Jim Smoak purchased his first banjo from Sears Roebuck at age 12 after winning a prize from his 4-H club in South Carolina. His passion for the instrument grew, and his father replaced it with a nicer Gibson model three years later. As Jim says, “that’s when I really got going.” As soon as he graduated from high school, Jim hit the road with a suitcase and his banjo in search of performers he’d heard on the radio, with the ultimate goal of ending up on the Grand Ole Opry. He did just that:“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 1960's and we had several guest spots on the Grand Ole Opry.I did travel through the eastern and southwestern United States in the 50's and 60's with Bill Monroe, Little Jimmy Dickens, Hylo Brown, and The Cumberlands. I also played at the first Newport folk festival in 1959 with Earl Scruggs.” He decided to stop touring in the 1970s and met his wife. The pair moved to her hometown of Pekin where Jim now teaches students of all ages.
Pianist Johanna Rippey is no stranger to her father’s playing. “Some of my first memories are of me going to sleep on the floor on my blankie with him playing the banjo. I’m sure at the time I thought that was perfectly normal. Music was a part of our household from the very very beginning.” Jim’s familiarity with the guitar allows him to accompany her on tunes she learns. They share this music weekly at the Depot Railroad Museum in Salem.The apprenticeship encompasses multiple banjo playing styles such as chord patterns for vocal accompaniment, clawhammer, and three-finger style. As Johanna says, “I feel like I’m learning about being a musician… not just a banjo player, but the musicianship that goes into it.”