Thomas Lee “Snuffy” Smith, bass fiddler with the Bluegrass Experience, grew up on a one-horse tobacco farm in rural Lee County listening to his father play guitar in a square dance band. “He showed me some chords so I started messing with the guitar,“ he said.
In addition to playing music, living on the farm meant milking cows, plowing fields, finding arrowheads, swimming in the pond and lots of chores. “You get exposed to all kinds of skills and crafts and what you’ve got to do to keep living,” Snuffy said. “Mama made soap. We killed our own meat. I wouldn’t take nothing for it, modest as it was.”
He expects his current interests, among them carving/woodworking, metal work, making jewelry, collecting antiques and restoring historic properties, could be traced back to these early experiences.
When Snuffy left the farm for college at N.C. State University in Raleigh, he found a group of around 10 “like-minded people who thought playing traditional music was more fun than studying,” he said.
“We formed a new band every week – whoever got a job would draw out of a pool and we would go and play the job.” There was a need for a bass fiddler so he became one. He also managed to earn a couple of degrees between gigs – in both Education and Industrial Management.
After a stint in the U.S. Army, Snuffy sought to re-enter the music scene. “A fellow approached me and said, ‘I’ve got a job. Would you play bass?’ And he’s got this one and that one and the other one…and that is how I met Tommy Edwards.”
He, Tommy and four others called themselves the Bluegrass Experience and they began competing together at fiddlers conventions in western North Carolina. When they won the coveted World’s Championship Bluegrass Band title at The Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention in 1972, the band decided to go pro.
Bluegrass Experience hasn’t stopped playing since. They have recorded numerous albums, performed across Europe and played at top music festivals such as Merlefest and the Finnish National Folk Festival. For nine years, the band played a regular Thursday-night gig at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro.
Over the years the band has fielded a total of only 12 members. Of the six founders, three have passed away and two, Snuffy and Tommy, still perform with the band.
Classic Snuffy: singing & dancing “Flop-Eared Mule”
Bluegrass Experience is celebrating its 46th anniversary at a special concert on Sunday, November 19 at 3 pm at the Fearrington Barn north of Pittsboro. The line-up includes band members Tommy Edwards (lead singer, songwriter, guitar), Mike Aldridge (mandolin), Stan Brown (banjo), Keith Thomas (fiddle) and of course Snuffy on bass. All provide vocals. Former band members Leroy Savage, Fiddlin’ Al McCanless and Jimmy Cameron will also take the stage.
Click here for information about the show and where to purchase tickets. Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Chatham Arts Council.
Snuffy has been married to his sweetheart Pam Smith for 44 years. “I was playing in a bar and she walked in and, well, she caught my eye,” he said. Apparently he caught her eye as well. “It didn’t take us too long to figure it out. We got married in ’73. Ain’t nothing quite like it and I can’t imagine it any other way.”
Together they raised two sons, Jones and Noah, who now live in Wilmington and Los Angeles. “They are our pride and joy,” said Snuffy. “We love them both.” Like their father, they both play music.
For 32 years, Pam & Snuffy operated the three-story, eclectic vintage store Beggars & Choosers, an iconic landmark in downtown Pittsboro. “We met an amazing amount of people, saw an amazing amount of stuff. It’s quite the education, dealing with antiques. It’s been fun,” said Snuffy.
“When we closed the store it was quite emotional. People would say, ‘Well I bought my wedding dress there ‘ or ‘I used to come there as a child.’ A lot of people have told what the store meant to them and that means a lot to us.” Two great shops now occupy their former space: Screaming for Vintage on the main level and Oak Moss Attic upstairs with its own outdoor entrance.
From the Artist:
My full name is: Thomas Lee “Snuffy” Smith. The Snuffy part got added when I was in college. I reckon they’d never seen a hillbilly before. There was a cartoon character in the newspaper called Snuffy Smith and it was quite an entertaining comic strip. So people started calling me Snuffy. I tend to wear a hat a lot and Snuffy Smith the cartoon character wears a hat a lot. And the name got started and I’ve had it ever since. Few people know my real name. Nobody but the bank and the cops call me “Thomas.”
I live in: Pittsboro, N.C.
I am originally from: a tobacco farm in the Lemon Springs area of rural Lee County, North Carolina.
A childhood memory I cherish is: finding arrowheads. When I was in the tobacco fields, I would find Indian artifacts and that made an early impression on me.
Some jobs I’ve had are: being a short-order cook and a school teacher and I think the job I enjoyed most – because I’ve been self-employed most of the time, working on the farm or in the antique business which we did for about 40 years – but running the saw mill down in Bonlee. It was very satisfying. There was a lot of powerful machinery (instant death) and just the smells, the noises, seeing the boards come off. I really enjoyed that work.
When I’m not playing music, you’ll find me: messing with my collections. I collect about everything. If I’ve got two of something, well, another collection is started. Rocks and minerals, Indian artifacts, primitive art, ivory, pearl, horn and bone objects, old tools, historical-type stuff.
I like to do about anything with my hands but mostly woodworking or metalworking. I’ve been afraid to try basket weaving or knitting because I know I’d get hooked and then couldn’t quit! I tend to get carried away when I start something.
I’m most proud of: my family. That would be top of the list right off. I just talked about all the material things I’ve got but having my family is just everything.
I’ve always wanted to: go to Australia. It seems so exotic – the plants and the animals, the native people. I’m very interested in how primitive people live.
My ideal day: is to get up, have a breakfast and go out and do some satisfying work. I am happier working than about anything else. Physical work. I like to work on houses, especially old houses. There is quite a challenge of getting a wire through a wall that wasn’t meant to have a wire in it. I enjoy figuring out how mechanical things work. That sort of thing.
Most people don’t know I: like buzzards. They are one of my favorite birds and I think they are very necessary. They are big and so they are easy to watch. I try and feed them when I can. I really enjoy watching them squabble and play with their food. I feed them road kill mostly, bacon grease, chicken bones or scraps from the table. I love to watch them soar – that would be just so perfect to be able to soar like a buzzard and fly around. Sometimes they roost in the barn. They are very entertaining.
My favorite spots in Chatham County: 1) Virlie’s Grill. I like the garden salad very well. I love the service and I love the people. I just think its a great place. 2) I like the Cafe Diem coffee shop – same thing, I like the people, I like the service, I like what I get there. 3) I like Reclamation Home Furnishings. I like most any antique store but I really like that one. Again, the people and what they have. I get some stuff there for my collections.
Three Chatham County artists I admire are: 1) Stephen Cote. He works with metal. We’ve got several pieces of his art. I am an amateur metal worker – not like Stephen is. He makes very interesting stuff. He does a lot of public art and you can see it around town. 2) LaNelle Davis who does the murals and mosaics on the side of buildings around town. I think she’s an outstanding artist. 3) Fiddlin’ Al McCanless, who plays the fiddle and has played with the Bluegrass Experience many a long time, he is a very very talented potter and a very very talented jewelry maker and a very very talented banjo maker. I really admire Al and his artistic skills. (Note: You can view Al’s art during the Chatham Artists Guild’s 2017 Studio Tour.)
Bluegrass Today article
“As to his singing, the wonderful Tommy Thompson, founder and guiding light of The Red Clay Ramblers, once commented that of the singers in The Bluegrass Experience, he liked the sound of Snuffy’s voice best.” – Tommy Edwards
Snuffy does the “jaw work” for this live recording for an album at the Pier in Raleigh in 1976: