Margo Smith’s contributions to country music and contemporary yodeling are being remembered after news of her passing was revealed earlier this week. Smith died on January 23rd at the age of 84.
“The Tennessee Yodeler” is what she came to be known as due to her strong yodeling skills, though she was born and raised on a farm outside of Dayton, Ohio. For years she claimed she was born in 1942 to come across as younger than she actually was due to her career’s late start. But in truth she was born Betty Lou Miller on April 9th, 1939.
From a very early age, she wanted to be a performer after watching the Midwestern Hayride out of nearby Cincinnati. She quickly perfected a yodel, which became the foundation for her singing style, and performed in a trio called The Apple Sisters in high school.
But worried that music wouldn’t be a stable enough career, she instead graduated from college with an elementary education degree. She taught kindergarten for many years, as well as third grade, regularly incorporating music into her lesson plans. After marrying and taking the last name “Smith,” she started performing at PTA meetings and on local radio. As her recognition as a singer grew, so did the impetus to launch a music career.
Margo Smith released her debut album in 1971 called I’m A Lady, and also released singles for the Sugar Hill label, all while still teaching elementary school. Her big break came in 1975 when she was signed to 20th Century Fox Records and officially adopted the stage name “Margo Smith.” Her song “There I Said It” from her self-titled album reached the Top 10 in country, and soon she was a national name.
Margo Smith’s greatest success came in 1978 with her album Don’t Break The Heart That Loves You, which saw the title track and “It Only Hurt For a Little While” both hit #1 in country. “Little Things Mean a Lot” also went to #3 from the album. Though Smith recorded cover songs from both country and pop, she was also a songwriter herself, and found success with original compositions.
But after the initial success, Smith felt that her music lacked an original identity and she needed to find a way to distinguish herself from the other country singers of the time. Smith started to dress more suggestively, and would talk about sex in interviews during the release of her 1979 albums A Woman and Just Margo. During this era, Smith also incorporated more pop in her sound. This approach found mixed results, and Smith later stated that she regretted the attempt to be something she wasn’t.
By 1982, Margo Smith was back to recording more traditional country music. This included the album The Best of the Tennessee Yodeler, which was dedicated to Smith’s yodeling hero Bonnie Lou, and was a showcase of her yodeling skills. Later in the ’80s she recorded for Dot Records and Playback Records, focusing primarily on re-recordings of her old songs and standards from pop and country. By the ’90s she had paired with her daughter Holly to record Christian music.
Later in her career, Margo Smith became a yodeling teacher, mentor, and instructor. She recorded and sold a yodeling instruction tape, and worked with singers to perfect their yodeling techniques, including Taylor Ware. Though her popular country career didn’t always reflect it, Margo Smith was critical in helping to keep the tradition of the yodel alive in the contemporary context, and was regarded as one of the greatest living yodelers throughout her life.
Margo Smith passed away in Franklin, Tennessee due to complications from a stroke she had suffered two days prior.