Final Notes, Smokey Joe Miller

Old-time guitarist and singer Smokey Joe Miller of Lawrenceville, Georgia, died on November 18, 2009 at the age of 90. A native of Walton County, Georgia, Joe played music from an early age, first learning on a Bradley Kincaid mail-order guitar. His precocious talent on the guitar earned him intermittent radio and theater gigs in the 1930s with, among others,  Tennessee fiddler Charlie Bowman and, in South Carolina, Fisher Hendley. It was Hendley who gave him his nickname “Smokey Joe” for his ability to play intricate runs and fast note-for-note fiddle tunes on the guitar. Joe’s idol as a guitarist was Riley Puckett, and he adapted Puckett’s signature runs (which Puckett played with his fingers) to his own flat-pick style; Joe’s warm and compelling singing style was influenced by Puckett as well.   Joe also became friends with the Tanner family. He was proud to have played with four generations of Tanner family fiddlers, starting with Gid, founder of the famed Skillet Lickers;  Gid’s son, Gordon Tanner (who died in 1982), as well as Gordon’s son Phil and Phil’s son Russ, who to this day keep the music and name of the Skillet Lickers going. The original Skillet Lickers was mainly a recording band, and Gid Tanner often recruited musical friends, among them Joe Miller, for live shows close to home. Over the years Joe worked in cotton mills and, an ordained minister, had a radio ministry out of Monroe, Georgia. After I recorded Joe, Gordon Tanner, and banjo picker Uncle John Patterson for Folkways, Joe self-produced two Folkways LPs of his old-time music. He was an outgoing entertainer and played in public as long as his health permitted, but also treasured the joy of playing informally.  He once told me, “Some go to their football games and hoot and holler their heads off. Just give me my old guitar and a couple of my good [musical] friends, and brother, I’m in heaven.”

Art Rosenbaum

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