Fiddler Paul David Smith of Hardy, Kentucky, died at home on August 22 at the age of 78. He was the last of a generation of fiddlers whose lives connected the pre-modern music of the mountains with modern bluegrass. The wonderful tunes he played from Snake Chapman and Doc Chapman before him are as old and timeless like the hills themselves, and will forever be a part of our music as long as people live on this North American continent.
Even though he was known as a fiddler, he could play instrument he picked up. He worked out his own unique way of picking the banjo that was the perfect complement and driving force to Snake’s fiddling, and transposed this into an incomparable finger-picking style on the guitar. In his own fiddling, Paul played any style of music that struck his fancy. Whether it was old-time, bluegrass, blues, or swing, he was a master of creative and subtle improvisation. When workshop participants would complain about the seemingly endless variations that came out when he was trying to teach a tune, he would laugh and say that he never played a tune the same way once. He could find beautiful harmony parts quicker than anyone, and the fills he played between the lines of a song were the coolest of all, the epitome of that under-appreciated art.
Although his playing was much like Snake’s, there were differences. Like all great fiddlers Paul had his own style. Whereas Snake was a strictly up-bow player, Paul turned his phrases both up- and down-bow, or in the words of Earl Thomas, that great Kentucky banjo player and understander of all things old-time, “He could get it coming and going.”
But Paul was more than just his music. More than anything, he taught us how to live. It was the spirit that came through his music, his warmth, his charm, that smile and twinkle in his eye, his patience and generosity that made him friends all over the country. He was truly one of those individuals who makes you want to be more like him.
He taught us how to live and he taught us how to die. This summer Paul was like a brilliant shooting star trailing across the sky. From Cowan Creek to Port Townsend, Swannanoa, Morehead, Clifftop, and Augusta, he lit up the nights and went out in a blaze of glory. It was a complete burn, and he left his music in the air and we can still hear it. There are young kids and young adults in the mountains today who have grown up playing with Paul and they know his music and they will not forget.
In 2005 Don Rogers, Jeff Keith, Jim Webb, Kevin Kehrberg, Paul, and I recorded a CD together. This was just one of the groups Paul played and recorded with. Paul was the inspiration and guiding force behind this project, which we dedicated to the great fiddlers of Kentucky and titled Spirits of the Lonesome Hills. This year we lost J. P. Fraley, then Kenny Baker, and now Paul has taken his place among them. Whatever religion they all might have followed doesn’t matter —the spirits are real. And one day we’ll all get to join them again.