The state of Louisiana is regarded as a hotbed of musical activity, but not bluegrass. Jim Smoak has been credited with being the first bluegrass banjo player to emerge from the land of crazy Cajuns and saints who go marching in. With so many other styles of music prevalent and popular, establishing an audience for bluegrass was no easy task and Smoak may have been worn out by the '50s, by which time he had headed north where his style of picking was more appreciated. In that decade, Smoak was a member of two top outfits in the genre. Off and on through 1952 and the following year, he worked with Bill Monroe & His Bluegrass Boys, graduating to working consistently with the group in 1954. Monroe's group was known as something of a school for players, and Smoak thus joined a long list of banjo players who have been in the group. In the late '50s, he was a member of Hylo Brown & the Timberliners, a well-loved bluegrass band although hardly on the level of Monroe and his boys. It does represent some of Smoak's hottest playing, as he was part of a small, happening group that also included the wonderful fiddler Tater Tate.
Smoak continued playing both bluegrass and country & western through the '60s, and in the '70s became one of the few musicians on his instrument to publish a book including both tablature and standard notation. He published three different banjo instruction books in the '70s, the last one a collaboration with fellow player and educator Jerry Tainaka. The Smoak volumes, 5-String Banjo Technique and 5-String Banjo Songbook, both published by Experience in 1972 and 1974 respectively, are considered some of the finest texts for banjo instruction. Smoak recorded a fine solo album in 1979 for the Blue River label, entitled Moonshine Sonata. The popular country band the Dixie Chicks covered the song "This Heart of Mine," co-written by Smoak and Steven Brines on the group's album Thank Heavens for Dale Evans. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi