Jim Smoak &
the L.A. Honeydrippers,
Carolina Boy
(Copper Creek, 2004)

I have no idea why these are the "L.A. Honeydrippers." Once upon a time -- 1961, actually -- Arhoolie released a destined-to-be-cult-favorite album, Bayou Bluegrass, by the Louisiana Honeydrippers, with Jim Smoak on banjo. (There is, by the way, a suspicious resemblance between one cut, the Dave Rankin ballad "Poor Man," and a Bob Dylan song, "The Ballad of Hollis Brown," composed fairly soon afterwards.) In 2002 Arhoolie reissued it in CD, crediting it this time to Jim Smoak & the Louisiana Honeydrippers.

But nothing, including the title, ties Carolina Boy, recorded in Louisville, Kentucky, to Los Angeles. And it's definitely "L.A." on the cover, not "La." Maybe "L.A." is not Los Angeles but an allusion to some private joke, indecipherable to those not on the inside. In any event....

In his late life, Smoak's voice is not what it was, but it's easy enough on the ear, and in larger and more crucial truth, any Smoak album -- his recordings are few -- rewards the effort it takes to find it. (While I have your attention, let me urge you to seek out a 2005 Rural Rhythm release and to ignore its dopey title -- Civil War Tribute Collection -- and clip-art cover. It's credited to the Cumberlands, an old-time string band whose banjo player happens to be Smoak. It's one of my favorite albums of recent years.) Though he's been playing bluegrass since the 1950s, Smoak, a sharp and creative guy, doesn't sound much like anybody else.

For one thing, he eschews the standard bluegrass songbook -- only "Goin' Back to Harlan" (a.k.a. "Shady Grove") and "I'll Fly Away" here are genre standards -- in favor of originals and obscurities from assorted genres. Sometimes it's mountain music with clawhammer banjo, and other times it's swing or ragtime or little-known parlor tunes or even a nautical hymn (the venerable "Let the Lower Lights Be Burning" in a particularly stirring rendition), wrapped in a sound that is something like bluegrass (and nothing, let us be clear, like "newgrass"), if bluegrass rendered with sufficient assurance that Smoak feels free to take it anywhere he wants to, unto its very edges. The man knows his stuff, and he carries that knowledge with a charming ease and naturalness. I don't see how any musician could fail to envy it or any listener resist it.

As always he surrounds himself with superior musicians, in this case a small band among which is numbered the acclaimed fiddler Michael Cleveland. The results are tuneful, joyful and consistently, dazzlingly surprising. Yes, there may be lots of boring bluegrass around, but "boring" is not an adjective Jim Smoak ever brings to mind.

by Jerome Clark
10 March 2007

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