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Jim Smoak: A "Hidden Figure" of American Banjo Music

A collection and oral history of 3-finger style bluegrass banjo player Jim Smoak by 2013 Appalachian Sound Archive Fellow Joe O'Connell.

Playing Around Town

Jim:  I’d go to the barbershop in Walterboro to get a haircut and the barber had a banjo in the closet.  He would go in there and reach out and hand it to me in the barber chair.

Joe: Sounds like that was your job.

Jim: It was beginning to be my job. 

Joe: Yeah.  So, it sounds like you played a lot when you were in high school, and you played regionally at square dances and that kind of thing.

Jim: Yes, more locally.  I’d go to the next county over, maybe.  And that’s because people would hear that somebody could play a banjo, so they would come and ask my father.  And could I go and play at a certain square dance.  So I would go play, maybe thirty miles away from home.  I remember doing that like on a regular basis on a certain Friday night.  Playing square dances.  And then I’d play things in school.  Somebody would know that you can play the banjo so I’d play in some kind of school production in the little auditorium.

Leaving South Carolina & Going Professional

Joe: And what made you want to do this professionally?  And what made you want to leave and pursue a career—

Jim: Well, I don’t think I even thought about it when I was eighteen, that I wanted to do it professional.  First of all, I got where I could play, so people were asking me to come play.  I could play on the radio station, I could play square dances and everything.  So before I finished high school, Snuffy Jenkins had a nephew name Hoke Jenkins and he was a banjo player, too.  And here he was, he was in Chicago playing on the WLS radio Barn Dance up there, and he was with a group called the Prairie Ramblers.  Well he decided to leave, and they wanted another banjo player, so they offered me the job through Hoke Jenkins and Snuffy Jenkins while I was in high school, see.  And I thought about going, but I thought, well, you know, I’m so close to finishing high school, why don’t I do that?  So I did.  I just stayed home.  And then, when I turned eighteen, I wanted to go see the Grand Ole Opry.  And I’d saved up some money. 

And I’d been reading articles in the Country Song Roundup and I knew where people played in different parts of the country.  Greenville, and Ashville, and Knoxville.  So I planned a route.  I was going to visit those places.  And so when I turned eighteen in the summer, I stayed at home long enough to register for the draft, because that was the law, so I did that and then I took a bus and I think I went to Greenville, and visited the radio station and there didn’t seem to be much happening around there.  I went to Asheville, and I knew the stations to go to.  They were the important radio stations.  In other words there weren’t that many radio stations like today, see.  And then I got to Knoxville and I went to, I forget, WNOX and I went to WROL and I met people that just liked what I did.  This guy [Lowell Blanchard] at WNOX, he wanted me to, he hung a big microphone down in a little studio and wanted to get me on some kind of a disc recording playing the banjo.  And I met the singer Mac Wiseman.  He already had a banjo player but he wanted me to go in there and meet them, you know.  And then, at this other station, WROL, people like my playing, but the boss, who was named Cas Walker, wasn’t there.  They said, he’d probably hire you if he was here.  Anyway, I just decided, well I’m not going to wait around for Cas Walker.  I don’t even know who he is.  So I just took on to Nashville, and I got there, and I think I went straight to WSM radio. 

Joe: That was kind of the headquarters of country music at that time.

Jim: That was it.  WSM was the station.  So I went right straight to the office of the head of the Grand Ole Opry.  His name was Jim Denny.  I already knew his name.  I walked in and told him I was looking for a job.  I was ready to go.  So anyway, I think probably was amused a little bit.  Anyway, he told me that Bill Monroe was the only person on the Grand Ole Opry that used a banjo player of my style and everything.  He said he has somebody right now.  So, anyway, I thanked him I guess and went on over to another radio station that I could hear in South Carolina called WLAC.  And was referred to as the non-union station in those days, you see.  And so I went over there because I knew I’d hear this guy Big Jeff playing the guitar and he had a group of musicians.  And a guitar player in his group took a liking to me right away and we went and recorded something on one of those disc recorders.  And this guitar player turned out to be Porter Wagner’s background guitar player for the rest of his whole career.  I’m trying to think of his name—George McCormick.  And so, anyway, I stayed there about two weeks, in Nashville, and I played with those guys.  They would go out and play.  But they couldn’t pay me because they couldn’t afford to hire an extra person that much, so I decided, well my money’s getting a little bit low now.  I think I’m gonna point my compass back toward South Carolina.  So I went back to Knoxville and Cas Walker was there and he hired. 

Joe: Ok.  Just in time.  Good thing you didn’t make it back to South Carolina. 

Jim: Yeah, I didn’t go all the way back home.

Joe: So, it sounds like it was a practical thing to do at that time.  That there was a demand for people who played the banjo in your style.  There were jobs out there.

Jim: There were a few jobs.  That’s right.  You just had to go where they were, and so I got a job—what it did was it took me out of South Carolina, you know, off the beaten path, and it put me where music was—I was playing on the radio every morning at 5:30 AM with this group and then on weekends we’d play some show at night, and Cumberland Gap, Kentucky being the first one I remember going out of town to play from Knoxville.  But, anyway, so, I worked for Cass Walker for two months on that radio station, and then Bill Monroe needed a banjo player, and he heard me on that station, and that’s where I got the job with him.

Joe: What did people in your community in South Carolina think of you becoming a professional musician and being on the radio?

Jim: They thought a lot more about it than I did, because, I mean, I didn’t found that out right then, but later on I knew certain people from back in my high school days.  This guy was a drummer and he was a photographer in my home town.  His last name is Price.  Anyway, he worked for the county parks commission or something like that.  Anyhow, I was talking to him much later on and he just, he talked about me going to the Grand Ole Opry as if I had just done it yesterday, and this is a bunch of years later, you know.  It’s like, “He took it to the Grand Ole Opry!”  It’s like I had done something big.  Somebody in the local community. 

Joe: So they were fairly proud.

Jim: Yeah, they were proud of it.

Playing with Bill Monroe

Joe: And, so you made a transition from playing fairly locally to playing throughout the whole southeast with some of these groups.  And you were playing with musicians that you knew of, and playing programs like the Grand Ole Opry.  What was that like to find yourself in this world that you’d only heard on the radio before? 

 Jim: Well, see, when I got the job with Bill Monroe, I left and drove with him all day to New Bern, North Carolina.  And that was the first show I played with him.  So, now I was with him for the rest of that week.  Maybe another whole week.  I’m not sure.  But, and then, we were going to Nashville.  Back to their home.  It was new to me.  I’d been there, but I didn’t live there.  And so, I’m going to Nashville and I’ll be on the Grand Ole Opry Saturday night when I get there.  And so, the first thing that happens, though, when I get to town is Jimmy Martin, the guitar player, takes me around to the union hall.  I don’t have a union card, and you can’t put your little toe on the Grand Ole Opry stage without a union card.  And so, I got an application is all I could get because you couldn’t join the union unless you were 21 in Nashville.  So they had to send a letter to my father and get him to sign this thing so I could be a member of the union.  But I played that night on the Grand Ole Opry, and Bill Monroe, they had him scheduled.  They made out your schedule, the Grand Ole Opry did, so you walked back stage, you could look up there and it says between 8:00 and 8:30 Bill Monroe has two songs.  And so, here it is, I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home.  That’s one of his records.  Well I practice that with him out on the road, when we’d just been playing.  But I didn’t expect to be the first guy up to the microphone.  And so it was a little nerve-wracking, you know, to see the Grand Ole Opry crowd out in front of you and everybody making noise.  The stage at the Grand Ole Opry was like a homecoming.  People sitting around on benches just talking to each other.  Somebody’s blowing a pipe, you know.  But the microphone, that was what was going on.  The show was up there.  But all these people in the back now were just sitting there waiting for their turn with whoever they play with.  Sidemen. 

Joe: So were you nervous about that? 

Jim: Ah, yeah.  I was nervous about that.  But I got through it.  I started off that song just like I knew it went, and just like I had practiced for the week or two weeks I had been on the road.  And so we played it practically every day, so I had a little practice. 

Joe: So it didn’t take you long to get to the very center of country music at that time. 

Jim: No.  I was in the right place at the right time.  I was in Knoxville working when Bill Monroe needed a banjo player.  If I would have been in South Carolina riding the tractor, he wouldn’t have known about me.  Even though I had met him in South Carolina when I was a teenager.  I cut school with the blessing of my mother so I could take a Greyhound bus to Charleston to see Bill Monroe play in a theater.  I think I was sixteen or seventeen.  And she told me how to do it.  I wanted to go but I knew that my father—my father didn’t travel a lot, you know.  And he wasn’t gonna break off and just go down to see any kind of a show, so she said, “here’s the way you do it.  You just ride the school bus to school.  You just get off the bus like you’re going to school and just walk on down to the bus station.  And here’s the money.”  And I don’t remember how I got home, but probably I spent the night with an uncle.  I had an uncle that lived in Charleston, you know. 

Joe: Wow.  And did that make an impression on you? 

Jim: Bill Monroe?

Joe: When you saw that show.

Jim: Oh, yeah, I remember one song that they did that I’ve never forgotten, you know, and I just remembered how their harmony, how it sounded from the audience.  And as soon as their show was over—it was in a movie theater—so I just went right through the exit curtain by the stage and went right back and met everybody.  And Bill Monroe asked his banjo player to let me have the banjo.  He wanted to hear me play a tune.  So I played a tune for him when I was sixteen.  Seventeen, maybe.  I don’t know. 

Joe: Did he remember you from that when you met him again?

Jim: No, I don’t think he did.  But he told me then, “You’ll make a good banjo player someday.” So, within a year and a half I was working for him. 

Joe: And what did—did you expect to be doing music long term and this point?

Jim: Not even then.  I just, I was having a big time.  I was single, you know.  I’d go wherever I wanted to when I wanted to, and I didn’t—I worked for Bill Monroe until he got in a bad car wreck.  And I’d go see him in the hospital about every day.  But he was in a serious car wreck.  And so my money was getting low again. I told, I said, you know, I’ve got the chance to go to work for Jimmy Dickens.  What do you think?  But he said, I think you ought to take it.  And this is country music.  Bluegrass--people didn’t even call it bluegrass. 

Little Jimmy Dickens

Jim:  So, Jimmy Dickens wanted an extra feature in his group, because he didn’t need a banjo player.  So I was just a featured player in his group.  Somebody he could just say—bring on to make his show more interesting. That’s why I was hired for Jimmy Dickens.  He didn’t need a banjo player.  He had no banjo on any record he ever had.  And so he hired me just to be an extra feature for his hour and a half program.

Joe: So did you only play on certain songs, then?

Jim: I played with the group.  I played chords with the rest of the group.  But then he would feature me on an instrumental or two.  I always played two every night.  I only took an instrumental break on one of his songs.  Because it kind of fit the banjo tempo. 

Joe: So mostly you were just in the background—

Jim: I was just in the background. 

Joe: --they would bring the banjo forward just as entertainment.

Jim: That’s right, just as a special feature of that type.  He would also feature his fiddle player.  In other words he would want to show his fiddling off, and maybe the steel guitar player, too, I’m not sure how he did all that.  But that’s how they ran shows.  Also, shows like that, like Bill Monroe’s program, you see Bill Monroe is the Grand Ole Opry star.  Personality.  Jimmy Dickens is the personality. I worked for him the whole year, and then I got laid off because we at the union voted ourselves a raise.  So anyway, at the end of that year I got laid off.  And I went back to South Carolina.