Though never considered a major star, Smilin' Jim Eanes was an influential figure in both bluegrass and country music for over five decades. He was born Homer Robert Eanes, Jr. in Mountain Valley, Virginia and received his first guitar at age nine from his banjo-picking father. Eanes suffered an injury to his left hand; despite the difficulty and pain, he still managed to master rhythm guitar. He spent his early teen years playing square dances with his father's informal string band, and at age 16 joined Roy Hall's Blue Ridge Entertainers at a Roanoke radio station, and remained with the band until Hall died in 1943. Following World War II, Eanes joined Uncle Joe & the Blue Mountain Boys. He also worked briefly with Bill Monroe in 1948.
Eanes made his recording debut in 1949 under his given name, backed by fiddler Homer Sherrill and banjo player Snuffy Jenkins. He organized the Shenandoah Valley Boys in 1951 after getting a radio gig in Virginia; the band cut a few singles on the tiny Blue Ridge label before signing with Decca. Until then, Eanes' music was heavily slanted toward bluegrass, but Decca groomed him to play country music. The singles he released sold well enough, but they didn't make the charts. His contract with Decca expired in 1955 and Eanes, by then billing the band "Smilin' Jim & His Boys," began recording with Starday. His debut single, "Your Old Standby," became one of his signature songs. Over the next five years, he and the Shenandoah Valley Boys recorded albums on both Starday and Blue Ridge. Eanes wrote many of his own songs, and one of his best from this period was "I Wouldn't Change You If I Could," which became a number one hit for Ricky Skaggs in 1982.
During the '60s, Eanes worked as a deejay on different Virginia radio stations; he also occasionally performed and recorded songs on small independent labels. He recorded his first bluegrass album, Your Old Standby, in 1967. His next two albums, Jim Eanes and Rural Rhythms Present Jim Eanes, featured backing by Red Smiley & the Bluegrass Cut-Ups. Smiley and his band appeared regularly on WWVA's Wheeling Jamboree and when Red decided to retire, Eanes took over the band and renamed it the Shenandoah Cutups. The band cut an album in 1970 and shortly after broke up.
Eanes began hosting festivals and recording bluegrass albums for smaller labels; among them was the excellent Cool Waters Flow. His heavy touring schedule was interrupted in 1978 when he suffered a heart attack. He recovered by the next year and launched a tour of Western Europe, which he repeated in 1980 and 1982; while visiting Belgium, he cut an album with a local band, Smoketown Strut. During the rest of the '80s, he cut back on his touring but continued recording. In 1990, he celebrated his five decades in the industry with the album 50th Anniversary.