Jim Smoak purchased his first banjo from Sears, Roebuck & Co. at the age of twelve after winning a 4-H club prize in South Carolina. As soon as he graduated from high school, Jim hit the road with his banjo. “Bill Monroe hired me in 1952 and that’s when I began playing on the Grand Ole Opry. I was with the folk group, The Cumberlands, in the 1960s with several guest spots on the Grand Ole Opry.” He traveled through the eastern and southwestern United States in the 1950s and ‘60s with Bill Monroe, Little Jimmy Dickens, Hylo Brown, and The Cumberlands, and played at the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959 with Earl Scruggs. He stopped touring in the 1970s when he met his wife and they moved to her hometown of Pekin. Jim now teaches students of all ages in southeastern Indiana.
Jim’s daughter, Johanna Rippey, is no stranger to her father’s playing. She says, “Some of my first memories are of me going to sleep on the floor on my blankie with him playing the banjo.” Their apprenticeship encompasses multiple banjo playing styles such as chord patterns for vocal accompaniment, clawhammer, and three-finger style. “I feel like I’m learning about being a musician,” Johanna says, “not just a banjo player.”