Sammi Smith

The Best of Sammi Smith [Varese]

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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.

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