Haywood County brothers Luke and Harold Smathers blended the rhythms of traditional mountain dance music with the improvisations of blues and swing. Luke’s creative fiddling and Harold’s driving closed-chord guitar playing brought to life a diverse repertory of old-time string band, swing band, and early country music favorites. Their style is best described in their own words as “mountain swing.”
The battery-operated radio was a chief source of new songs for them in the 1920s and 1930s. They grew up listening to the National Barn Dance, a program broadcast from station WLS in Chicago. The Smathers String Band began to enjoy extraordinary local popularity soon after the brothers organized their group in the late 1920s. They won first place in WWNC’s Saturday Night Shindig contest, attracting over 2,300 mail votes, and became a mainstay for dances in the community. Every Saturday night for many years, the band played at the YMCA in Canton.
The Smathers’ band performed continuously until 1946 and began playing regularly again in 1968 when the brothers reactivated their earlier repertory. Despite their success as musicians, Luke and Harold Smathers never attempted to commercialize their music. They, like most traditional musicians, played music for pleasure and did not depend on it as a way to make a living.
The Smathers’ openness to new ideas, combined with their solid grounding in regional tradition and their excellent musicianship, distinguished their music and attracted other musicians. The Sunday night jam sessions at Luke’s house, and the Smathers’ eagerness to share their time and musical knowledge, inspired and encouraged numerous younger musicians. The Smathers brothers received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1993.