d been signed to RCA’s Nashville branch by none other than Chet Atkins himself.
To this day, Connie Smith’s recording of Anderson’s “Once a Day” remains the longest chart-topping debut single, staying at Number One on Billboard’s Hot Country chart for over 8 weeks. In less than a year, Smith had been launched from complete Ohio Hill-Jack obscurity to Country Music Super-Stardom. In this sense, Connie Smith’s trajectory was much the same as Whitney Houston’s: Young, extremely gifted, and groomed by the top talents in the field. From 1964 until 1967, Connie Smith was the reigning Queen of the “Nashville Sound”, and charted over 12 Top Ten hits, and she continued with couple dozen Top 40 hits right through the early 1970’s.
Soon, Connie was all over the place: Television appearances, the Grand Ole Opry, movies, the works. Everybody, everywhere, seemed to be grabbing at little pieces of her amazingly bright star.
But, something happened on the way to Connie Smith’s Whitney Houston-like rendezvous with destiny: The dizzying pace, the money, the fame, fell away as thoughts of loneliness and desolation (and suicide) began to creep in, and Connie consciously backed away. Having been raised a Christian, like Houston, she instead leaned more heavily into her Christian faith, eventually becoming a Born Again evangilical in the early 1970’s. She started insisting that she be allowed to record Gospel and Christian-themed music, and was even threatened with expulsion from the Grand Ole Opry for making extensive evangelical entreaties during her performances.
But, by then, she had her God, her faith, her family, and all the other trappings seemed small and unimportant. The hole in her heart of seeming emptiness and despair was filled with God, and Connie Smith finally stepped away entirely from the entertainment industry while raising her family, only occasionally venturing out to sing for charity work, or as a guest on some other artist’s recordings.
Connie Smith is recognized by most Country Music artists and critics as probably the most gifted and overlooked voice talent in the history of the genre. She is regarded by many as the inheritor of Patsy Cline’s mantle, for her heartfelt voicing interpretations, her range, and her emotion. In this realm, Connie Smith’s voice belongs to the same incomparable category as Whitney Houston’s.
Of course, Smith’s life had its storms, it’s challenges. But, Connie Smith knew to whom she ultimately belonged.
She’s been married four times. Most were quick fizzles, and after her third marriage disintegrated in the late 1980’s, Smith swore she’d never marry again. But, she tried again in 1997, marrying singer/songwriter Marty Stuart. He summed up Connie Smith’s career, and the success of their partnership and marriage. It is a stark contrast to so many other bright lights that zoom across the firmament of America’s pop pantheon, and fade away in sordid and heartbreaking ends.
“…Keep the Lord the center … and commit.”