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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.

Folk Music & Forming The Cumberlands

Joe: How did that change—how did that change your job, I guess, when the folk music situation started happening?

Jim: Well, it changed—the way it changed me is I formed another group called the Cumberlands. 

Joe: Ok, and did you do that intentionally because bluegrass was not popular or—

Jim: No, I still knew how to be a bluegrass banjo picker, and I—that’s what’s different about the Cumberlands as opposed to Peter, Paul, and Mary is I’m a bluegrass player, and they didn’t have a banjo player.  But what it was is, it’s like, the Louisiana Honeydrippers, they all worked on their jobs that they already had.  I worked at Allied Chemical a while, while I made those records.  But then I went to work full time in photography after that.  And the photography is what took me to Alexandria, Louisiana.  I got offered a job in Alexandria in photography to take military portraits at Fort Pope, fifty miles away.  And so I took thousands of pictures out there of people, you know.  So that put me in Alexandria.  The Louisiana Honeydrippers, it didn’t seem like we were gonna go anywhere, you know.  We couldn’t travel.  We couldn’t go very far because, even if we wanted to play in Indianapolis, it takes too long to get there in the days without interstates and to get back for them to do their regular jobs, you see.  So anyway, I took that job in Alexandria and met Harold Thom at a TV—he was a television director.  Worked KALB television.  And then I played a show on that TV station, while I was in Alexandria.  I was a guest with some musicians, and he—we formed the Cumberlands, after I met him, and so, he was a good strong singer, and a good strong guitar player.  His wife could sing harmony good and everything, so we just decided to put that together, and I don’ t know exactly who thought up the name the Cumberlands, but I think he did, because he liked mountain music and mountain things.  Plus, his Scottish heritage—Thom is a Scottish thing.  His middle name is Mars.  There’s Mars Hill, North Carolina in the Appalachians.  And so I think that a—I think that’s probably—in fact, he had already had a record or two, he went over to Houston, Texas and made a couple of singles, and it was kind of, with a banjo and everything, kind of a folk music sound, and so I guess he was thinking about the folk music thing at the same time, and that it was coming along, you see.  And so, I showed up, and we began to pick a few tunes together, and then all the sudden we sounded good, and so that’s how that got started.  And we just, we wanted it to be a folk group, but I couldn’t give up playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown every night when somebody asked for it.  So, that’s how we played bluegrass and folk at the same time, you know. 

Joe: What did you see as the main difference between this new folk genre and the country stuff that you were doing before that?

Jim: Well, I just—like, living in Nashville with all the country musicians, Hank Snows, and—

Joe: Yeah.

Jim: Bill Monroes, and Jimmy Dickens?  Well really, all—the folk thing, it just seems to be people trying to find more, you know, roots music, and everything.  They were actually going back to the purer sound than country, you know.  They were acoustic guitars, you know, and things like that rather than, Nashville is all glitter.  Nashville is that country star with the sequined suit on, you know, and a syrupy sounding steel guitar.  And where folk music is a more pure thing, you know, and so I think that’s—like the Kingston Trio, when they came out, they two acoustic guitars and an acoustic banjo, you know.  I can remember hearing that banjo the first time.  I was in a TV studio in Huntington, West Virginia in 1958.  I was fixing to tune up to go on channel three television at six o’clock.  So, I was in the radio studio, and their speaker was on, and you always go cut the speaker off so you can go tune up and get your show together and then go do the show.  And so, anyway, I heard this song on the speaker before I turned it off—dingding da ding ding ding ding on a five string banjo, and I said, “what kind of banjo playing is that?” you know.  I can do ninety notes a minute.  A second I mean. 

Joe: Ok.  So it was a change to simpler ways of playing.  Older material.  And—

Jim: And it was also presented in a new way.  Like the Kingston Trio were very popular.  Very record selling people, you know.  And then how about Peter, Paul, and Mary, they’ve got acoustic guitars, and dobro in the background every now and then, acoustic bass.  But, boy, they sell records.  And so, what it—it was just, things go in fads, you know, so I think it’s just—that was the fad of the day.  See, Elvis Presley had already come along and really kind of hurt Nashville anyhow, you know.  In 1954, when he came out with Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky in kind of a two beat style.  Or kind of a four-four style.  Blue moon, blue moon, you know.  And of course some—I don’t know whether you’ve heard this little story or not, but somebody asked Bill Monroe, said, “Bill, what do you think about this guy doing your song Blue Moon of Kentucky?”  Bill Monroe said, “the checks are mighty powerful.”  He might have had a song, but, hey, songs are for recording and selling.  That’s what he wrote them for.

Joe: Right. So, it was a business. 

Jim: That’s right. 

Joe: Ok.  So, that makes sense.  Of course, in some ways, when you were playing with some of the acoustic country groups that you played with, you maybe played some older songs and used all acoustic instruments, so in that sense, did you see a connection between the country style and the folk style? 

Jim: Oh yeah.  That’s right. 

I worked in Louisiana—the Cumberlands worked in Louisiana from 1963 through ’69.  And we owned our own place of business.  It was like a nightclub but it featured only folk music.  Only string music.  Bluegrass occasionally but mainly folk singers, like John Hartford and—Dave and Terry—that was a folk duo.  They would come and work two weeks there. 

Joe: And that was the Red Horse Inn?

Jim: The Red Horse Inn.  Had packed houses every night.  Almost every night.  Especially the weekends.  We had people out of state that made regular trips to the Red Horse Inn.  It was the only place like it.  You know, you had lots of dance halls.  Places you could go and hear somebody singing a country song or some kind of a country song and dancing and everything, but there was no dancing it was just strictly a listening room with, you know, jokes in between songs.  Audience participation.  We had all that.  Sing-alongs.  Just like the folk music people do except we did it in one spot.  At the same time we would travel to different places, you know.  We’d go to Lafayette, Indiana.  We’d go to New Orleans.  We’d go to Texas and play.  We had an agent in Atlanta, Georgia, and—that just booked us in lots of different places.  And that’s how we would get there.  We played California.  From Louisiana.  Played Lake Tahoe.  Played in Michigan.  I remember playing fairs in Michigan.  And, so, but the Cumberlands were just three pieces.  Just a banjo and a guitar and a tambourine.  And harmony singing. 

We played in Atlanta, New Orleans, Charleston, Charlotte, Michigan, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Nevada, and California.  We did some guest spots on the Grand Ole Opry.  We were guests on WLAC-TV in Nashville and on WSM-TV.  We once played on the US Navy aircraft carrier, The Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Jacksonville, FL.

Moving to Kentucky

Joe: Right.  And you wound up with the Cumberlands coming to the Louisville area, and meeting your wife—she was from Pekin—and moving to the Indiana side-- 

Jim: Right.  I came to Kentucky in 1970 with the Cumberlands. 

Joe: Yeah.  What was the music scene like in Louisville when you came to this area?

Jim: Well, I tell you what, it was more—first thing I can say, since I’ve already mentioned the musicians’ union—it was more unionized.  More organized.  In other words, the nightclubs—Louisville was mainly kind of a nightclub situation compared to Nashville.  Nashville, because of the liquor laws, I think, it just wasn’t—in Nashville, you had a few spots.  Well, they were called, more or less, dives, you know, that people went to as nightclubs.  But in Louisville, you had more places that were nightclubs that featured live music, and there were lots of working musicians, you know.  And Louisville had two musicians’ unions that combined, even.  They had a black musicians’ union and a white musicians’ union.  The black union was local number 637.  The white union was local 11.  So, you see, that means—a low number like that means that that union goes back to the early days of union.  See, Cincinnati is—Indianapolis is local 4.  Cincinnati is local 3.  You know.  But, see, unions are organized from the north to the south.  See, Nashville, as important as it is as a music place, is local 257, you see.  So anyway, the unions in Louisville have combined.  I belong today to local 11-dash-637.  And so, anyway, it was more organized.  It just had a lot of working musicians, you know, playing a lot of different places.  It was even more country music, more bluegrass—not so much, but—you had people who had that tendency, you know.  The Bluegrass Alliance were formed in Louisville.  But that was all made up of musicians that played at WHAS radio and television.  At Wave television, channel three.  They had live music—live music on these stations.  An important singer in this area is called Randy Atcher.  He just died not too long ago.  They had—that was called the Hayloft Hoedown, you know.  And it was country music.  A lot of steel players and stuff that I met when I came here. 

Joe: So you say country, kind of electrified country, was a little bit more common than bluegrass bands?

Jim: Oh, right, yeah.  And then the Bluegrass Alliance formed about the same time that I came here, and they were strictly acoustic.  And they began to be real popular and recorded some good songs and traveled a lot from here.  You mentioned Sam Bush on one of those albums.  He started in the Bluegrass Alliance. 

Joe: Ok.  How did you wind up working with him?

Jim: Well, he worked with the Cumberlands some.  When we moved the Cumberlands here, he played with us on certain jobs, and that’s how we met him.  I don’t know whether he played bass with us or if he played mandolin.  I’m not even sure what he played, but we just—we needed an extra musician for some reason and so we just knew who was here.  Curtis Burch, who played the dobro, he lives in Bowling Green today.  He and his brother Ricky, who lives near Glasgow, Kentucky, they were from Brunswick, Georgia, but they moved up here—Curtis did—to be part of the Newgrass Revival.  With his acoustic guitar and his dobro playing.  And the banjo player in the Newgrass Revival, from Hiseville, Kentucky, was called Courtney Johnson.  He was a good banjo player, you know.  And he wound up doing some fill-in jobs for me at Bardstown, when I played there so many years.  When we needed extra musicians, Courtney would be available—I’d call him up—he’d come up and play the banjo.  He just looked like a real good Kentucky hillbilly, too.  That’s what we needed. 

Joe: For the tourists, right?

Jim: He just looked that way.  You know, he just had that look, because he—he was just a good old country boy from down there.  And that’s what we featured at Bardstown, was—we were called the Mountain Dew Hillbillies.  And the host, you see, of the Old Stable, he—tuxes and all the servers had these tuxes on but the hillbillies had the overalls on there.

Joe: So you guys actually dressed—

Jim: We dressed that way at Bardstown, see.  So we were going back to the baggy pants idea, see.  What goes around comes around. 

Joe: So, it sounds like maybe there started to be some renewed interest in acoustic music and some groups that were forming around Louisville, like Bluegrass Alliance and Newgrass Revival, and you were connected to them and playing with them.

Jim: Because I played with the Cumberlands.  I still played with the Cumberlands.  Until the end of 1972.  And then, what I did then was I started teaching in Louisville at Music Warehouse.  And East End Music.  It’s all closed down now.  The man who started it died.  But anyway, I started teaching music, and because I played here I was kind of known, you know, as a banjo player and everything.  And being in that music store, I would—I had been to recording studios when the—recordings studios—Alan Martin Studios needed somebody to make a commercial jingle for GE.  I got called, you know, and so—because I could play.  I had some experience and I showed them I could do it, you know.  And so I was kind of known around town.  And so I would book jobs.  It’d be in some hotel, you know, for somebody out of town come in to have a meeting.  They would somehow find me.  Well, I worked for Triangle Talent.  That was Alan Martin’s studio.  Alan Martin, he would call me up, and I would get Doug Green from Nashville, Richard Hoffman played fiddle.  He lived in Nashville.  I’d get them to come up here and play with me if nobody was available that I wanted here.  I just—I’d play that job—a special job, you know.  And teach every day.  Something else would come along, and I’d do the same thing.  I’d just hire pick-up musicians.  They could do the job. 

Banjo Instruction Books

Joe: I think I read somewhere that you had an instruction book that you published.  Is that right? 

Jim: I’ve got three.  Yeah—while I was with the Cumberlands we—in 1971—we got hooked up with some people in New York.  And—a guy that knew how to steal music really good.  I’m not even going to call his name because I don’t want to say anything bad about him.  But anyway, it was just kind of a sorry situation, but—anyway, he worked in the offices of Chapell Music.  Anyway, he had companies called—I can’t think of—Experience Group Limited.  He was a management type.  He had a lot of connections, and he could do this, that, and the other stuff.  And so he’s the guy that actually got my banjo books out.  What it was, I played in Lafayette, Indiana with the Cumberlands, and we were there about four weeks, I think, at one time.  And I met this guy that worked for Purdue University.  And he worked for the Ag information department.  He was a writer and he was a published poet and everything.  But he was trying to learn to play the banjo.  And so here comes the first five string banjo ever to Lafayette, Indiana.  And that’s me.  And so, anyway, he cons me into a cup of coffee, and I wind up over at his house, and he showed me his nice banjo, and he showed me a book called the Earl Scruggs book.  Well, I used to be employed by Earl Scruggs but I didn’t know he had a book.  And of course I realized that Earl Scruggs didn’t write the book himself anyhow.  A banjo player in New York actually copied all of that tablature and put all that together, presented it to Earl Scruggs, and Earl Scruggs’s publisher, I think Peer International at the time, put the book out.  And so that’s the first time I’d ever seen tablature.  So, but, here my friend Steve Brines, now, my newfound friend, was writing all this stuff down, you know.  He was trying to learn to play and trying to figure all—how they did all this, you know.  So we became sort of friends, you know, and at the end of four weeks, Steve Brines had a stack of paper about that tall, you know, of stuff he’d written while I was there.  And I said, “Steve, we ought to put us out a book.”  And, so, anyway, I just got ahold of the people in New York, you know, that I’m associated with, and so we compiled the material, and sure enough, they come out with a book.

Joe: Ok.  What were those books called?

Jim: The first book—the name was changed.  The first book was called The Five String Banjo Technique of Jim Smoak.  And then this guy thought up the way to have other instruments besides five string banjo, so he wanted—he had the piano and the congas and harmonica.  And I helped him do some of his stuff at channel fifteen here in Louisville.  But anyway, he said—now, it’s called Let’s Play Banjo with Jim Smoak.  So, it’s Let’s Play Harmonica with Michael Chimes.  That’s a well-known harmonica player around New York area.  And Let’s Play Piano with Yasha Zaide.  He’s the guy that auditions everybody at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, you know.  So they all come to Louisville and we make TV series on how to play the piano, you see.  So, I live here, so I help them out down here.  But anyway, I did a whole show, a thirteen-week series, on how to play the banjo.  But it was all done in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Somewhere like that.  Green Bay.  Green Bay, Wisconsin.  But it was done from New York.  Brought an NBC producer out there.  Flew me up there, you know.  And it was all in conjunction with that book, Let’s Play Banjo.  Yeah.