This lovely memorial to long time bluegrass entertainer Smokey Greene is a contribution from Eric Gibson of The Gibson Brothers.
Smokey Greene passed away on October 19th at 93, a ripe old age by any standard, but for those of us in the Northeast’s bluegrass scene (and beyond), it feels too soon. We felt like Smokey would last forever, because for us he has always been. I don’t know how many shows of his I have seen, but I never saw one where he didn’t give his all or provide the lucky audience a range of emotions. He’d have us laughing one moment at I Just Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore, and hiding a tear during Ira Hayes the next.
He played from Canada to Florida, “Keeping Country in Country Music,” as he liked to say. Whether with a band or by himself, Smokey stood tall on the stage with what the military calls command presence. Maybe he learned to stand that way in the Air Force where he served during the Korean War. He reminded me of a ship’s captain up there, rugged and right, that husky yet friendly voice making you feel like everything was going to be okay, kind of a Hillbilly John Wayne.
His music was focused mostly in the Northeast, where his home, family, and job were. Smokey had his opportunities to make music more of a full-time deal — he told me on two separate occasions that Don Reno had asked him to hit the road with him — but Smokey wanted that pension and stability for his family. He recorded numerous albums, on any platform you could name through the years, vinyl, eight-track, cassette, and CD, each selling “well under a million copies.”
He wore many hats in this business, including radio DJ, promoting classic country shows at various venues, and eventually his own, and running his own week-long (!) bluegrass festival for many years. Jenny Brook’s Candi Sawyer, a very close friend of Smokey’s, told me that he proudly told her many times that he started New York State’s first bluegrass festival in Corinth in 1973. The event then moved to Porter’s Corners and then to the Washington County Fairgrounds, the site where Leigh and I met Smokey and played his open stage in 1988, the festival’s final year.
A beautiful memorial service was held for Smokey on Saturday. The funeral director had asked the family how many people should be expected at the funeral home. Someone in Smokey’s family said, “Not many. He’s outlived everybody.” Calling hours were to begin at 11:00 that morning, but so many people were standing outside the door at 10:30 that they were let in. They kept coming, so many that the funeral that was to start at 1:00 p.m. instead began at 1:45. Smokey would have grinned. He could still draw a crowd.
His final show was right on the money. His daughter-in-law Judy couldn’t have been better, sharing beautiful memories. We laughed and shed a few tears. I could see his pipes up front and thought of how great that pipe smoke always smelled as we visited. He stopped being called Walter Greene in 1943 at the age of thirteen when he started smoking one.
His old tattered guitar case, held together by duct tape and festival stickers, was there, his beautiful old weathered Martin beside it. My good friend Seth Sawyer said after the funeral, “We should have given him one more standing ovation at the end.”
We should have!
Judy said one thing that has haunted me all week. Smokey’s dream was to sing one time at the Grand Ole Opry, the home of so many heroes he’d booked through the years. I wish that would have happened also, but it didn’t.
The man was special. Many of us believe he should have garnered more recognition. However, in viewing Smokey’s interview video last year filmed in recognition of his induction into New York’s Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Hall of Fame, I see a man nearing his earthly end proud of what he has accomplished and so happy with his lot in life.
May that happen for all of us.
God bless you, Smokey.