MOUNTAIN GROWN MUSIC • CELEBRATING THE TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN MUSIC OF HAYWOOD COUNTY NORTH CAROLINA
Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina
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Quay Smathers:
NCAC Folk Heritage Award Recipient

A master carpenter, shaped-note singer, music teacher, and rhythm guitarist, Quay Smathers was a patriarch of the Dutch Cove community outside of Canton, N.C., where he was born (May 9, 1913) and raised. Smathers taught a generation of some of the finest musicians and shaped-note singers in the South. During the 1970s, up-and-coming musicians like David Holt, John McCutcheon, Laura Boosinger came to learn what they could from Smathers, who would often offer visiting singers and musicians a place to eat and rest at his home.

Smathers learned shaped-note singing as a boy and later imparted his knowledge of the sight-reading technique to countless others as a teacher at Mars Hill College and Warren Wilson College in N.C. and Berea College in Kentucky. With his family band (which consisted of his three daughters and two of their husbands), Smathers toured all over the South and Midwest to festivals, events and colleges. Quay received the N.C. Folk Heritage Award in 1991 and was repeatedly honored for his contributions of preserving shaped-note singing and traditional folk music. He died on Jan. 22, 1997.

 

Quay Smathers

Giving shape to mountain music - Quay Smathers


Ride through Canton—or Western North Carolina for that matter—and you get a glimpse of the legacy Quay Smathers left behind.

As a master carpenter, he built funeral homes, churches, houses and countless pieces of furniture. As a music teacher, he taught students who became prominent folk musicians. And for nearly 50 years, he led the shaped-note singing tradition at Morning Star United Methodist Church in Dutch Cove.

Throughout the South and Midwest, Quay Smathers was synonymous with preserving shaped-note singing and playing old-time mountain music.

But perhaps more than anything, he imparted a warmth in his music, as if each note came with a flickering tongue of the Holy Spirit, as if he were the shepherd welcoming anyone and everyone through the heavenly gates into the paradise of Christian Harmony church songs.

Born in 1913 and raised on a farm in the Dutch Cove community just outside Canton, Quay was the second youngest of six children and the son of devout Christian parents. His mother chose his unique first name from a tombstone, according to his second wife Sue Smathers.
By the time he was 6, Quay began singing and learning music at his mother's knee. One of the cove's old-timers, Bob Miller, loaned young Quay his first songbook. It was the first of many old song books he would keep as he preserved the tradition of shaped-note singing, a sight-reading method of learning to read music used by church choirs.

As a teen-ager, he learned how to sing the shaped-note hymns of Christian Harmony, a particular song-book which had shaped-note songs.

Committed as he was to music, Quay had a mischievous side as a boy, a trait that developed into a sharp sense of wit as he grew older.

In his younger days, his church's congregation found itself in a heated debate over whether to use an organ. Quay didn't much care either way, but he and a friend sneaked into church one day and switched the reeds around on the organ.

So the next day when the organist played music on it, all the wrong notes came out. The church wound up getting rid of the organ.

Then there was the time when Quay and some friends decided to skip chores, steal a chicken and cook up chicken and dumplings. It worked out great until they discovered their cooking pot happened to be a chamber pot.

Quay was an avid fox hunter who roamed Dutch Cove with three or four hound dogs, but he eventually abandoned hunting for the four-stringed tenor banjo and soon became the black sheep of the family for choosing such an instrument.

"And when he picked up the banjo, why that ruined him," Sue Smathers joked.

Quay started picking the guitar when he was 17 years old and then went on to the tenor banjo. In the 1930s, he joined The Smathers' Family Band, which was comprised of George, Luke and Harold Smathers (no relation to Quay). The band became popular playing at local ice cream socials and stuck together until World War II, when a couple of the members were drafted.

"They were the band in this area,"said Charles Gidney, who grew up listening to The Smathers'Family Band and now plays regularly with Luke Smathers.

Taking advantage of the local talent, Quay learned from master fiddlers like Aldie Smathers and Samantha Bumgarner and banjo pickers like Millard Stamey.
By the early 1970s, Quay's three daughters were learning to play musical instruments and took an interest in performing, so Quay would invite musicians and young people to his house for Friday night jam sessions.
"And they all came to Quay," Sue Smathers said. "He didn't turn one down."

At first she was a little apprehensive about bringing long-haired hippies into her home, but Quay assured his wife, "They'll make fine men."

"Quay could see through 'em, I reckon,"she said.

Tad Wright, who was one of those students, recalled how Quay once said he didn't notice the hippie's hair, just the banjo music he was playing.

And if Quay invited you to play, he didn't expect you to slack off any, according to Laura Boosinger, a banjo player who often came to play with Smathers.

He would whistle a tune until his student couldn't help but learn it, his wife recalled. And as they stayed to sing or play—sometimes from 6:30 p.m. on up to 1 a.m.—the musicians would get snacks or a home-cooked meal from 'Mama Sue', as they called Quay's wife.

"My mom would cut their hair on the back porch,"said Elizabeth Smathers-Shaw, one of Quay's daughters. Guests could even camp out back and take showers in the house as they passed through on the way to music festivals.

Looking back, Shaw thinks there was more to it than just the fun of jam sessions. Quay, who had been raised with strong Christian values as a child, was imparting his virtues, his respect for family and his love to these young men and women who came to him to play.

Those who met him learned something deeper than music, according to David Holt, another musician who came to the Smathers home.

"Quay had a sense of how things should be,"Holt said. "And that was in music and many other things. ... He loved it when young people were learning."

Kirk Randleman was a student at Mars Hill College in 1972 when he met Quay. Randleman admits he didn't know a lot about music but was still invited to play with Quay at the Lunsford Festival.

ÒHe made you feel important,Ó Randleman said. ÒHe was one of the best rhythm guitarists I ever heard.Ó
For a young musician unsure of himself, Randleman said it was a relief to learn from a person like Quay who didn't get temperamental when you made mistakes.

But the master would also keep his students attentive.
"You're deviatin'from the tune," he'd say. He'd warn singers and musicians not to 'bluegrass it',meaning not to play a song too fast but instead keep it true to its old-time style.

In 1973, Quay and his daughters—June, Cynthia and Liz—formed the Dutch Cove String Band. Liz's husband, Lynn Shaw, and June's husband, Zeb Jolley, also played with the band over its 20-year history.

They played at festivals and colleges all over the South and Midwest, recorded an album called Sycamore Tea, won best band awards at the local Asheville Folk Festival and Smoky Mountain Folk Festival, and toured the Southeast with the Southern Appalachian Cloggers.
The band took trips to festivals and colleges during the weekends, leaving for a show on Friday and getting back Sunday.

But the traveling took its toll. After visiting a festival in Remus, Michigan, Quay gathered his daughters, took out a protractor and found Canton on a map. Drawing a circle representing a 50-mile radius around Canton, he said he would not travel more than 50 miles away from Canton because he had heart problems and found it too tiring to travel.

Twice the band broke the agreement—once for Quay to travel to Raleigh to receive his N.C. Folk Heritage Award in 1991 and the other time for a final band performance in 1993 at Carowinds when the Charlotte Folk Music Society honored the band and awarded him for his preservation of traditional folk music.

Though he'd be off touring and playing with the band on weekends, he made his living during the week as a carpenter.

He built his house and filled and decorated it with homemade wooden dressers, cabinets, birdhouses, frames and candle holders. When the family needed extra rooms for new children, he built on a new wing and furnished it with wooden dressers and shelves that he made as well.
Not bad for a teenager who built his first cabin with the shingles put on backwards, making the roof leak.
Quay Smathers became a patriarch of old-time music and shaped-note singing. He taught shaped-note singing classes at Warren Wilson College, Mars Hill College and Berea College in Kentucky, and never seemed to miss an opportunity to teach a new acquaintance about shaped notes.

By the end of his life, heart surgery and cancer limited his mobility, so he gave up music and carpentry for gardening. But even with the change of pace, he told his wife, "I thoroughly enjoy my life."

After he died of cancer in January, hundreds turned out for his funeral, more than two dozen Christian Harmony singers from as far away as Florida came, and Kirk Randleman played The Carpenter's Song on guitar. "He will be missed by all of us," Randleman said.

 

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