photo: Julie Stovall
Art Form: Folk/Traditional Music
Through radio, television, and sound recordings, Arthur Smith has entertained audiences in the Carolinas for over sixty years and achieved national and international recognition as a composer and performer of country and gospel music.
Born in the mill town of Kershaw, South Carolina, Arthur was exposed to music at an early age. "Two things mill companies did well for the community," he recalls. "They sponsored a baseball team and a town band." Arthur's father, who worked as a loom fixer, was asked to direct the town's brass band. Not surprisingly, Arthur's first instrument was the trumpet, and jazz musicians Louis Armstrong and Django Reinhart were among his early influences. He also learned fiddle and guitar and before long could play a variety of stringed instruments.
Music offered an attractive alternative to mill labor, and Arthur and his brothers auditioned for a spot on a local radio station. They quickly realized that Dixieland jazz was not popular with rural audiences. "We nearly starved to death until one day we changed our style," he remembers. "We had been doing a daily radio show in Spartanburg, South Carolina, as the 'Arthur Smith Quartet.' One Friday morning we threw down our trumpet, clarinet, and trombone and picked up the fiddle, accordion, and guitar. The next Monday we came back on the radio program as 'Arthur Smith and the Carolina Crackerjacks.'"
Arthur moved to Charlotte in 1941 and soon became a featured member of the WBT radio's Saturday opry, the Carolina Hayride. He also broadcast a daily program, The Country Store, which featured Arthur and his brothers Sonny and Ralph in a mixture of music and country comedy. In the 1950s, Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks made their television debut on a live morning show known as Carolina Calling. Arthur realized what his audience wanted at 7:00 a.m.--a snappy instrumental, the weather report, some jokes, a word of inspiration, and a closing hymn--and he soon had a large following. Not long afterwards, The Arthur Smith Show became a weekly offering. Eventually, Arthur became program producer and syndicated the show, which aired on stations from Delaware to Texas.
Arthur Smith's most enduring accomplishments may be as a composer. While in boot camp during World War II, he wrote and recorded a jazzy guitar instrumental called "Guitar Boogie" for a small record label. The recording sold over a million copies and rocketed to the top of the country charts--the first instrumental to do so--then crossed over to the pop charts, again rising to number one. In 1955, he worked up a banjo duet, "Feudin' Banjos," which Warner Brothers later re-titled as "Dueling Banjos" for the 1973 film Deliverance. The tune received great exposure and acclaim after the film's release and is now requested by audiences throughout the world. Arthur has also composed many well-known gospel songs including "Acres of Diamonds," "I Saw A Man," and "Shadow of a Cross."
Arthur Smith has largely retired from performing though he lends his name and, on occasion, his musical talents to help raise funds for charities and other deserving causes in North Carolina. Those performances still have the warmth and down-to-earth qualities that have appealed to his fans over the years. "I visualized a tv set in the den or living room with a seven-year-old kid lying on the floor and Dad reading the newspaper," he explains, "and I thought these were my audience. I never saw millions of people or auditoriums full of people. I always saw the intimacy that could be created."