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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.

The Cumberlands & Teaching


Being a "Hidden Figure" in Music

Joe: I also was looking at the liner notes that Chris Strachwitz wrote for the reissue, and Chris Strachwitz says—he says that you’re a hidden figure in American roots music.  And Doug Green says that—he calls you elusive.  And so both of them have a sense that you’re not out in front, in public, and that you’ve maybe stayed in the background.  Would you agree with that?

Jim: Yeah, I do.  I agree with that.  Like even when I—like, I played at Bardstown for twenty-one years.  I probably played for more tourists in Kentucky than any banjo player ever has.  We had—over that period we had, like, sixteen thousand tour busses come through Bardstown.  That’s fifty people per bus.  And so, I’m promoting Kentucky music in Bardstown, but my name is the Mountain Dew Hillbillies.  You know, it’s not Jim Smoak and nothing, you see.  It’s the Mountain Dew Hillbillies. And so, it’s like I’m in the background, see. 

Joe: And is that a choice that you’ve made on purpose?

Jim: Well, no, it just seems like the choice that we made at that time, you know.  It’s just that’s the way it was. 

Joe: So you haven’t stayed out of the spotlight on purpose?

Jim: No, I didn’t try to avoid the spotlight on purpose, I don’t think.  It’s just—I was always in these jobs—it’s like, I don’t play any bluegrass festivals.  I’ve only played one or two bluegrass festivals.  I just—I’m not there.  Out in the hot sun hanging around, you know?  I’d rather be in Louisville teaching in the air conditioning.  And, so, I mean, I’m just not in places like that.  Yet I play all kinds of special conventions when the—I can play in the Galt House, one of those hotels downtown, every one of them.  And the convention center.  The fairgrounds.  I played the state fair for I guess ten years in a row.  I played the banjo at the state fair.  On the main stage, in the stadium, and on a hay bale somewhere in there, I was playing the banjo.  I was always—I got a plaque somewhere that the state fair gave me for so much time at the state fair. 

Joe: So you think it’s just because of the kind of jobs that you’ve done?

Jim: I think that’s what it is.  I’ve just been here.  I’ve just been not traveling anymore.  I quit traveling except just for a few limited places.  Especially when Rhonda and I got married.  I never traveled and ventured anywhere.  I can just think of a few places.  I played in Gulfport, Mississippi one time.  I think that was just before Rhonda and I got married.  It was.  ’74.  And I played New Orleans at the Mardis Gras just before I got married.  I played northern Indiana after Rhonda and I got married many times, but for a mobile home manufacturer.  I played at Notre Dame on their campus with an RV show.  Big RV shows.  I’m playing the music.  This guy up there, he hired me everything. 

Joe: Right.  So, it sounds like at some point you made a choice to do the gigs that came your way and not to pursue any kind of stardom or—

Jim: That’s—I think that’s pretty well said.  I didn’t try to be a name up front, you know.  I was a name in the background, that people knew that I could—they called on me to do a certain job, and so, that’s the way I play music.  And then I put together the album Moonshine Sonata.  And it’s because, with this Steve Brines, he and I had begun to write songs, and the Cumberlands had recorded a song or two of ours, and the Newgrass Revival had recorded some of our songs, and the Dixie Chicks.  This is much later, but they recorded a song of ours.  J.D. Crowe and—but anyway, that was—I put together that album because I had just a lot of ideas and things about music, you know, so I just decided to put together some friends of mine and make an album.  So that’s why I called Sam Bush.  I mean—you know, he knew me, and I knew him.  And we knew what we did.  We had already recorded together with the Cumberlands.  And Curtis Birch is not on that album there.  And Ricky Skaggs.  I didn’t know Ricky Skaggs, but he was working for J.D. Crowe in Lexington.  So, hey, I just called him up, you know, hey, for a paycheck, he’ll come over here.  And so that was—it was done on a regular union contract, you know.  Everybody works that way.  Got Doug Green to come up from Nashville and play.  And, so I did that—I’ve got original songs on there.  Some that have never been heard by anybody.  Except if you got that record.  And so—and then I didn’t do anything else as far as records are concerned, golly—that was seventy—in the eighties.  Ok.  Well, I started playing Bardstown in 1982.  Well, in ’83 we put together a recording which I have since restored, now, just recently.  It was on tape only.  On cassette tape.  It was made to sell in Bardstown for all those tourists coming through, see.  We did that in ’83.  And then in ’93 we recorded some more stuff.  A new recording for Bardstown, for the tourists.  And then in ’02 is when Arhoolie decided to come out with a re-release of that Bayou Bluegrass.  And then that’s when we made the Cumberlands reunion CD, around that same time.  2002.  2003.  And then I did the Carolina Boy CD.  I was still trying to promote some new materials, you know, and just do things like I wanted to.  And so, that’s the way it’s been.

I’m restoring this Cumberland records now that I found from 1969.  A live recording made at the Red Horse Inn. I’m trying to get all the pictures together that I can find from their daughters.  And I’m gonna get somebody to write something up about it, you know, just a little history of the Red Horse Inn, and what it was all about.  Because it was a unique sound.  The Cumberlands had their own sound.  And after 1972 when I left the Cumberlands and everything, they changed the sound.  They wanted—Harold Thom wanted to go more toward the urban cowboy sound, you know.  It was kind of going that way when I was still there in ’72, and I didn’t like it, and I just decided it was time for me to go and do something else.

Going From Here - Jim Smoak Playing Today

Joe: Yeah. What do you think you’re gonna do from here? You're going to keep doing the annual concert at the Depot? 

Jim: I’m planning on it, yeah, as long as the Depot likes it, you know, because I tend to bring in more donations than they bring in all year. 

Joe: Are you doing any other live stuff right now?

Jim: I play at Autumn Woods Health Center in New Albany on the fourth Sunday of every month.  And then I do just special events around—Kentucky Derby, when it comes to town I work for this one company in North Carolina that brings probably a thousand people to Louisville from all over the country and Canada for the Derby.  And they have the accommodations all set, dinners and everything, so they hire me.  I play in Lexington for two hundred people for dinner, you know.  I play in Louisville for two hundred and fifty more people, for dinner on certain nights, you know.  It’s their clients—their customers they brought here for the Derby.  In other words, they make tour packages, like, meals, lodging, entertainment, and the race, transportation to and from the track, you know.  I play those kind of jobs.  Play the NASCAR event.  The first NASCAR event in Kentucky.  For that same company in North Carolina.  They’re the ones that took me out there.  That’s their specialty, anyhow, NASCAR.  They were just at the Louisville—I mean, the Indianapolis 500, the same people I work for in North Carolina. 

Joe: Ok, yeah.  And who is in your band right now?

Jim: Well, when I made my Carolina Boy CD, I met a blind guitar player from Scottsburg.  That’s twenty-two miles from here, and, through the woods, and I had never heard of him, but I was getting ready to make this CD and talked to Jeff Guernsey, and he declined being on the CDs, but he said, “why don’t you call Mike Cleveland,” said, “he can play—I know he can play anything you want him to play.”  So I called—I knew Mike already, anyhow.  Mike had already taken banjo lessons from me.  And so I called Mike up and so—I was gonna get Curtis Birch from Bowling Green to play guitar.  Well, Mike said, well, I know this guitar player.  He can play—I know what you play, and I know he can play the variety of stuff you want him to play.  And so he gave me his name.  So I met him on the way to the recording studio never having heard him hit a note.  I did it on Mike Cleveland’s say-so.  And he is—I think he’s one of the best guitar players I ever played with.  And he’s a blind guy. 

Joe: That’s Brian Allen?

Jim: Brian Allen.  And of course, and my daughter, Johanna, she sings in our group.  And then I use Rob Whitmer on bass, from Louisville, and sometimes I use Danny—Danny Jones played at the Depot.  He’s a mandolin player.  He also played with Bill Monroe at one time on guitar.  So he played at the Depot with me last year.  So the last year at the Depot—the Depot Honeydrippers were Danny Jones, Brian Allen, Johanna Rippey, and Rob Whitmer, and myself.  I’ve got Mike to go at the Depot several times.  Mike just couldn’t do it last year.  So I don’t have a regular group, it’s just—Brian must be the most regular player that I have, because I do lots of jobs, like with just a banjo and a guitar.  And so we’ll go to—I just played a birthday party at somebody’s patio, you know, this attorney in Louisville.  I worked for him for years.  He’d have somebody graduate from college—he wants to hear banjo in the backyard.  So I’ve played over there as a solo, I’ve taken Brian over there.  He doesn’t want a PA system.  All he wants is just music. 

Joe: Sounds pretty straightforward.

Jim: It’s pretty straightforward.  It’s an easy job, I’ll tell you that.  And they don’t mind paying you.

Joe: That’s a good thing.  Well, I think maybe we can leave it there for now.  And maybe next time we meet up we can record some music.

Jim: Ok. That sounds alright.