Guitar Man: Arthur Smith


By Ralph Grizzle


Throughout the 1940s, Charlotte area radio listeners frequently dialed in to WBT radio for the 15-minute morning broadcasts of "Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks." The Crackerjacks – the back up singers and players comprised of Arthur's brothers Ralph and Sonny, and a local boy, Roy Lear - derived their name by flipping through the dictionary. When they arrived at the word "crackerjack," which Webster's Unabridged defines as "a thing of highest excellence," they not only settled on a name but also a guiding principle that made theirs one of the most popular broadcasts in the history of North Carolina radio.


Cleanliness and Christianity were hallmarks of these and other broadcasts that Arthur Smith would be a part of for the next five decades. "We were the guys next door," Smith told the Charlotte Observer in 1995. "I reviewed the Sunday school lesson. We closed with a hymn. There was no vulgarity, no smut."


What made those early radio broadcasts particularly endearing was Arthur Smith's guitar playing.  He mesmerized listeners who had never heard anyone play quite so quickly. "My style of playing has always been fast and single-string," Smith says. "I never did the Chet Atkins style of playing. For country music, this was something new."


But it wasn't something new for Smith. Then in his twenties, he had been racing his fingers over the frets and strings since picking up his first guitar at age 8. Even before that, beginning at age 6, he had played trumpet for Sunday afternoon concerts in a band sponsored by the Kershaw, South Carolina, textile mill where his father worked. "There were two things that textile companies did back in those days," Smith said. "They sponsored a semi-pro baseball team [for which Smith played] and a band. My dad taught people to play brass instruments for the band, but I liked string instruments, so I transferred what I could to the guitar."


By doing so, Smith laid the foundation for a long career in the entertainment business.


Following in his father's footsteps, Smith went to work at the Spring Mills textile plant at age 14. On Saturdays, after the long workweek,  he traveled (often driving, even though he was too young to have a driver's license) with his brothers to South Carolina radio stations - in Florence, Columbia and Charleston - to perform live music. Executives at RCA Victor heard one of those broadcasts and sent word to the Smiths to ask if a field rep for the company might come out and record them. A year later, at age 15, Smith signed on as a recording artist for RCA Victor.


Smith, who was gaining some notoriety as a musician, was also establishing himself as a radio personality. At age 20, he hosted live shows on WSPA in Spartanburg. A couple of years later, WBT's station manager Charlie Crutchfield called to ask Smith to come to work for the then-CBS-affiliate. Smith packed his bags and moved to Charlotte, where he's lived ever since. At WBT, Smith provided guitar and fiddle music for WBT's shows until 1943, when he was joined by his brothers for the debut of his own show.


Carolina listeners quickly warmed to the voice and tunes of Arthur Smith. Then in 1948, his music spread beyond the borders of the Carolinas when Smith gained national notoriety for a song that he wrote and recorded, "Guitar Boogie." The fast-paced playing was something new for listeners. The recording challenged the music industry, because no one was quite sure what chart to put it in. This, "Guitar Boogie" became the first instrumental to reach the top of the Country charts then crossover to reach the top of the Pop charts. Smith's composition has sold more than 4 million copies. Impressive. But his biggest hit would come 25 years later.


With his career moving as fast as his fingers, Smith signed on with MGM - he and Bob Wills were the first country music artists to record for the entertainment giant. Then something extraordinary happened. In 1949, TV cameras were rolled into WBT, and WBTV signed on to become the first television station in the Carolinas. Two years later, 30-year-old Smith would stand in front of one of those cameras each Thursday night to broadcast "The Arthur Smith Show." It was WBTV's first live TV show and the first country music television show to be syndicated nationally.


The show ran for 32 consecutive years, and it seemed that everyone in the Charlotte area was tuned in. In a 1995 interview with the Charlotte Observer, Smith said: "I have people 90 years old saying, 'Man, I've been watching you all my life.' " But the residents of Charlotte weren't the only ones listening. One of the show's biggest fans was golf great Arnold Palmer, who always tuned in to watch what he called his "favorite show." On Palmer's 50th birthday, Smith showed up on Palmer's doorstep in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Winnie Palmer had arranged for the entertainer to perform for her husband and friends.


The list of guest appearances on "The Arthur Smith Show" reads like a Who's Who List of Entertainers. There were musical artists, including Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash; celebrities such as Andy Griffith, who had applied for a job at WBT in 1941 but was turned down because he demanded $75 a week; and even politicians. Viewers never would have guessed that Richard Nixon, who appeared on the show in 1954, would later become the nation's president. The future leader of the United States tickled the ivories to play "Home on the Range." Smith recalled that performance as being "pretty good."


During the 1950s and 1960s, "The Arthur Smith Show" received about 1,000 pieces of fan mail each week addressed to the fictitious TV station from which the show aired, WEE-TV in Happy Valley. Smith's show reportedly received more mail than WBT itself, and in 1962, "The Arthur Smith Show" boasted better ratings among Charlotte viewers than any other broadcast except for "Perry Mason."


It was apparent that Smith's down-home style appealed to viewers. But one of the most unusual accounts of Smith's audience appeal came when he stood beside his friend Hugh Morton in the 1950s to wrestle the state and federal government. Morton, owner of Grandfather Mountain, discovered that the government was planning to condemn his property to acquire a new Blue Ridge Parkway right-of-way. The right-of-way would allow the government to cut a highway into and across Grandfather's rocky slopes. Morton claimed that such an act would be equal to "taking a switchblade to the Mona Lisa." Morton put up his fists.


He took his case to the North Carolina Highway Commission. The capital city's WRAL-TV invited Morton to its studio to debate North Carolina's chief highway engineer. The station encouraged Morton to bring along an "expert." The commissioner brought a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers expert, who walked in with a cache of maps, charts and graphs to show the audience. Morton brought Arthur Smith.


After the opposing side made their points and Morton had made his, Smith spoke up, directing his comments to the television audience. He told viewers that he was not a government expert and that he did not have charts or maps to prove his case but that he believed a man had a right to do what he wanted to do with his own property. Smith went on to say that in his opinion Morton was taking good care of Grandfather Mountain and that he did not see what right a bunch of Washington bureaucrats had to take it away from him. The switchboard lit up with calls from viewers who phoned in to express their support for Morton.


The debate arguably could have inspired Smith to write what would become his biggest hit, "Feuding Banjos." Smith, who had learned a thing or two about debating during the Morton episode, had to fight for something that the court later decided was rightfully his.


Though he wrote the piece and recorded "Feuding Banjos" in 1955, it wasn't until 1973 that it became one of the all-time best-sellers. That year, Warner Brothers renamed and claimed the tune as a traditional adaptation for use as the theme in the motion picture "Deliverance."


Wayne Haas, a friend of Smith's at a radio station, called to tell Smith: "I'm listening to Feuding Banjos, but they don't call it that, and it ain't got your name on it." Smith sued Warner Bros. and won a landmark copyright infringement case in federal court. "Dueling Banjos" became BMI's Song of the Year, selling more than 8 million copies within six months of its release.


Smith owns more than 500 active copyrights. He has recorded more than 100 albums - for ABC Paramount, CBS, Dot, MGM, Monument, Polydor, and RCA. He has written more than 100 inspirational and gospel music compositions recorded by such artists as George Beverly Shea, Johnny Cash, Barbara Mandrel, The Gatlin Brothers, The Statler Brothers, and Ricky Van Shelton.


Smith's are some of the most recorded inspirational songs: "Acres of Diamonds" "Because Jesus Said It" "I Saw A Man" "I've Been With Jesus" "The Fourth Man" "Not My Will." Smith also is the composer of 12 major motion picture soundtracks, including Dark Sunday and Buckstone County Prison.


Never one to sit still, Smith also produced, marketed and syndicated national radio programs for 25 years hosted by Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, Richard Petty, George Beverly Shea, and Amy Vanderbilt.


Smith's own syndicated radio show, "Top of the Morning," ran for an unbroken span of 30 years for one sponsor, Bost Bread. On that show, Smith hawked bread and dispensed gospel teachings. "This is the day the Lord has made; rejoice and be glad of it," he twanged as the sun rose each morning. He and his wife Dorothy put music to those biblical words on the way to Myrtle Beach one day, Smith told the Charlotte Observer.


In 1957, Smith created the first recording studio in the two Carolinas. In addition to his own recordings, his studio productions included national artists: Johnny Cash, James Brown, Flatt & Scruggs, Pat Boone, Ronnie Milsap, George Beverly Shea, and The Statler Brothers to mention a few. In the early years, the features for Billy Graham's Hour of Decision were produced at Smith's studios.


The entrepreneur also operated Arthur Smith Family Inns, a hotel chain; The Meat Center, grocery store chain; CMH Records, a specialty record company; and White Point, a seafood restaurant.


Even his hobby, sport fishing, became something of a business. He founded the Arthur Smith Sportfishing Tournaments, which ran for almost 20 years at various sites on the Carolina coast, Florida, New York, and The Great Lakes. These were widely recognized as the world's largest sportfishing events.


Smith began the fishing tournaments out of concern for marine conservation. He even established a marine conservation endowment, which contributed to the construction of jetties, artificial reefs, and estuary enhancement in the site areas where the tournaments were conducted. His love of fishing led to the Arthur Smith Sportfishing Series, which aired on ESPN for 12 consecutive years. It was one of the original programs in the ESPN Outdoors block of programming. 



One could argue that Arthur Smith accomplished all of this because he preferred string instruments to brass ones. His fame allowed him to do so much. But there's another explanation, one that is apparent to those who met Arthur Smith. And that is that he lived by the Crackerjack principle, always aspiring to the highest level of excellence.


Awards - presented over the years - to Arthur Smith 

* the Broadcasters Hall of Fame presented by North Carolina Association of Broadcasters

* State of North Carolina Order of The Long Leaf Pine

* North Carolina Folk Heritage Award

* American Advertising Federation Silver Medal Award

* Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) Special Citation of Achievement (over 1 million broadcast performances of original compositions)

* BMI Song of the Year Award 1973

* Council on International Nontheatrical Events Golden Eagle Award

* International Real Life Adventure Film Festival (First Place Award - Soundtrack).

* Doctorate of Human Letters, Steed College

* Southeast Tourism Society Award 1985

* American Legion emphasis Award

* Girl Scouts of America Emphasis Award

* Southern Baptist Layman of the Year Award 1969.