Lynn "Chirps" Smith

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Much of the interest in old-time music during the revival years of the '70s focused on the traditional fiddle and string band music of the southern Appalachians, particularly in the region around the…
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Much of the interest in old-time music during the revival years of the '70s focused on the traditional fiddle and string band music of the southern Appalachians, particularly in the region around the border towns of Galax, VA, and Mount Airy, NC, the homeland of legendary fiddlers like Tommy Jarrell and Emmett Lundy. To some, the term "old-time" music became virtually synonymous with "Appalachian" music, but there was of course plenty of similar traditional music in other parts of the United States and Canada that attracted the attention and devotion of many fine young musicians, folklorists, and scholars. Among the foremost examples of the preservation and continuation of the Midwestern style of fiddling was the work of Illinois native Lynn "Chirps" Smith.

Smith was not only a lifelong resident of Illinois, but his family's roots there go back to the days of the state's most famous citizen, young Abe Lincoln, when the first of his Smith line moved there from New York around the time that the young lawyer Lincoln was first making a name for himself. Lynn Smith was born in 1952 in Pekin, a few miles south of Peoria. The family soon moved to the St. Louis suburb of Granite City, IL, and when Lynn was 11, they moved again to Charleston, in the east-central part of the state, roughly midway between St. Louis and Indianapolis. His musical career began as a flute player in his junior high school band, but like many of his fellow Boomer-age contemporaries, he became enamored of the burgeoning blues and heavy metal scene -- the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, and Frank Zappa were particular favorites. In reading liner notes and biographical information about these people whose music had fascinated him, he became interested as well in the variety and diversity of the influences claimed by them. While in high school, he first met Dan Baird, who would become a longtime musical partner, and the two of them began playing guitar together. During his college years at Southern Illinois University, he attended a double bill featuring Ry Cooder and Captain Beefheart, where he saw and heard a mandolin for the first time. From there, his interest in older music began to accelerate rapidly, especially when he and Baird met up with brothers Garry and Terry Harrison, Charleston residents and fellow guitarists whose repertoires included healthy doses of the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, and other seminal country and blues artists. After attending a bluegrass festival in Kentucky, Smith bought his first mandolin and began scratching away at it. It was also his association with the Harrisons that first exposed him to old-time music in the form of old recordings of Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters. Before long, the four of them -- Smith, Baird, and the Harrison brothers -- had hooked up with a few other friends to form a band that came to be known as the Indian Creek Delta Boys, named for a local Charleston stream that emptied into the Embarrass River. It was during Smith's time in this band that a review of one of their shows described his mandolin style as "chirping," giving him a nickname that would remain with him for years to come. The Indian Creek Delta Boys made it a point to seek out and perform the traditional music of their Illinois home, and they found a repository of tunes and information in the person of Effingham fiddler Harvey "Pappy" Taylor. Around 1974, Smith also began learning to play the fiddle. In 1984, following the breakup of his first marriage, his job in the pharmaceutical industry took him to the Chicago area and he took up residence in Grayslake, just below the Wisconsin border. He soon met and married Dorothy "Dot" Kent, who shared his enthusiasm for old-time music and was a sought-after clog dancing teacher in her own right. At the time, he was playing with the Polecats, but by 1985 he had teamed up with Fred Campeau (also with the Polecats), Steve Rosen, John Terr, and Moe Nelson for a band that, at Smith's suggestion, took the name Volo Bogtrotters. The name was intended as a Midwestern salute to one of the great string bands of the Galax region during the '30s, the Ballard's Branch Bogtrotters, substituting the name of the only acidic, sphagnum moss bog in Illinois, located near the town of Volo. A later addition to the band was guitarist Jim Nelson, who departed the band in the late '80s and was replaced by Larry MacBride, founder and operator of the independent, old-time specialty label Marimac Records until his death from cancer in 1993. Marimac's catalog featured not only Volo recordings, but also solo efforts by Smith, such as his 1994 anthology of fiddle tunes, Midwestern Harvest. By the end of the century, Chirps Smith continued to be viewed as not only one of the finest players of the Midwestern style of old-time music, but also one of its most well-liked and respected ambassadors.