Folks who moved to Charlotte from the Northeast and came across “The Arthur Smith Show” on television saw a fellow with a flat, South Carolina accent and an “aw shucks” way about him. Their initial reaction might be to think of him as a hillbilly. But if they stayed in Charlotte long enough, they discovered he was anything but.
Smith, who was 93 when he died Thursday at his Charlotte home, was one of the Queen City’s most successful entrepreneurs, radio to real estate, sports fishing tournaments, more investments than he could count.
But before all that, Arthur Smith was one of the greatest guitar players alive, writer of “Guitar Boogie,” which he recorded in 1945. It was a song that inspired players from Vince Gill to, yes, Paul McCartney, who remembered Smith’s song decades after he hit it big with a group called the Beatles.
Once Smith branched into television, his sponsors liked for him to pitch their products. The Charlotte Observer reported that Smith was such a good salesman on the commercials for his syndicated music show that a Sears manager once called Smith’s office to report that after Smith endorsed a product on the show, the warehouse was cleaned out.
Smith lived his life in Charlotte, but was famous in the music industry from Nashville to Los Angeles. But he never went far from his native soil, having been raised the son of a mill worker in Kershaw, S.C. He played the trumpet in a mill band, and eventually would master guitar, mandolin, banjo and other instruments.
Johnny Cash, Earl Scruggs, and all the greats played music with him and some recorded at his Charlotte studio, the first in North and South Carolina. Andy Griffith and Billy Graham were among his friends. And, he participated in many charitable endeavors.
His fame may have hit a peak with a controversy: Warner Bros. didn’t credit Smith with having written “Dueling Banjos” for the 1972 movie “Deliverance.” He had called it “Feudin’ Banjos.” The song became a tremendous hit, and Smith was steamed. After the company dismissed his protest (probably fooled by that accent), Smith sued and won big.
Smith walked with the rich and famous but retained his humility. If anything, the epitaph he might appreciate most is the compliment musicians pay to one of their own at times such as these: The guy could play.