Red Smiley and the Blue Grass Cut-Ups
Red Smiley and the Bluegrass Cut-Ups: Volume One and Volume Two
Rural Rhythm Records
4 stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
“Bluegrass” is indefinable because it’s a notion in your mind. Some will insist it must be something Bill Monroe would have played. Others prefer the Old Crow Medicine Show or newgrass pioneers like Sam Bush (who does a fine job on traditional numbers, too). Some will say it must have a banjo to be bluegrass, or it needs that “high, lonesome” sound. It can’t have drums, some say, while others scoff amplified instruments. Most of us take a middle-of-the-road approach and simply say, “I know it when I hear it,” which, of course, does nothing to quell the arguments.
In general, though, the core music is comprised of some combination of banjo, flattop guitar (preferably a Martin), mandolin, fiddle (violins are for highbrow music), resophonic guitar and upright bass. A common compromise is the bass because of its bulk. Bands substitute an acoustic flattop bass, a “stick” bass or a “Fender” bass. Mr. Monroe once had an accordion, though that’s as rare as hen’s teeth. Variations of core instruments may include a viola (in the case of Nancy Blake, a cello) or a mandola (IIIrd Tyme Out’s Wayne Benson) and sometimes a snare drum, steel guitar or piano.
It’s the music more than the songs that make it bluegrass. As we look at the songs included in these two CDs, songs that are cross-genre will be noted but I believe few will argue their inclusion in bluegrass. Harmony singing, sometimes two part, sometimes three part and, more rarely, four part, is very important and the harmony on these tracks is beautiful.
Bill Monroe is heralded as the father of bluegrass and Jimmy Martin declared himself to be king of bluegrass, but there is a sizable list of people who were there in the early years and helped shape the music. Arthur “Red” Smiley appeared on the scene at the age of twenty-one. In 1949 he joined Don Reno, fresh from a stint as a Blue Grass Boy, in the Tennessee Buddies of Tommy Magness then Reno & Smiley went on their own in 1951. They were a popular pairing and you can still see parts of their TV shows on Ronnie Reno’s show on RFD-TV (featuring a very young Ronnie Reno on mandolin and Mac Magaha – later Porter Wagoner’s fiddle player). Reno & Smiley made great music but disagreement over their touring schedule lead to a split in late 1964.
Smiley and his band, the Blue Grass Cut-Ups, made three recordings for Rural Rhythm before his TV show was cancelled in 1968. Smiley briefly retired, then joined Reno and Bill Harrell in 1970. Red Smiley died January, 2, 1972 at the age of 47.
These two separately released Red Smiley CDs (how could you buy just one?) have a slew of titles most fans will recognize. “Summertime Is Past and Gone,” a Monroe number, features excellent bluegrass harmony. “Roll On Buddy” has been recorded by countless bands through the years. Billy Edwards has a hot hand on the banjo on the recordings. Tater Tate is playing fiddle and tears into a short (1:09) “Big Sandy.” and a hot “Black Eyed Susan.” “Wreck of the Old No. 9″ isn’t as widely played as “Wreck of the Old 97″ but is still recognized by older fans. “Take This Hammer” is associated by many with the folk music movement but was made popular long before that by Huddie “Leadbelly” Leadbetter. “900 Miles” is another old song that is often associated with it’s Folk renditions. “Darling Corey” was made popular by the Monroe Brothers but it’s origin dates well before then and no one knows for sure where it came from.
Volume One’s gospel numbers are still popular today. “Working On A Building” and “Somebody Touched Me” are heard most often but “Something Got Hold of Me” is still heard in bluegrass circles. “Tupelo County Jail” may be most familiar to many as a Webb Pierce or Mel Tillis recording. (Coincidentally, there is an insight into the music business connected to this song. The video linked above includes an introduction to the song by Webb Pierce. He attributes the song to Mel Tillis. On another site you’ll see the song attributed to Tillis and Pierce and the image of the 45 r.p.m. record clearly shows both names. It’s likely Pierce followed a fairly common practice of recording the song only if he got partial writer’s credit.)
Other musicians on these recordings include John Palmer playing bass and Gene Burris/Burrows playing mandolin (which you hear little of) and guitar. Smiley plays guitar, also.
“In The Pines” has crossed genres several times and is heard on a regular basis at bluegrass shows today. “Silver Bells,” a number I’ve heard on guitar, is played here with a banjo-fiddle lead. The last time I heard “Little Birdie” was a couple of years ago on Dr. Ralph Stanley’s show. “Oh! Monah” has an interesting pedigree as a pop song being played in bluegrass. Listening to the intro to Ted Weem’s version, you have to wonder how this could ever translate to bluegrass. The lyrics give a clue but still it’s evidence of the importance of the music making the bluegrass.
“Shady Grove” has been around about forever. Smiley’s version is played at breakneck speed and my preference is Doc Watson’s version. This is one of those songs that has countless versions floating around. “Fallen Leaf,” on the other hand, was a new one for me. A 1952 recording from the John Quincy World Folklore Collection is another example of a genre-jumping number rearranged for bluegrass.
Take a break, let your ears rest, then drop in Volume Two.
The Cut-Ups included several gospel numbers that you’ll hear over and over at bluegrass shows. “Drifting Too Far From the Shore,” “Take Me In the Lifeboat,” “I’ll Be No Stranger There,” (and you’ll hear some mandolin on this one) and “A Beautiful Life” are all familiar songs. Some may remember “The Pale Horse and His Rider,” a song co-written by Walter Bailes and recorded by Hank Williams and Roy Acuff. Williams also recorded “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” a popular song a few decades ago. Listen to the melody and you’ll be reminded of another popular song. “The Man of Galilee” is less known, at least today. “Living the Right Life Now” was recorded around 1961 by Molly O’Day with more of an old-time sound.
Another popular theme in bluegrass is death, sometimes with violence. The death of a child is recorded with “Budded On Earth To Bloom In Heaven.” For all you eclectic music collectors, this is the version recorded by Martha Carson, not Freaky Chakra’s version. Jimmie Davis co-wrote a song Bill Monroe recorded and is remembered by fans, “Plant Some Flowers By My Grave.” This is another example of very good lead singing by Smiley along with good harmony from Tate and Burris/Burrows. These CDs have value for the fan who has been around some years, good singing and good picking, but should not be disregarded by newer fans of bluegrass. Smiley wasn’t breaking new ground with these recordings but they were a part of marking the trail for traditional bluegrass.
It’s a rare festival that doesn’t feature at least one rendition of “Katy Hill.” “Banks of the Ohio,” a popular murder ballad has been recorded by such diverse talents as Dolly Parton, Joan Baez, Olivia Newton-John and a host of others, while Willie kills Molly in “Little Glass of Wine.” None of them have anything on Smiley’s version. “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out of Jail,” “It’s Raining Here This Morning” and “Prisoner’s Dream” all touch on another familar theme, jail time.
“Little Darling Pal of Man,” a Carter Family number, is presented here as an instrumental and, for this pair of CDs, the rare track that should probably have been left off. It features a couple of bass breaks played enthusiastically but with questionable intonation. After the break it seems like the band hasn’t figured out what to do with the banjo jumping in while the rest must be having a cup of coffee for a measure or so. Oh, well, they weren’t perfect. “Prosperity Special,” a 1:02 quickie is a better number that traces back to Bob Wills. Rounding out the CD are “Baby Girl” and the lament “Ain’t Nobondy Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone.”
Red Smiley was a first-generation pioneer in bluegrass, coming on the scene a handful of years after Bill Monroe. It would be a shame if he disappears from the collective bluegrass psyche as the years march by and older fans are no longer here to jostle our memories. Taken one by one this collection doesn’t offer the very best of his work—the cuts are too abbreviated, there’s too much of a feeling that Uncle Jim O’Neal was looking for songs to memorialize rather than putting together an instrument for Smiley and his band. But Smiley did a good job with what he was given and this is a rare opportunity to buy a collection of his music. If you love traditional bluegrass you should be listening to these CDs.