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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.

How I Became a Soloist


Nashville & The Grand Ole Opry

Joe: So that first time that you went to Nashville, did you go to just talk to the people at the Opry or did you go to actually watch a performance. 

Jim: No, I didn’t even go to the actual Grand Ole Opry itself at all.  You couldn’t just go unless you bought a ticket.  But I don’t remember going to the Grand Ole Opry and buying a ticket. 

Joe: You just wanted to go and talk to the people.

Jim: I wanted to see where the musicians were.  I wanted to get the job. 

Joe: Right.

Jim: So at WSM radio, that’s where the Grand Ole Opry was run from.  So that’s why I would go there.  WLAC [and WSM], that’s where the musicians were, and that’s where things were run, from there, see.  But the Grand Ole Opry was a show, a radio show. 

Joe: And could you tell me a little bit more about the Opry and what that was like.  So there were a lot of musicians who would be gathered for one of these performances. 

Jim: Yeah, because you see, all the different groups, like Bill Monroe had his own group.  George Morgan would have his own musicians that he traveled with, you see.  And Hank Snow would be the same way.  They had their own group.  And so, when you got ready to do a Grand Ole Opry show, and I mentioned a while ago how people were just sitting around and talking.  There were stage hands on the side because the backdrops were all changed like there might be a barn scene in the background, like kind of a barn and a country scene, and maybe Roy Acuff would be out front doing the show then, and people were sitting around on benches, just talking.  Just like maybe at my grandfather’s house, that’s exactly the way it was.  Just people just sitting there.  And they would be seen from the audience, but Roy Acuff being up front, naturally the focus was on him and his music at that time.  But these other people sitting there that were going to be—like their leader, like George Morgan, was going to come out and be a guest on this thirty minute Roy Acuff presentation.  So Roy Acuff is the main focus here, and then he brings out George Morgan and Bill Monroe on his segment.  And so these musicians sitting around.  We play with George Morgan or Bill Monroe.  We’re just sitting there waiting our turn, and then Bill Monroe comes out, now we step forward, other people step back and get out of the way and the announcer’s over on the other side with his own booth and microphone, and he reads the commercials live, right there, everything’s done live, right from that stage.  And then we’d have, like sometimes the NBC network would broadcast a segment right from the Grand Ole Opry stage, and that would be the Prince Albert Smoking Tobacco.  They sponsored that so now it was network fed from Nashville.  And so that show had to be practiced every Friday the night before, see, and it had to be practiced because there were no re-takes, no edits, it was a total live show, commercials and all.  And so, all the songs had to be timed, you know, so it would go through the entire program and somebody in the booth would be with a stopwatch you know timing everything to make sure that everything would fit.  And if you had to shorten a song, you know, leave out a verse, you’d have to do that.  You’d play the song by leaving out something.  So they could always go to what’s next and get everything you planned to do in that thirty minutes.  Probably twenty-nine minutes.

Joe: So it was pretty carefully planned out and managed.

Jim: Absolutely.  My favorite story about that, because I was on the Prince Albert show with Little Jimmy Dickens, and so was Grandpa Jones.  Have you ever heard of Grandpa Jones?  “Eight More Miles to Louisville” and all that stuff? 

Joe: He was on Hee Haw. 

Jim: He sure was.  That was like almost a second career for him.  Anyway, he was going to be on the Prince Albert show, and the singer, the main personality on the Prince Albert show was Red Foley.  Ever heard of him?  Red Foley.  So anyway, here, Grandpa Jones is going to be on.  So everybody was in Studio C, that was a big studio in Nashville that could hold an audience.  So we used that to practice that show.  And so we’re sitting in there, and it was Grandpa Jones’s time to come up, and I don’t know what song he’s singing, but anyway he sings this song, and they’re timing it and everything, and so as soon as the song’s over, you know, everything goes dead.  About that time we hear pecking on the glass with the microphone, said, “Grandpa, could you shorten that song just a little bit?” And so anyway they do the song over then.  All over and he leaves out something, you know.  Shortens the song.  And stop.  It’s dead a little bit.  About that time, hear pecking on the microphone, and say, “Grandpa, could you shorten that song just a little bit more?”  And he said, “plaaang” on his banjo, and said, “how’s that?”  Of course that—everybody just died laughing.  I guess he got to do his song. 

Joe: So you really had to shape the music to the time slot.

Jim: That’s right.  To get everything in that was gonna be fitted.  That’s the way you would do live TV back then, too.  Everything had to be practiced and timed so that everything could come out just right.  Wasn’t any tuning or waiting around.  It was when they said go, you went. 

Joe: Was it fun to be able to see all these other artists perform at the Opry?

Jim: Well, it was more fun just talking to the people.  I had good friends—do you remember the guy on Hee Haw who did this?

Joe: I don’t, no.

Jim: You don’t remember?  He did a hambone.  There was two guys and one was the piano player and harmonica player for Roy Acuff.  His name was Jimmy Riddle.  The other guy that did this part, the hambone part, was Jack Phelps.  Why, he and I were just big friends, you know.  He must have borrowed a banjo of mine for six months, playing with somebody.  We were always everywhere in Nashville, at ballgames, when we were in town.  So it was just like a family reunion you know, you just meet your friends and you—it wasn’t so much watching somebody play.  If somebody would do something outlandish, you know, naturally you’d notice.  But it was mainly just seeing everybody once a week.  It’s like all my cousin’s getting together again.

Joe: Ok.  So there was a lot of camaraderie among the different groups. 

Jim: That’s right.

Banjo Players in Nashville

Joe: Were there a lot of other people trying to get these gigs at the same time?  How common was it for there to be banjo players who played this style?

Jim: Very uncommon then.  Very uncommon.  And just about everyone would be from Virginia, North Carolina, or South Carolina.  And maybe east Tennessee.  But nobody hardly remembers—the whole style developed in that area, that’s just about where you found everybody that could play one, the three finger style, was from there.

Joe: Ok, so this is the early 1950s, and that banjo style was still a new thing, and it’s something that’s being sought after at that time.

From I knew a few names.  Sonny Osborne, he was from Kentucky.  Hyden, Kentucky.  Well he had the three finger style going and I don’t know how he did it, but I’m sure he listened to Earl Scruggs records and everything.  But he actually played for Bill Monroe the summer before I joined Bill Monroe’s group.  He’s one of the few people I can think of, maybe the only person I can think of, from Kentucky that would be playing the three finger style.  A guy named Bowers who was from North Carolina.  A guy named Larry Richardson was from Mount Airy, North Carolina.  I can’t even think of hardly anybody else’s name.  Joe Drumwright.  I don’t remember exactly where he was from, but he lived in Nashville, and he could play the three finger style.  But where he was from I don’t know.  If he was from Tennessee, maybe he was, but I don’t know.  And Rudy Lyle. But there was just a few people.  Earl Scruggs and Don Reno.  You know.  They were the top of the heap in those days as far as playing was concerned.  And Snuffy Jenkins, you couldn’t have given him anything to leave Columbia.  He would not have given up what he was doing in Columbia, with his own group.  He was it in Columbia as far as the radio station.  That was his job.  He wouldn’t work for Bill Monroe for nothing.  And he knew Bill Monroe.  Maybe that’s why he wouldn’t work for him.  Actually the same person who put Bill Monroe and his brother Charlie on radio in South Carolina in the 1930s was the same person who put Snuffy Jenkins on WIS radio.  His name was Byron Parker.  He was a radio announcer.  And, anyway, there was  just a few banjo players.  Very few. 

Joe:  And, so people were interested to hear you.  They were pretty excited. 

Jim: Oh yeah, if you got a job in Nashville, you were at the top of your game then.  So people, I mean, Doug Dillard, from the Andy Griffith show.  He was from Missouri.  Well, he told me much later—I met him in 1968 or ’69 in California.  I was out playing out there.  And so we had a big jam session one time with the Dillards.  And anyway he told me, he said in Missouri, when he was growing up, at his home, he would listen to me on the Grand Ole Opry with Bill Monroe.  So people would hear you.  That’s where it’s coming from, see, Nashville.

Radio & Recordings

Joe: I’m interested in when you were first traveling around and meeting people, and you made some disc recordings at radio stations.  Was that common to do at that time?

Jim: That’s the only kind of recorder they had.  Tape hadn’t come in yet—audio tape.  The wire recorder of course was first.  Do you remember that?  Well anyway, I had seen one of those near Charleston when I was a kid.  But anyway, the radio station would put everything on an acetate disc.  Sometimes the disc would be, golly, seems like sixteen inches across.  And what was on that type of a disc would be a radio commercial, a jingle.  Like Purina flour company.  They would have one cut.  And then the next cut would be baby chicks.

Joe: Baby chicks?

Jim: Oh yeah.  That was a common thing.  Farmer bought baby chicks from the radio.  It was advertised on the radio.  And so all you had to do was to write to a certain company.  And the baby chicks would be brought to you by the postman.  Live chickens.  And so, anyway, that’s how those discs were used.  And not just records, but they were used for the commercial jingles, so when you got ready, if you were on the radio station and you were giving the news or something and it was time to play a commercial jingle for Purina floor, that disc would be on a turntable and you’d just put the needle down and turn it on and just let that play for one minute or one and a half minutes or whatever it was.  And then you would put it off and they you’d go back to whatever the programming was at that time, see.

Joe: So when you were visiting the radio stations they said, well, while you’re here maybe we can get a recording of you doing a song that we can use later?

Hylo BrownJim: Well, that didn’t really happen either, because you couldn’t do that because, like Bill Monroe couldn’t allow that to happen because he was under contract to Decca Records, so your contract would read that you don’t allow yourself to be recorded by anybody else because everything you do we sell. 

Joe: So when you were first meeting people—

Jim: Oh, when I was first meeting people, that’s like George McCormick did that at WLAC, he just got ahold of the engineer and got all the musicians around, so we played three or four tunes featuring me on the banjo.  Why he wanted to do that I don’t know.  I mean, I didn’t ask him to do that.  I didn’t even know they had a recorder. 

Joe: But maybe they could have used it later.

Jim: He just--for reference sake--right.  He could know who you are and what you do, you know.  But in Knoxville, I didn’t do that anymore.  That first guy who did that—it was for reference sake then, I’m sure. He just wanted to—he put my name, here’s what he does, he’s got me on recording, just like somebody—

Joe: Like a demo.

Jim: Like a demo.  Yeah.  And so if he lost track of me and they decided they wanted to find me, that’s what they would use.  That was the demo.  Then, much later when this recording would happen, I was with a group called Hylo Brown in 1959 or ’60.  But I played a live program on WSIP radio in Paintsville, Kentucky.  It was sponsored by Martha White flour.  And so that was recorded, and it’s in an album form today.  Someone else took that.  And then in 1959 I played a live show with Hylo Brown in Maryland, and that was recorded, and it’s also on an album today.  Copper Creek Records has that out.  But that’s the only other times I can remember recording, you know—

Joe: At a radio station.

Jim: Radio stations weren’t numerous back then, you see.  The stations you could hear in South Carolina, I could hear WIS in Columbia, and my home town and an AM station, Charleston had a couple of AM stations, but there was no FM, you know.  That’s why—I could hear WHAS radio in Louisville sometimes on Sunday morning, that’d be a Renfro Valley show.  Country show, you know.  You could hear these far away stations because I think the airwaves were pretty clear.  And then stations like WSM were called Clear Channel.  There couldn’t even be any other station in the whole country on that frequency, see, so that’s how those channels could really get out.  But those announcers and everything on the radio stations, they had that warm grandfather voice, you know, because they’re talking—that’s all you’ve got to go by.  There’s no music to get anybody’s attention.  It’s just when Cousin Louie Buck said something on the radio, well it was so.  Because he said so, you know.  And that was like, they would believe those announcers because they sounded like your best friend.  They had that kind of a warm voice, you know.  I can think of a—Cousin Louie Buck was one.  Grant Turner was another radio announcer with that kind of a voice.  T. Tommy Cutrer, he was from Louisiana.  I can’t think of all the names.  David Cobb.  That’s another guy.  But they all had these nice, warm, just living room voices, you know. 

Harry Oster & the Louisiana Honeydrippers

Joe: Can you tell me how you came about putting together the Louisiana Honeydrippers band.

Jim:  Well that was a—I mean, I didn’t expect it.  When I look back I think over all the things I’ve done it seemed like I’ve been guided in a lot of different places.  Somehow or another I was at the right place to do this at that time.  But anyway, with Bill Monroe in 1954, I quit because a fiddle player called me about a job in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  And so I moved to Louisiana.  And I worked on television and radio there, with that group.  And then that kind of went by the wayside, and Arthur Smith, the guy who wrote Dueling Banjos, was in Charlotte, North Carolina.  He was kind of a music kingpin in that area.  At WBT radio and TV.  He called my dad.  Called Snuffy Jenkins, I’m sure.  See, his banjo player, Don Reno, was leaving to form his own group.  So, he got ahold of Snuffy Jenkins because he had just seen me play in Charlotte with Bill Monroe.  So he got ahold of Snuffy Jenkins and Snuffy Jenkins I’m sure referred him to my father.  So my father says, he’s in Louisiana.  So he calls me up and I get a job in Charlotte.  Ok, I go into the service, and—after I go with Arthur Smith I get drafted, you know.  And I come back out and go to work in Nashville with Hylo Brown.  Work with Hylo Brown until the beginning of 1960, and, so I decided to leave Hylo Brown’s group.  Because it kind of seemed like we were going nowhere.  We didn’t have any new recording deals going.  And so I decided, well, I think I’m gonna go to Louisiana.  I’ve got friends down there.  So I moved to Louisiana.  And I actually went to work for Allied Chemical.  And I also worked at a photography studio developing pictures.  That’s the thing I had picked up in the Army.  I’d always been interested in photography.  And so, through that photography and everything I met some musicians besides the ones I already knew, and so we began to play some things together, and that was the beginning of the Louisiana Honeydrippers.  Those personnel.  And then, I got this telephone call one day from a professor at Louisiana State University who owned a small record company called Folk Lyric Records. 

Joe: And that was Harry Oster?

Jim: Harry Oster, uh huh.  And so, he told me he wanted me to get together with him and he kinda wanted to make a recording, you know.  And I said ok.  So we got together and he told me what he wanted to do.  He wanted to find obscure music, you know, traditional music, and a lot of it based in Louisiana, and he wanted to know what I could add, you know, songs that I could bring with me from my upbringing, whatever.  So anyway, I got everybody together, I picked out the musicians I wanted, and so I got together with Dr. Harry Oster and I said, I told him, you know, the guitar player, he’s gonna be the lead singer and the mandolin player, he’ll sing harmony, I’ll sing harmony, and you got mandolin, banjo, guitar, whatever, you know.  And he said, “Well,” he said, “I want you to sing.  I want you to,”
 you know, “solo this album.”  I said, “Well, I’m not a solo singer.  I’ve sung in groups and stuff, but I don’t sing solos.  Never have,” you know.  He said, “well, we’re not going to make the record if you don’t.”  So, I took a look at his checkbook and I decided right there I was gonna be a soloist.  And that was my first job as a soloist, and we made two albums.

Joe: How was he familiar with your music?

Jim: Well, I don’t know whether it was because I’d worked there before, but anyway, he was in cahoots, he knew somebody at the television station, that was WAFB television, and somebody, an engineer, you know, actually I think referred him, referred me to him.  And I can’t recall the engineer’s name to save my neck.  But I think that’s how it got started. 

Joe: So he had some ideas in mind already about what kinds of songs he wanted you to do and the fact that he wanted you to be the leader of the group, the lead singer.

Jim: See he had already had other people on record.  He had Pete Seeger’s half sister, Peggy Seeger.  She played the banjo.  He had her recorded.  And he had a few other different artists, you know.  I don’t know who they were.  I can’t think of their names now.  But that’s one I can remember.  So he was already doing something because you see this is the beginning of the folk music craze.  See, the Kingston Trio now, they’re out.  And I don’t know whether Peter, Paul, and Mary have started yet or not, but I don’t think so.  But anyway, this was the kind of coming thing, see, and that’s what he was about, is getting some folk music stuff together, in that market. 

Joe: And whose idea was it to do Louisiana music for the record?

Jim: It was his.  His idea.  Even, when they called it—one of the albums is called Louisiana Bluegrass, and the first album, the one I call the first album, is called Bayou Bluegrass, so he wanted to use those names, you know, because, you know, we don’t have many bayous in Alabama.  So Bayou Bluegrass and Louisiana Bluegrass, that gave you that—and not really much on those records says anything about Louisiana music, except that the personnel, being from Louisiana except for myself and the bass player—he was from Alabama—the fiddle player has a little bit of that Louisiana fiddling sound.  That’s the main thing I think about it.  We had two fiddle players on those albums, and they have that kind of Louisiana sound.  I don’t know how to describe it except if you can think of, I can think of a song like Big Mamou.  And one two three one dee doo dittle dittle doo da da doo dittle dittle—that kind of a shuffling fiddle sound, you know, and I think that’s what makes those records Louisiana.  If you just took that out of there, it’s bluegrass.  You know.  It’s bluegrass from anywhere.

Joe: I think you mentioned that he maybe played some field recordings for you or made some suggestions of songs.  How did that process work?

Jim: Yeah he just—everything was on audio tape, you know, so he would bring me these reels of tape.  He would—what he would do, he would travel around Louisiana and collect songs.  He would go and make live recordings on somebody’s front porch.  And, I mean, I heard some mournful songs, you know.  And songs that I couldn’t make much sense of.  And then he found this songwriter.  I have two of his songs on there.  Dave Rankin I think was his name.  And so, he wanted--he brought those and we talked them over, you know, we’d listen, and I’d say, “you know, I could make something out of this or I could do that.”  And I’d take them home and put them on a tape player and come up with some sort of arrangement that I could show the other fellas.  And that’s how we did that.  But there was lots that I didn’t like.  There was more that I didn’t like than I liked.  Well, it was really my first experience with having to be like an artistic director, you know.  That was my first time.  I’d never been asked to do that before.  You know, with Bill Monroe, I mean, when I was called to go to a studio, they already had the plans made, all I’m—I’m the banjo player, you know.  And Hylo Brown, basically, we rehearsed some with Hylo Brown, but I didn’t really have any input as to what the record company is going to do.  The record company and the leader, they have the say.  And the record company has the biggest say because they’re paying for it.  You know, and they’ve got to sell it.  So that’s why they have the say.  So when you made records for Decca, or any—they always had a representative there called the artist and repertoire man.  He was called the A and R man.  And he was always there.  He ran things.  And so Hylo Brown, then, you see, is a recording artist and they talked over what was gonna be done.  But we were the musicians and we just, we did whatever they decided to do, see?  And so now, I’m having to put the whole thing together.  So I tell people now, when your instrumental break is, if there’s gonna be one. 

Joe: Yeah, and probably the A and R people in Nashville might have made choices that were different than the folklorist in Louisiana was making.

Jim: Right.  Because they come from a different standpoint and their purposes are different.  Harry Oster’s purpose is to collect old folk songs, traditional songs, not a lot of copyrighted material, see.  And so, that’s what Harry Oster was about, he wanted to preserve stuff, you know.  And so then he asked me to, you know, I played him songs, he asked me to play songs that I knew.  That’s where I would play him, like, Who’s Going Down to Wilmingtown.  And I did a thing on one of those records called the Mama Blues, where you make the banjo talk.  You know. 

Joe: You said that maybe he asked you about doing some French language material?

Jim: Well, he had—we had one song called Calinda, and I don’t even—I couldn’t say—it’s the name of a dance.  Calinda is the name of a dance.  And so, the words were, “a la danse calinda.”  Danse is dance.  A la is let’s go.  Let’s go dance Calinda.  But I sung it as “let’s go dance calinda.”  I couldn’t, you know, I couldn’t—the rest of the words, it was just gonna be too hard to do, and I just, so he agreed with that. 

Joe: So, what were the recording sessions for that album like, or for those two albums?

Jim: It was like a field recording.  We went inside of a big frame house.  You know, wooden floors, wooden walls, and stuff like that.  And that’s the way he wanted to do it.  Inside of that frame house.  Which gives it that house party feel, you know, and the sound, the echo that comes from wood, you know.  The same reason that a recording studio today would have a little wall, you know, lined with cypress or something like that.  And maybe a bare floor here, when you play guitar you’re over the bare floor rather than over carpet, sitting in a padded room.  You want some wood in there somewhere.  So that’s what his idea was.  And we had, I think we had several microphones.  But we treated it almost like a stage show, but we had more than one mic, and—so he was in a separate room, then, where he could see us, and he could control the sound, because he could hear it through headphones or a speaker or whatever in his room rather than hearing us personally that he would know what to do, see.  He could hear more of what was going on his tape recorder rather than being in the room with us. 

Joe: Yeah, yeah.  Ok.  So when you made the Honeydrippers recordings, they were able to pay you an advance?  How did the business work?

Jim: Well, on that, they paid us, and he paid me for, I don’t know whether it was an advance or not, but—it was an advance of sales, of course, but—he paid me and then I paid all the musicians.  That’s the way—he just paid me a fee.  And in Nashville, the way it’s done there is the record company pays for the session, see, and that is sent directly to the musicians union.  And so, if I make a record this week, then next week I go down to the union hall and just pick up my check for that recording session last week, see.  And so, but in Louisiana when I made the Honeydrippers records the record company paid me directly.  I don’t know where they did it when I finished the records, or what, but—

Joe: And then they owned the master recording.

Jim: They—it’s their recording, right.  And so—I look at those two albums today and one being sent to Prestige International, and I—it makes me kind of realize how Harry Oster might be getting some of his money back right away, see.  He’s leasing his recording stuff to Prestige International, or selling it, I don’t know how he did it.

Joe: He licensed it.

Jim: He licensed them to record it, so he would have gotten a payment, you see.  So that just puts more money in his pocket then to get his own records out, get his own company moving, you know. 

Joe: Let’s see.  How did you start working with Arhoolie for the reissue.

Jim: Well, I didn’t.  I just got a phone call one day from Bluegrass Unlimited magazine saying that somebody at Arhoolie Records was trying to find me so that they could send me a check.  I said, well good, give them this phone number.  And so, anyway, no, what happened was that Arhoolie Records, in 1972—see I already made the albums in 1961.  And so Dr. Oster I guess decided to sell his whole company.  And he sold all his material and Arhoolie I guess bought all his stuff.  And that was about 1972.  And that’s when they reissued that album that—one of those albums without the boat, that has the Arhoolie on it.  And so that was ’72.  And then in 2002 they reissued it on CD.  And so, I had nothing to do with it.  They just bought all Arhoolie’s stuff and made up their own minds what they wanted to do with it. 

Joe: What is a Honeydripper?  Is that just a made-up word?

Jim: I think it is, yeah.  You know, it’s like.  No, it’s like this.  A dobro player.  He’s playing in this recording session.  And this is actually said, now, that’s why I’m telling you this.  Oswald, the dobro player with Roy Acuff.  He is recording with somebody playing his dobro.  And he says, so he asks a question, he says, “do you want me to put some more syrup on it?”  Meaning, do you want to make the dobro cry and whine, you know, a little.  He called that sweetening it, and they used the term sweetening all the time in music.  You’ll add this sound and they call it sweetening the music.  So he referred to it as syrup.  Putting syrup on it, you know.  Really making it corny country, you know.  And so that’s where that term honeydrippers would come from.  Dripping honey, you see?  It’s so corny and sweet. 

Joe: So if the band were the Honeydrippers that would imply that they really are very expressive.

Jim: That’s exactly—drip that southern honey.

Joe: Maybe to a fault, even?

Jim: I think so.  Yeah, that’s it. 

Joe: And did Folk Lyric also release Snuffy Jenkins?

Jim: Yeah.  Mmm hmm.  In fact, at my suggestion.  Harry Oster, he asked me about somebody else that I thought maybe he should record, and I said, well, Snuffy Jenkins.  Because I don’t think enough of him is on record, you know.  And so I told him about that, so he went to South Carolina, and—but, I was just reading on that record, I think that instead of doing a field recording like he did for me, it sounds like they did it right in WIS radio studios.  That’s—the tone of the record and everything sounds like that. 

Joe: Ok.  So it’s similar to what they sounded like on the broadcasts.

Jim: Right.