Ben Humphries on “Broad River Music”
Interviewed by Brian DeMarcus
From the booklet “Roots of Rutherford”
A publication of Isothermal Community College’s Oral History Project
Traditional music and the people of Rutherford and Cleveland Counties who play it have long been overshadowed by the popularity of their neighbors in the mountains. The mountaineers seem to have gotten most of the credit for innovations in bluegrass and old-time country music. But, if Ben Humphries of the Cliffside community has anything to do with it, that image will soon change.
Humphries, who moved to Cliffside in 1937 from Cleveland County, used to listen to people like Wendell Lipscomb and Junie Scruggs play music at his Grandmother’s get-togethers when he was a small boy. The impression this music made on him has resulted in a lifelong love affair with the music and the people who made it. His home is filled with box after box of old 78 r.p.m. records by obscure musicians who have long since faded from the memories of most music fans. Being a history buff has made it easy for Ben to collect the music and the associated stories.
One such story that was shared with Ben by Lewis Jolley tells about Smith Hammett:
“Smith was a well-known clawhammer banjo picker at the time, during the ‘teens and ‘twenties. One day a Black man came to the Flint Hill School playing a three-finger picking style on the banjo. Smith asked George Elam Scruggs if he could play that lick on the banjo. George replied, ‘No, I don’t believe I can.’ Smith said, I can’t either, but I will.’ Within two to three weeks he was playing that three-finger style. He perfected it and taught many people how to play it.”
Ben says that Rutherford and Cleveland counties have long been a “hotbed”of music. As far back as the late 1800s, people such as Amos Owens from Cherry Mountain were having music get-togethers. Ben describes a merger of musical styles:
“The mountain musicians moved to our cotton towns, bringing their music with them. The tenant farmers had their music, too, as did our local folks. The flatlanders were more liberal than mountaineers and their music reflected a jazzier style. This music should have been called Broad River music because of all the local talent. A merger of these styles took place and out of that came people like Earl Scruggs. This music was played long before Earl went to Nashville, but he did popularize it to the masses. Earl pioneered so many things. Everything today is loosely based on Earl’s work. He is a perfectionist. The whole Scruggs family was very musical. His older brother, Junie, plays a mean banjo.”
Ben says he wants to honor Earl Scruggs for his contributions to bluegrass music with an Earl Scruggs Day in the community. He admits to not having gotten very far with it at the present, but still hopes to put together in the near future.
One event that Ben has put together to honor local musicians is the annual Snuffy Jenkins Old-time and Bluegrass Music Festival, now in its eleventh year. Ben put this festival together as a tribute to the contributions of Dewitt “Snuffy”Jenkins and his brothers and nephew, Hoke Jenkins.
Snuffy is from the Harris community. He had a very musical family, also. He and his brothers often played in a band together. They played on the Crazy Water Crystals Bar Dance in 1934, which gave them nationwide exposure. The Jenkins Stringband used to win every fiddlers’ convention. It got to the point where competing bands would hide the Jenkins brothers’ instruments so they couldn’t win the contests. Ben says that the worst part about the band was that they were never recorded. In 1937, Byrum Parker, the “Old Hired Hand,”reorganized the band. Homer “Pappy” Sherrill joined the Hired Hands in 1939 and still plays with Snuffy. Greasy Medlin played with them for a long time until his death a few years ago. Ben states that “Greasy was a ‘Toby Clown’ who started in medicine shows. He had a natural ability to ad-lib with an audience and his timing was perfect. He could captivate an audience with his humor.”
Ben has collected ballads by local musicians as well. He recalls one such ballad by Maxie Narvel and his father, called “I’ll Take My Cotton to Henrietta Mill.”Another is “The Ballad of Daniel Keith,”about a man who was wrongly hanged at the old jail. Legend has it that his shadow was seen on the jail walls for years and that every business that tried to make a go of it in that building went bankrupt.
Still another local ballad is “The Shelby Disaster,” by a man named Hornsby. It tells of a bank caving in on August 28, 1928, killing several people. Ben says on the back side is a song about a Southern Baptist Convention treasurer who ran away with the money and the secretary.
Through efforts such as Ben Humphries’ to preserve the music of this region, it can truly be said that a significant contribution has been made to the musical world. As Ben likes to proudly state:
“If Bill Monroe is the Father of Bluegrass music, then Snuffy Jenkins and Smith Hammett have to be the grandparents, and most surely, Earl Scruggs is the Mother.”