By Michael Swanger
With the spin of a record over the airwaves, or the vibrations of a sold-out concert, Smokey Smith made it possible for country music artists and fans to traverse the lost highways between Des Moines and Nashville at the speed of sound.
For the popular disc jockey and trusted concert promoter who was a cigar-chomping, dyed-in-the-wool fan of hillbilly and western music, it was more than a job. It was a calling. And his devotion to the stars of the genre’s golden age such as Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Porter Wagoner and Buck Owens, particularly during the lean years when they competed with rock ‘n’ roll for revenue, was unflappable.
From 1950 to 1974, Smith was a one man show tirelessly and selflessly working to promote the sweeping steel guitar sounds of Music City in the Capital City. Often burning both ends of the candle, he would host a daily and nightly radio or television show, make multiple promotional appearances, perform on weekends with his band (Smokey Smith and … his Gold Coast Boys, or his Polk County Playboys, or The Ponderosa Playboys) and book concerts at KRNT Theater that were “package shows” featuring multiple artists. He did so while raising a family and squeezing in time for hunting, fishing and short naps in a straight back chair.
During those 24 years, he also co-founded the Country Music Disc Jockey’s Association (the CMDJA later became the Country Music Association, or CMA) and International Country Music Buyers Association (now called the International Entertainment Buyers Association) in Nashville; expanded his concert promotions to Burlington, Cedar Rapids, Davenport, Mason City, Ottumwa and Sioux City, as well as South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois and Colorado; and supported new talent like Patsy Cline, Marty Robbins and Waylon Jennings.
After retiring from the concert promotion business in 1974, Smith launched Smokey Smith Tours, serving as a personal guide for busloads of vacationers traveling from New Orleans to Canada and country music places in between like Dollywood, Nashville and Branson. He continued the business through the early 1990s.
He was perhaps better known in Nashville than he was in Des Moines, though the country music industry in both towns gave him several awards. He was presented with the Johnny Cash Award of Merit in 1963 for his “dedication and loyalty in elevating country and western music.” Smith was voted into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame in 1982 and presented the Iowa State Fair Country Music Hall of Fame Award in 1984 by radio station KSO. In 2008, he was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.