There were many performing artists, side players, roadies and managers that played a major part in the country music insurgency in the 70’s that came to be known as “Outlaw,” but only one can rightfully claim they coined the phrase, or saw the revolution happen from its early incarnation to its Platinum-selling peak.
Hazel Smith, who was the publicist for the studio known as Hillbilly Central where so many of the most iconic Outlaw albums were recorded, has passed away at the age of 83. She died on Sunday, March 18th after declining heath and issues with dementia. It was her pen stroke portraying Tompall Glaser, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and others as Outlaws that was the marketing push that put the music over-the-top, and allowed country music its most commercially-successful era up to that point. The compilation album Wanted: The Outlaws was the first million-selling album in country music history, and both Willie and Waylon would go on to legendary Hall of Fame careers.
“Outlaw music,” Waylon Jennings said in his autobiography. “Hazel Smith, the great Nashville media specialist, writer, ultimate fan, and publicist for Hillbilly Central, christened it when asked by a disc jockey from WCSE in Ashboro, North Carolina, what to call the renegade sound that was bubbling out of Nineteenth Avenue South. He wanted to base a show around me, Willie, Kris, Tompall, and other others that were making a name for themselves going up against the Nashville establishment.”
Along with being the publicist for Hillbilly Central, Hazel Smith was also a long-time journalist and columnist in Nashville, writing for ‘Country Music Magazine,’ and later ‘Country Weekly’ and CMT.
“‘Hillbilly Central’ was the name of the column Hazel wrote for ‘Country Music Magazine’.” Waylon explains. “She had a bird’s-eye view of all the frenetic comings and goings as she sat out in the front office and directed some of the stranger that started dropping by. The building was open 24 hours, and she’d sometimes come in to work and find people strewn about the offices, passed out next to an empty wine bottle or an open bottle of pills. Another night of ‘losing weight’.”
Hazel Smith’s role in Outlaw music went far beyond simply reporting on it though. She was the manager for multiple artists in different intervals, including Dr. Hook. Something not well known about Hazel, she also was a prolific songwriter, penning some 175 original compositions, including songs that went on to be recorded by Tammy Wynette, and Dr. Hook among others. All of this and more is what led to Hazel being awarded the the Country Music Association’s Media Achievement Award in 1999.
Hazel Smith was born May 31, 1934 in Caswell County in North Carolina. She was married early and had two sons, but the marriage didn’t last. Smith found comfort in country music after her divorce, and it was during this time she met Bill Monroe at a bluegrass festival, and a relationship was kindled. However Bill Monroe proved to not be faithful to Hazel, but the music was. She moved to Nashville where her first job was as the publicist for Kinky Friedman. From there she fell head first into what would become the Outlaw movement, playing an important part in the careers of over a dozen different artists.
Later Hazel Smith would also receive credit for discovering Garth Brooks and Gillian Welch. She also had a passion for food and cooking, publishing the book “Hazel’s Hot Dish: Cookin’ with Country Stars,” with appearances by Trisha Yearwood and Alan Jackson among others. Her column on CMT.com for years was also called “Hot Dish.”
But the term “Outlaw” is what Hazel Smith will always be most synonymous with. “I think the term was in the back of my mind,” she explained on Michael Bane’s book ‘The Outlaws’, “However, later I looked it up in the encyclopedia and found that it meant, literally, someone who lived on the outside of the law. And i knew people like Willie and Waylon and Tompall, David Allan Coe, Jimmy Buffett, Kristofferson—just a lot of people in that category—who were not going along with the Music Row establishment, the Nashville Sound. So I figured they could be living on the outside of the law.”
Hazel Smith is survived by sons Billy and Terry and grandchildren Adam, Jeremy, Mattie, Tyler, Tara and Trevor. Funeral arrangements are pending, but the family has made it known she will be buried in North Carolina.