Had she merely been the person who bestowed the “Outlaw” name on the renegade music of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and others in the mid-Seventies, Hazel Smith would be regarded as one of country music’s most important non-performers. Smith, however, was much more than that. A publicist, songwriter, manager, journalist, radio and television host, cookbook author, tastemaker and trusted confidante to artists and others in the music business, Smith was country music’s larger-than-life matriarch, reigning for decades with quick wit, matronly wisdom and unbridled – and often side-splittingly hilarious – opinion. Hazel Smith died at her home in Madison, Tennessee, north of Nashville, on Sunday night. She was 83.
A native of rural Caswell Country, North Carolina, Hazel Smith was a divorced mother of two when she moved to Nashville in 1970. Sons Billy and Terry Smith would go on to have careers as bluegrass musicians and songwriters, while Smith herself would write several songs recorded by the band Dr. Hook, as well as tunes cut by Bill Monroe, Tammy Wynette and many others. She was also the subject of song: Monroe would write his “Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine,” a 1989 hit for the Kentucky Headhunters, for her.
Smith worked as a publicist for Nashville outliers Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, Tompall Glaser and Jennings and Nelson in the early Seventies. It was in 1973, at the Music Row office of Glaser Studios, christened “Hillbilly Central,” where Smith, while searching for a term to define this specialized music regularly played by only a handful of radio stations, grabbed a dictionary and landed on the word “outlaw.” “It just made sense to me because [producers] Owen Bradley and Chet Atkins were doing marvelous music but this was another step in another direction,” she said in a 1997 interview.
Smith would go on to be a personal assistant for Grand Ole Opry stars Ricky Skaggs and his wife, Sharon, then form a management company, all the while writing for Country Music magazine. She was also a contributor to other publications, including Country Weekly and Country Music Today magazine, and a popular syndicated radio personality, offering unique insider insight and homespun tales of country music artists she counted as close, personal friends, many of whom owe a measure of their success to Smith, including Garth Brooks and Brad Paisley.
A regular contributor to CMT.com and host of the CMT series Southern Fried Flicks, she also penned the Southern cookbook Hazel’s Hot Dish in 2001. Smith also became a favorite guest of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, sharing recipes and stories with the host. Among her career-spanning honors was 1999’s CMA Media Achievement Award.