Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina

Luke and Harold Smathers: NCAC Folk Heritage Award Recipients

Sounds from Bea's Kitchen

It's Sunday night, the supper dishes have been cleared, the kitchen table has been moved back and the folding chairs have been set in a circle.
Luke lights up his pipe and Charles passes out the Juicy Fruit gum.

It's Sunday night in Bea's kitchen in Canton, and The Luke Smathers Band is tuning up.

This will be an evening unlike other string band meetings in Western North Carolina.
For more than sixty years, Luke and his brother Harold have served up their own brand of music known as mountain swing.

Drawing from their vast repertoire of tunes dating from the 20s, 30s and 40s, The Luke Smathers Band plays an engaging blend of swing, traditional fiddle tunes and western favorites.

The sound from Bea's kitchen have always been produced by a compilation of family members.

Luke, Harold and brother George began their musical endeavors in the 1920s, playing the traditional fiddle tunes indigenous to their hometown.
Their musical interests broadened as the influence of the radio became more prevalent during these early days.

Soon Luke was fiddling the pop tunes of the day: Whispering, Sweet Georgia Brown and those new tunes from out West like Maiden's Prayer. Even today, The Luke Smathers Band continues to gather material from the radio.

The band has changed personnel over the years, still drawing primarily from talented family members.

For almost 10 years, Bea Smathers'contribution to the band was more than her kitchen.

The diminutive Bea, often dressed in canary yellow evoking visions of the little bird, would hoist the string bass to round out the solid rhythmic sound for which The Luke Smathers Band is known.
Her smiling face and twinkling eyes always hinted at the secrets and love that she and Luke shared for each other and their music.

It is with love and with memories of Bea that The Luke Smathers Band dedicates this recording.

Bea remained a committed member of the band until her death in 1987.

As was her wish, Luke continues to fiddle, and on Sunday nights there can still be heard sound from Bea's Kitchen.

from a tribute written for Bea Smathers on the band's last recording, Sounds From Bea's Kitchen.


Luke Smathers

Servin' up mountain swing - Luke Smathers
By Michael Beadle

If Luke Smathers found a place for the treasured memories of his musical career, it would have been in a wood-paneled room called 'Bea's Kitchen.'

Named after his wife of more than 50 years, who died in 1987, the room is where Smathers and his string band practiced for decades. Before Luke died on July 16, he named their last album, Sounds From Bea's Kitchen, as a tribute to his wife.

On Sundays, the band would gather in Bea's Kitchen to play a style of music known as mountain swing. Over the past 70 years, the band produced three albums, garnered prestigious awards and found a place in state and national archives.

Bea's Kitchen is in the heart of the house that Luke built—quite literally—not too far from his childhood home.
Born in 1914, he grew up on an 18-acre farm in the same neighborhood where he now lives. His father, a carpenter and brick mason, died of a heart attack when Luke was about 5 years old. That left a mother and five children to keep the farm going.

"We really had to work when I was growing up," Luke recalled.

The family raised all the food they ate. But when it came time for entertainment, Luke and his brothers hooked up a car battery to a radio.

Back in those days, it was difficult to learn new songs because there were no tape recorders, and radio songs weren't played over and over like they are today, Luke explained. So it might be a week or two before you would hear the same song on the radio.

Fortunately for the Smathers brothers, their sister, Lorene, knew shorthand, so she would copy down the lyrics.
Luke's older brother, George, was working at the Canton Post Office, when he got the idea to order some musical instruments through a Sears Roebuck catalog.
Luke got a ukulele, Harold got a banjo, George got a guitar, and Mom got to hear a lot of music.

"I don't know how in the world she stood all of that," Luke recalled. "She wanted us to play. ... We never had any instructions. I learned by ear."

From the ukulele, Luke picked up the banjo and eventually settled on the fiddle. Harold went to the guitar. The brothers tried other instruments as well when Canton's Champion plant sponsored a marching band and concert band. Luke played trumpet, Harold played trombone and George played clarinet.

At 16 years old, Luke's appendix ruptured. He recuperated in the hospital for three weeks and played the banjo for nurses and fellow patients.

"And I didn't go back to school after that," he said.

He and his brothers formed the Smathers' Family Band in the late 1920s. They'd play for local YMCA dances and ice cream socials and later for the annual Mountain Folk and Dance Festivals in Asheville. The band never tried to book events, Luke said. People just liked what they heard and invited the band to play.

Their tunes developed into a bouncy brand of music known as mountain swing—a blend of Western swing, old-time mountain music and the big band sound of the 1920s and '30s.

By the time World War II broke out and the draft thrust his brothers Harold and George into military service, the band had to split up. Luke stayed home during the war, exempted by his job as a machinist.

Then in 1946, his musical career nearly came to a halt. In a mill accident involving a grinding machine, Luke mashed a couple of fingers on his right hand—the pinky and ring fingers on the bow hand he used for playing the fiddle. The two fingers were useless, never straightening up, so after about a year, he had them amputated.

But Luke's determination to continue playing the fiddle drove him. Sticking some double-sided carpet tape on the end his bow handle, he learned to grip the bow just right so he could play once more.

"That's what it takes for me," he said. "I'd get my fiddle out and practice. ... I didn't forget how to play."

A lot of old-time fiddlers lack the repertoire and just stick with the same old songs, Luke said, but his interest in swing music and bluegrass kept him creative.

"I was learning new tunes all the time,"he said. "I guess that's what kept me going."

After a 25-year hiatus, Luke's band started up again in 1968. Quay Smathers, who played with the band from the early 1930s to 1943, was the one who helped get the band back together, according to David Holt, a former band member and recent Grammy Award winner.

But Quay—no relation to Luke—eventually broke off to form his own family band with his daughters, so Luke decided to change the name of his band to "The Luke Smathers Band."
"People'd get us mixed up," Luke said, explaining the change.

The band members changed over the years to include J.T. Smathers and Luke's wife Bea. The latest band members included Charles Gidney on guitar, Hillary Dirlam on stand-up bass, Laura Boosinger on banjo and Luke on fiddle.
"I was very flattered when they asked me to join this," said Gidney, Luke's grand nephew who joined the band about 1970.

Charmed by the mountain swing melodies as a child, Gidney grew up listening to The Smathers' Family Band at ice cream socials. It was a sound unlike anything he had ever heard.

"I just fell in love with it," he said.

As a fan turned performer, Gidney has seen the time Luke puts into his music. Luke is a perfectionist who knows where a note is supposed to be in a song, he said.
He may have been famous for his fiddle playing, but he was also a music teacher for those willing to learn. When his daughter Linda wanted to play the accordion, Luke learned how to play the instrument himself to help her learn the bass notes. He also helped his wife learn how to play the stand-up bass.

"He's helped so many young people too," Gidney said. "He taught me a whole lot. ... And we're still learning new songs."

In all, Luke's band recorded three albums—Mountain Swing, In Full Swing, and Sounds From Bea's Kitchen.

After the band reorganized in 1968, it played in big cities all over—Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian Institute, Baltimore for the World's Fair, Knoxville, Cincinnati and Charleston.
When that mountain swing came alive, Luke could see folks in the audience tapping their feet and clapping their hands.
"You know they're enjoying it then," he said as his eyes shined above a wide grin.

He didn't forget the time he and his band were invited to play for the WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago. Just before they were about to perform, they were told they wouldn't be allowed to play there because they didn't belong to a musician's union.

"I didn't have any use for unions after that," Luke said.
As a member of a band that had been around for so long, Luke collected quite a number of honors. There were letters from state officials and fans from France, Italy and England. The band's music is stored in the Library of Congress and the N.C. Museum of History. And in 1993, Luke and his brother, Harold, were honored with the N.C. Folk Heritage Award.

After retiring from the Champion International plant in Canton in 1977, Luke decided he wanted to tinker with something, so he got some books, read up on how to make his favorite instrument and made three fiddles by hand.
"It's a slow process," he explained, admiring one of his creations made of curly maple and spruce wood.

Into his last years, Luke served as a member of the Folk Heritage Committee, overseeing local festivals such as the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival held every August.
It was a long road from that first day when he picked up a ukulele.

"I really enjoy it," he said. "If I hadn't, I wouldn't have stayed with it this long."

And at 83 years old, he could still serve up some mountain swing for an ear-hungry guest.

"Well, I can't play like I used to," he said, calling it "squeaks and squawks" but happy to play just the same. "I've enjoyed it, had a lot of fun and met a lot of nice people."

Could heaven have a fiddle waiting for Luke Smathers? "I don't know," he said, laughing. "Maybe I can make one up there."