By Michael Swanger firstname.lastname@example.org
Smokey Smith presents: Chronicle of fascinating life as Iowa’s ‘Mr. Country Music’
Starting in the 1950s, no other Iowan impacted country music more than legendary KRNT radio disc jockey and concert promoter Smokey Smith as chronicled in his new biography, “Smokey: The Legendary Life of Iowa’s ‘Mr. Country Music.’ ”
Written by his son-in-law and retired Des Moines Register graphic designer Terry Manley, “Smokey” is an informative, entertaining story of the golden age of country music and a life filled with family, friends, fame and misfortune that unfolds like a classic country music song. It is also the overdue documentation of underreported subjects like the important role that KRNT Theater in Des Moines played during the 1950s and 1960s as the unofficial second home to Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry; how the Country Music Disc Jockey Association, once led by Smith, became the Country Music Association; and includes stories of Smith’s relationships with stars like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Porter Wagoner, Wanda Jackson and Carl Perkins, many who Manley interviewed.
“We were lucky enough to talk to so many people about Smokey,” Manley said. “I tried to let the entertainers tell the story.”
“Smokey” also includes more than 300 rare and previously unpublished photos of country music legends performing at KRNT Theater, as well as pictures of Smith’s collectible concert posters that he began printing in 1964 (two from Cash’s estate sold for $6,000 each in 2004) and reprints of vintage newspaper advertisements.
Smith, a Kansas City native who moved to Des Moines after working as a disc jockey and country music singer in California, Ohio and Illinois, took over the airwaves at KRNT on July 31, 1950, and quickly became popular. In 1955, when KRNT-TV was launched, he hosted the area’s first live, prime time country music variety program show.
“When I worked on radio, you weren’t handed a playlist; you made your own,” said the 88-year-old Smith, who was inducted into the Country Music Disc Jockey Hall of Fame in 1982.
On Aug. 2, 1951, Smith promoted his first concert. The Grand Ole Opry troupe of Lefty Frizzell, Moon Mulligan and Stringbean performed two shows at the Des Moines Drive-In Theater (later renamed the Southeast Fourteenth Street Drive-in Theater). It was deemed a success, so he booked a few more.
Smith lost money for the first time as a promoter when Hank Williams missed a plane connection and failed to appear at KRNT Theater for two shows on Nov. 23, 1952. Williams’ Drifting Cowboys Band performed without their star singer, who died about a month later.
“They said Hank missed a plane in Kansas City or someplace. Whether he did because he was in bad shape, I don’t know. When he passed away, I got a letter from his mother saying she found my name and address in his belongings,” Smith said.
Three years later, Smith brought Elvis Presley to Des Moines on May 22, 1956, to play the first show at Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium. Though it only drew 3,900 fans because it was held during high school graduation weekend, Smith said Presley left an indelible mark on him and the fans.
“Number one, he was a gentleman. Very polite,” Smith said. “He was a good entertainer and put on a good show.”
Smith’s successes, however, would outweigh his losses as he booked an impressive list of artists at KRNT until 1974, including newcomers like Marty Robbins, Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. An entire chapter is devoted to his close friendship with Cash over the years.
“I miss talking to him,” Smith said.
Over the years, Smith’s reputation as an honest and groundbreaking promoter helped earn him several accolades, including inductions into the Missouri Country Music and Iowa Rock and Roll Halls of Fame. Still, he’s better known in Nashville than in Des Moines it seems.
“I’m just glad the people enjoyed the shows,” he said. “I was doing something that I enjoyed. Most of the time it made money; sometimes it didn’t. That was part of the terrain, and you just carried on.” CV
Caption: Author Terry Manley and Smokey Smith hold a copy of Smith’s biography, “Smokey: The Legendary Life of Iowa’s ‘Mr. Country Music.’” The book is available at Beaverdale Books.