Dick Smith, Washington, DC area musician, passed away unexpectedly in his sleep on Thursday morning July 28, 2022. He was 77 years old.
Born October 4, 1943, and originally from upstate New York, he lived in Alexandria, Virginia for many years. He was equally adept as a mandolin and guitar player in addition to the banjo, the instrument with which he is most closely associated.
According to Bob Perilla ..
“Dick came from the area up around Erie, Pennsylvania, where his childhood was rather tragic. He was orphaned at an early age and really lived a meager hand to mouth existence, consisting very largely of farm labor from the time he was ten or so. Dick loved fine instruments as profoundly as he did largely because he struggled and longed so mightily to get decent ones to play for so very long.”
Smith once recalled, “I can’t remember not listening to bluegrass music,” wanting to “find out if I could make those sounds that I heard on record.” He listened to Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Sonny Osborne, but “never tried to copy anyone.”
He began playing music when 15 years old, his first professional gigs being with his brother Bill as the Smith Brothers. When in his mid-20s Dick Smith cut a side for Revonah Records (the other side of the single that was released featured his brother).
However, his first full-time job came with Country Store (during the mid-1970s). Following that he worked in a band called Nightsun, and then as a member of The Voices Of Bluegrass, who in January 1975 recorded their second album for Revonah.
Caroline Wright, freelance writer/editor, author and President/Founder of Bluegrass Hawaii, remembers some of that time ….
“I grew up in a little town in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, and I remember Dick Smith best from his visits to the Northeast with the Country Store. That band played a couple of shows for the Adirondack Bluegrass League [ABL], and also headlined the Corinth Bluegrass Festival near my hometown. And because our bluegrass society didn’t have a lot of money, bands would often stay with local families, rather than in motels. On one trip, Dick stayed at the house my ancestor built in 1812. I remember him raving about eating cold lasagne sandwiches as a hangover cure in my grandma’s kitchen.
My late mama, a founding member of the ABL, adored Dick. She was the arbiter of great taste when it came to bluegrass; she made sure I grew up with fiddles and banjos ringing in my ears. Other families went to Disneyland; mine went to bluegrass festivals. And that’s how I met Dick Smith. I was just a little girl, but I’ve never forgotten him. In my memories of him, Dick was sweet, and charming, and erudite, and sidesplittingly funny. I am so very sorry to hear of his passing.”
From there he played with Del McCoury for almost four years, joining in 1978, and staying with them until the fall of 1981, working concert dates, appearing at various festivals, spending three weeks in Canada, and in December 1979 touring Japan for eight days with one concert recording being released on an album: Strictly Bluegrass Live – Del McCoury & The Dixie Pals.
As well as making many personal appearances with the band, Smith helped with the early development of Ronnie McCoury’s mandolin style, and assisted with the recording of a studio album in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1981. Writer and singer Eugenia Snyder considered that The Dixie Pals’ line-up that year was the best up to that point.
From November 1981 to 1986 Smith was a salaried member of the Country Gentleman, touring with Charlie Waller, Bill Yates, and mandolin players Jimmy Gaudreau and Jimmy Bowen. The band, often head-liners, appeared at a variety of festivals around the US, made concert appearances at universities and colleges, and in Washington DC-area clubs.
Smith is only featured on one Country Gents’ album: Good As Gold (Sugar Hill). He plays a tune that he wrote, Night Ridin’ (Midwest Banjo Camp, 2016) …
President of the Bluegrass Country Foundation Randy Barrett was another long-time friend …
“I first encountered Dick as a musician here in DC in the late 1980s. He was an ace player, and I had the good fortune to gig with him from time to time and jam at picking parties over the years. But we got to know each other best through our shared love of old Gibson banjos, a topic in which Dick had encyclopaedic knowledge. He was also a consummate craftsman at restoring pre-war banjos and parts.
During the COVID shutdown we lamented together about being stuck at home and not playing out with the really good instruments we have. Dick gave the perfect analogy: ‘It’s like having a Ferrari and only being able to move it around your driveway.'”
In the fall of 1991 when Darren Beachley, Norman Wright, and Kevin Church formed a trio, before the group was ever called The Travelers, Smith would often join them. Beachley commented, “We had us three and musician Dick would fill in on mandolin.”
“Dick was great at giving you advice on music. Not just the teaching part, but why it was better to do it a certain way. I was never aware of his mandolin playing until I was in a band with him, and I say he’s one of the best ..
He had stories from all of the years that he played with Del or The Gents, Country Store etc.. and I was a sponge and soaked all of it up that I could.
He was a great band mate and frien Best shotgun rider you could ever ask for!”
During the early part of this same period Smith played with Perilla’s Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, “We often performed as a four-piece then, since Dick could double so readily and admirably,” Perilla confided.
Smith was much in demand in the mid-1990s as he also worked with The Lynn Morris Band, as Marshall Wilborn relates …
“He played for some time with us (the Lynn Morris Band) around 1994, and went to Europe (on mandolin) with us.”
Lynn Morris Band live- Brugge, Switzerland May 1994
Emma Smith’s Don’t Neglect the Rose followed by a blistering rendition of Daybreak in Dixie
Wilborn adds ….
“Dick was a real friend, great mandolin and banjo player, and always has been supportive of mine and Lynn’s efforts.
He loved the music and was forever supportive and encouraging to any and all who played.”
Also, for a couple of weeks in the mid-1990s Smith deputized for a sick Ray Goins of the Goins Brothers. John Keith, who played mandolin with the brothers from July 1990 to March 1998, elaborated …
“If I recall correctly, we played Lucketts, Virginia, The Spottswood, in Ruckersville, Virginia, and the Sandpiper II in Dundalk, Maryland., SPBGMA and the Ernest Tubbs’ Record Shop.”
From the late 1990s Smith paired with Mike O’Reilly to form the Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly Band, and over the period of about a decade the group released four CDs. They were very popular far beyond their usual stomping ground of the north-east and Canada, even travelling abroad on a few occasions.
Ray Legere, a fellow member of the band recalls …
“(We) performed at festivals in Ontario and upstate New York mostly. We played featured shows in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.”
Honky Tonk Nights Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly
At the time Legere was a student of theirs learning the finer points of bluegrass music…..
“What I remember mostly about Dick is his eagerness to share his knowledge of the music, history and theory, and also all aspects of the bluegrass instruments, especially vintage ones. He was a wealth of information.”
“I’ve sat down with Dick Smith many times and tried to glean as much mandolin knowledge as I could. He was a great resource. He was my neighbor for about 11 years in Alexandria. Not to mention getting instrument knowledge, small repair knowledge, and so on. Shortly after we met in 2003, in his living room no less, he said, ‘if I played fiddle half as good as you, I’d never touch a f*ckin mandolin.
Damn! This one hurts!”
Dick Smith – Big Mon (also at Midwest Banjo Camp, 2016)
Smith plays second mandolin (Baltimore Traditions – 2018 Charm City Bluegrass Festival)
Since 2019 Smith played banjo with The Jerry McCoury Band, playing his last show on July 17 at a lodge in Annapolis, Maryland. McCoury recalls, “He played very well and seemed in good spirits.”
McCoury reflects further ….
“He was an amazing fella. I know back when he was with Del’s band, we had a lot of fun times. Not only a great musician, but he was also a really talented guy in many other things. He told me once that he had worked in a tire plant, recapping tires. If I had any trouble around home, he always had an answer.
He was a good carpenter and a good plumber… One time we took Del’s old Greyhound all the way to California. I remember he and Del stopped at a hardware store along the way and came back out with all kinds of plumbing fixtures. By the time we got back Dick had plumbed us a bathroom for the bus.
He was just an extraordinary guy. He just knew how to do almost anything.
He also was a huge influence on Ronnie’s mandolin playing.
Dick was a great asset to Del’s band, and to any band he was a part of.
He was not only a band mate in Del’s band; he was a member of our family. My girls would sit and listen to the ghost stories he would tell around a campfire at a festival.
Whenever he was around, you never had to worry about finding something to talk about.
He was like a brother to me and Del.”
Dick Smith playing Foggy Mountain Top
DC area musician Ira Gitlin, who gigged with Smith occasionally, noted another aspect …..
“He exemplified ‘The three T’s’: timing, tone, and taste. Not only was he a total hoss (as we bluegrass folks like to say) as a player, but he was also a wizard at banjo setup, and a collector (pack-rat?) who knew tons about the history of Gibson (and other) banjos. He was always willing to take the time to talk about music and instruments with anyone who was interested.”
Also, Smith worked with many early bluegrass pioneers, such as Bill Clifton and Don Stover, Joe Stuart, and Red Rector and Bill Harrell.
Through the years Smith was a regular attendee at Randy Wood’s annual picking party.
R.I.P. Dick Smith
BluegrassToday acknowledges the assistance of Bob Perilla, Darren Beachley, Jerry McCoury, John Keith, Ray Legere, Marshall Wilborn, and Frank Solivan, and thanks Caroline Wright and Randy Barrett for sharing their memories.
- Lonesome Banjo (Revonah 45-701, c. 1970)
Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly Band
- Dick Smith & Mike O’Reilly Band (New Era NE-CD-100, 1998)
- A Honky Tonk Frame Of Mind (New Era NE-CD 200, 2005)
- Life’s Road (New Era NE-CD 300, 2005)
- On The Town (New Era NE-CD 400, 2008)
- Country Store (Rebel Records SLP 1534, 1974)
The Voices Of Bluegrass
- The Voices Of Bluegrass Vol. II (Revonah S 918, 1976)
Del McCoury and The Dixie Pals
- Strictly Bluegrass Live (Trio [Japan] AW-2054, September 1981)
- Live In Japan (US issue on Copper Creek CCCD-0118, 1980)
- Take Me To The Mountains (Leather LBG-8107 – 81 (reissued on Rebel REB-1622 in 1983)
- Classic Bluegrass (Rebel REB-CD-1111, April 26, 1991)
- Good As Gold (Sugar Hill SH-3734– 05-10-83)
- The Patuxent Banjo Project (Patuxent Music CD-250, 2014) – Dear Old Dixie