Final Notes, Lawrence Elmer “Smiley” Davidson

Lawrence Elmer “Smiley” Davidson, 92, died on February 7 in Wytheville, Virginia. The following is from a interview with Smiley by his friend George Wells.

Though Smiley was “relatively unknown . . . he was a giant to those who knew him,” recalls artist Willard Gayheart, of Woodlawn, Virginia. Smiley was an extraordinary guitarist and musician—a valued sideman who had played with and had the respect of many well-known old-time country musicians such as Molly O’Day, Martha Carson, the Stoneman Family, Jack Reedy, and the Holdren brothers.

Through the years Smiley traveled extensively throughout the United States, playing music and performing various odd jobs. “As a teenager,” Smiley says, “a fellow had to get into what [work] he could in a small town.” After graduating from Ivanhoe High School, he worked for the Upland Land and Coal Company, near Bluefield, West Virginia. Staying at boarding houses with musical buddies who were also working for the mining company, Smiley managed to continue playing music regularly. Throughout his life, even during his six years in the Army, Smiley always carried his guitar with him.

Smiley took to music naturally at an early age. At age 12 he purchased a guitar from Montgomery Ward for $7.00, and started a Hawaiian band with his cousins. Though he eventually became fluent in many styles of popular music, Smiley’s early influences were the old-timers in his family and community, particularly his uncles Gene Pearman, George Davidson, and Tom Davidson. He was also tremendously impressed by recordings of Riley Puckett and Henry Whitter, though he always considered Nick Lucas to be his dominant influence.

Although Smiley was a virtuoso on the guitar, he was also accomplished on several other string instruments. He learned to play the tenor banjo by playing with a pianist, Mrs. James Lindsay, of the Galax area. He played five-string banjo well enough that he once took first prize at the Galax Fiddlers Convention for his version of “Home Sweet Home.”

Ward Petty, an outstanding fiddler from Galax, Virginia says “Smiley was one in a million. . . . he was a keeper . . . a wonderful friend. I have never met anyone like him . . . he knew all the old-time tunes of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. There were no ‘two chord’ tunes for Smiley; nobody around here played like that.” He added that the “mouths of spectators and musicians alike would drop open and their eyes would light up hearing him play.” Anyone who ever witnessed the dexterity and wizardry of this affable gentleman as he maneuvered with ease from major to seventh to minor and diminished chords, immediately recognized his genius. Using such sophisticated chords without ever using a capo—Smiley does not own one—is really high level picking!

Though Smiley’s roots were in the old-time music of the region, he was equally at home with almost any type of modern music. A list of his favorites reveals his musical range: “Coney Island Washboard,” “Aunt Hegar’s Blues,” “Shine,” “It Looks Like Rain in Cherry Blossom Lane,” “Sleepy Rio Grande” and “Bluebell.” Roy Horton, another respected bluegrass musician from the Danville, Virginia area, who heard Smiley play well in to his 80s, mused, “Can you imagine what kind of guitar player he must have been 50 years ago? He still plays flawlessly.” In thinking back over his long life, Smiley himself put it best “if I had my life to live over, I would still be in music . . . music was my life.”

-George Wells

 

George Wells lives in Danville, Virginia. He is a retired secondary school principal, former Navy journalist, and avid music fan.


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