by Susan Marquez
For well over eight decades, Walter George “Smokey” Greene has been living his dream of playing music. His first paid gig was at the Danby Four Corners Town Hall when he was sixteen. “I never looked back after that.”
Smokey was raised in Virginia’s Tinmouth/Danby area, south of Rutland. He fell in love with music when he was five years old. “My older brother, who was 16 years older than me, played the guitar. I grew up in a family full of musicians, and there was always a lot of music at our family reunions. I remember watching my brother play songs by Cliff Carlisle and Jimmie Rodgers and thinking that someday I’d like to do that. I went to the square dances not to dance but to hear the music. I watched the guitar player, then went home and tried to copy what he did.” And while he did other jobs throughout his life, music kept Smokey going.
Sometime in the early 1940s, Smokey’s father brought home a radio, and that’s when young Smokey first heard Slim Clark’s yodeling.
“I met Slim in 1946 and got paid to call square dances and play banjo for him. Later, I was milking cows, and my dad came in and said he didn’t think I would be milking cows much longer. That was when I decided I wanted to play music for a living.”
But first, Smokey felt compelled to join the Air Force at 18. It was 1948, and Smokey laughs as he recalls driving the folks in his barracks crazy with his music. He was trained as a radio operator and was sent to a small Japanese island for a year, where he spent his spare time playing the guitar and singing. “A commanding officer on the main island heard about my’ hillbilly music,’ and soon I was playing in a band, picking up extra pocket money from gigs at officers’ clubs. “I had so much fun I re-enlisted.”
Smokey landed in California, where he started another band. “We played four or five times a week.” It was also where he got his nickname. “Instead of giving out my own cigarettes, I bought each band member a pack of cigarettes and took it out of their pay at the end of the night. They started calling me Smokey, and that’s what they still call me today.”
When he left the Air Force in 1958, Smokey says it took him a while to get work playing music. “I wanted to stay in California, but my wife wanted to move back to Vermont. I did all kinds of jobs to make ends meet. I drove a crawler tractor and worked in a paper mill and on a chicken farm. When I finally started playing more, I was killing myself by working all day and playing music at night.”
One morning at breakfast, I told my wife that I could either quit the mill or quit music. She said quit the mill. She knew that without music, I'd never be happy."
The couple lived in Vermont, and Smokey traveled to New York, where he mainly played at dude ranches and a few nightclubs. He got a job as a radio disc jockey. “I didn’t like the way country music was sounding in the late 1960s and early 1970s, so I started listening to bluegrass. I promoted a lot of bluegrass shows and got to be friends with several bluegrass musicians.”
In the early 1960s, Smokey honed his act, which included old-school ballads mixed with comedy songs, such as “I Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore.” He partnered with Don Reno, who Smokey says was “the best banjo player to ever come down the pike.” The band opened a lot of shows for name acts, including Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Ernest Tubb, and Hank Thompson.
In 1970, Smokey went to a bluegrass festival in Virginia with a friend. “He said he needed to find a place to hold a festival.” Second Generation found a place to hold the festival in Glens Falls, New York. “They lived in Virginia, so they asked me to get the permits for the festival. But before the festival happened, the group broke up. “I had already put in the work to make it happen, so I decided to do it myself,” Smokey says. “I was the first person to run a bluegrass festival in New York State.” The Smokey Greene Bluegrass Festival kicked off in Corinth, New York, in 1972. “I ran it for 18 years,” he says.
"It got longer and longer until it went for seven days, with Gospel singing on Sunday."
Smokey still plays a few festivals each year. He plays with his sons, Scott and Arlin. “Arlin is a great bass player and works with several different groups. Scott can play bass or guitar and does a lot of single gigs. Both work a lot and remind me of myself when I was their age.” Smokey and his wife, Midge, moved to New York state from Florida a year ago to be closer to his sons. “I couldn’t go anywhere without them,” he says. “They also pick up where I leave off. I can’t do a whole 45-minute show anymore.”