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A bluegrass king still has pluck

Smokey Greene, a headliner at the weekend Sertoma festival, has had a lifelong love affair with the genre.

By LOGAN NEILL
Published April 27, 2007


Some years ago, the late banjo master Don Stover jumped onto the stage at a bluegrass festival in upstate New York to publicly thank Smokey Greene for his tireless years of support for bluegrass music.

"Smokey," Stover told his old friend, "if it weren't for you, a lot of fellows would have probably starved to death."

Few who have followed the music in the Northeast would disagree. Back when the sound of banjos and fiddles was rarely heard above the Mason-Dixon line, Greene made it a personal mission to convert anyone he came across to the cause.

As a young disc jockey at a small radio station in Glens Falls, N.Y., during the 1950s, Greene would sneak Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs records over the airwaves when he thought the station manager wasn't listening. He talked bar and nightclub owners throughout the region into booking bluegrass bands. And in the early 1970s, he pooled his savings to host New York's first bluegrass festival.

Such devotion to the music has earned Greene a tremendous amount of respect in his 60 years as a performer and promoter. When the 77-year-old performs in his home region of upstate New York, fans flock to the stage to see him.

"It makes me feel good to see that," Greene said. "I've loved this music all my life. It's the only thing I've ever truly really wanted to do."

With his vintage Martin guitar and trademark cowboy hat, Greene is something of a throwback to the early days of bluegrass music. His smooth baritone voice has a heartfelt croon to it, bringing a comfortable quality to everything from honky-tonk love songs to gospel standards.

Florida bluegrass fans are only now getting acquainted with Greene, who retired to Zephyrhills four years ago. Nonetheless, he thoroughly enjoys bringing his brand of traditional bluegrass and country to new audiences.

"People down here know bluegrass very well," said Greene, who will headline the Sertoma Youth Ranch Spring Bluegrass Festival on Sunday. "They appreciate the older songs. Even though they don't know me all that well, they're always very gracious to me."

Known for his amiable stage presence, Greene is a proponent of keeping music uncomplicated and down to earth. Although he fronted a five-piece group for much of his career, he has lately taken to performing solo for a number of reasons.

"It's nice because I like being able to jump from song to song when I want to," Greene said. "Plus, the money's better," he added with a laugh.

For Greene, who was born in Vermont and raised just across the New York state line, country music always had a magical ring to it. He was drawn to the raw, earthy sound of singers like Hank Williams, Little Jimmy Dickens and his hero, Ernest Tubb, whose vocal style he wanted to emulate. But making a living from it would prove to be a challenge.

Though far from being a hotbed for country music, the region nonetheless had a tight-knit community of musicians who managed to squeeze a living out of it. Through the years, Greene met and became friends with most of the Northeast's revered players, including Stover, West Virginia transplants Bea and Everett Lilly, Pennsylvania singer Del McCoury and Boston mandolinist Joe Val.

Thanks to the early 1960s folk music revival, which introduced bluegrass to students at many Northeastern colleges, the music was beginning to carve a sizable niche in the region. Greene was ready to take advantage of it. In 1972, he organized his first bluegrass festival near Saratoga Springs, which became an annual haunt for New England bluegrass buffs until Greene finally called it quits in 1988.

These days, Greene is happily pursuing his retirement dreams. During the summer, he and his wife, Midge, enjoy taking in the sights on their way to the dozen or so bluegrass festivals where Greene performs. The winter months are devoted to the golf course.

"I'm out there as much as I can possibly get away with it," said Greene, who likened the sport to playing music.

"You really can't get too much of it."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or 352 848-1435.

If you go

Sertoma Youth Ranch Spring Bluegrass Festival

The bluegrass festival is today through Sunday at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, south of Spring Lake on Myers Road. Performance times are 1:30 to 11 p.m. today and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Daily adult admission is $20 today and Saturday and $12 Sunday. Weekend adult admission is $45 at the gate. Daily admission for children is $3, or free for those 12 and under with adult admission. For tickets and further information, call 754-3082 or visit www.sertomayouthranch.com.