Snuffy Smith – long time North Carolina picker retiring

Retirement is a goal for most people. Retirement from a lifetime of playing bluegrass music is rare. Retirement from performing 50 years with the same band is unheard of in bluegrass. Yet that is just what Thomas Lee “Snuffy” Smith did!

After playing bass for the central North Carolina based band, Bluegrass Experience, for five decades Smith, 77, has decided to take a well-deserved rest.

“My hearing (due to working near sawmills, gun shots, and my age) is not as good as it used to be. My timing is slipping, too. The pandemic got me used to not playing.”

As Snuffy was growing up on a tobacco farm in Lemon Springs, NC, his dad was a guitarist who played for square dances. The young Smith’s first participation in music was singing in the country church choir. As a teenager, he began playing rhythm guitar. At age 20, he took up the bass to fill a void.

“About a dozen of us played. I was the third worst guitar player in the crowd and we didn’t have a bass.”

He shared how he got his nickname. Many folks don’t even know his legal name.

“In college, with my rural ways and hillbilly accent, I got the nickname.”

Snuffy is quite the character and a good storyteller, reminiscent of the late Mitch Jayne, another colorful bassist who played with the original Dillards. When asked what sparked his initial interest in music, he had a snappy reply.

“Quoting Fiddlin’ Al (McCanless, the band’s fiddler), I couldn’t get any girls that would go out with me, so I started playing music. I still didn’t, so I got better.”

McCanless related how he met his future band mate in the mid ’60s. “I was a student at UNC and had a friend at NC State, Buck Peacock. We had a band in high school. Buck fell in with a bunch of bluegrass pickers that would meet at a big white wooden framed house in Raleigh. On weekends, it was party central with picking, drinking, and other forms of sinning I can’t mention here. I would hitchhike over there on Friday afternoon after class and spend the weekend. There I met Snuffy for the first time.”

“As I got to know him, one thing impressed me…his industriousness. He was the only one of us who ever seemed to have any money. He owned an old Chevy station wagon to carry his bass fiddle and a motorcycle.”

McCanless continued, “We were all learning to play bluegrass. I had just taken up fiddle and Snuffy was the only bass player. Bands coalesced, dissolved, and reformed in an infinite number of combinations and permutations. Snuffy and I, being the only players in the violin family, always had a position.”

“We started going to every fiddlers’ convention held around North Carolina. We were a bit of an oddity, being long-haired hippie want-to-bees playing bluegrass music. Eventually, we got a real job at the Keg in Raleigh making $10 apiece plus all the beer we could drink.”

“Our house parties were legendary. People would come from far and wide to gather in the big downstairs living room. There was music, dancing, drinking, and ultimately, many of us met our future partners there.”

The fiddler even had a humorous story to relate. “After a party, most of us had fallen down on any available bed in a drunken stupor. Snuffy got out his fiddle at about 2:00 a.m. and started playing Chinese Breakdown. I don’t think the neighbors found it too entertaining and called the police. He kept playing till the police walked up on the porch and politely asked him to stop. He complied so he avoided arrest. I think they were amused and probably liked the music.”

Smith worked his way through college by being in ROTC, and a cafeteria job earned him extra income. All the while, he continued to play music.

“We won a state talent contest for colleges put on by WPTF (radio). We thought we were hot stuff!”

With a dual degree in Education and Industrial Management, the college grad served a stint in the Army. 

McCanless and another picker, Leroy Savage, visited Smith while he was stationed at Fort Hood. “He was probably the only commissioned officer there that had a gold earring. Snuffy was not military material, seeing as how he possessed a strong sense of individualism. I don’t think the military knew what to do with him so they put him in charge of the car pool. Since noncommissioned officers actually ran the show, Snuffy really didn’t have much to do. Every morning he would go around, collect everyone’s pocket knives, and sharpen them.”

Returning to North Carolina, he resumed picking. He filled in with the New Deal String Band and then formed a pick-up band with the late Tommy Edwards called the Edge City Wonder Boys.

“We were named after a book about traveling musicians. A friend had picked us out to be members of this band. Later, he said, ‘All of them quit, but me.’ That group became the Bluegrass Experience.”

A fiddlin’ prodigy, JB Prince, fiddled some with the band.

“But JB was so young. Fiddlin’ Al left New Deal and has been with Bluegrass Experience ever since.”

Fiddlin’ Al shared, “Snuffy became MC for the band. He possessed a dry wit delivered with a country drawl, but was no country bumpkin. He was intelligent, educated, a keen observer of nature, and could locate a piece of iron in just about any location without the aid of a metal detector. He would keep the audience in stitches with his often irreverent or slightly off color remarks.”

Their first time performing together was at the Highfalls Fiddlers’ Convention. Then they started playing for some gatherings and family reunions.

“We won Union Grove and was named World Champions. We went professional after that. We played pretty regularly. We played every Tuesday at Sammy’s in Greensboro and every Thursday at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill. We played street fairs, bars, and lots of private events. After Paul Beane (the band’s mandolinist) died, Tommy became the band leader and began doing the booking.”

Snuffy was a crowd favorite, according to McCanless. “One of Snuffy’s big numbers was The Flop Eared Mule. The words were nothing more than flop eared, flop eared, flop eared mule. At some point, Tommy Edwards would take the bass and Snuffy would dance, eventually turning a summersault. The audience would howl.”

Snuffy said that he didn’t have a regular day job in the beginning.

“While student teaching in Charlotte, the teacher left so two of us college students became the teacher. The kids figured that out real quick and it was a rough year. I graduated mid-year and finished teaching that school year, but I didn’t like the big city.”

So the soft-spoken, yet witty gentleman returned to his home in Lee County to farm and play music.

“I was living off the GI Bill and music,” he recalled.

Snuffy ran a sawmill for a year and then opened an antique store in Goldston with his wife of 48 years, Pam. 

“We came to Pittsboro, bought a building and ran a store, Beggers & Choosers, for close to 40 years. I sold antiques during the day and played music at night. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun!”

McCanless added, “I used to tell people Snuffy looks like he gets all his clothes from Goodwill, you would never know he’s a millionaire. Pam and Snuffy added a little color and fun to the town of Pittsboro and their generosity and good works are well known.”

Though he will no longer be a regular band member, the father of two sons and granddad to one grandson still plans to get out and pick some informally. 

“I didn’t want to let the rest of the band down. They are all younger and I hope they keep it going,” he stressed.

Bluegrass Experience banjoist, Stan Brown, praised his band mate. “Snuffy was an excellent MC person with a dry sense of humor. He could tell one story after another. He was also known at one time for his dancing skills, turning flips on stage. He could play extraordinary bass lines on songs we did like Ramblin’ Man. He was one of the original members of the Experience, 50 years!”

Snuffy is grateful for a lifetime of performing.

“Music puts you in places that you would have never gone. I would never have made it without music. It exposed me to all kinds of things. We have been well received.”

The Bluegrass Experience even had the chance to play in Finland and in Ireland.

“A Finish doctor at Chapel Hill made friends with Al. We played a folk festival in his little hometown. He paid our way. It was quite the honor. The Pinecone folks (a Raleigh-based non-profit group) sent us to Ireland.”

McCanless reflected, “On a sad note, Snuffy and I are the last remaining original members of Bluegrass Experience. The ‘experiences’ we had certainly enriched our lives immensely. The band members were like brothers and formed lasting friendships. Our gigs were the boys’ night out filled with good cheer, fun, and sometimes mischief. The memories are lasting and the joy of those relationships and experiences were treasures. There will never be another one like him. They broke the mold when he was born!”

Looking at retirement, Snuffy doesn’t plan on being idle.

“I have lots of interests: history, Indian artifacts, mother-of-pearl. We have rental houses. Then there’s looking after my own yard, continuing to dabble in antiques, going to the beach, and playing music.”

Snuffy concluded, “As long as I can do anything, I’ll play here at the house.”

Happy retirement, Snuffy Smith!

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.