In the late 1940s, radio station WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the veryshadow of the Smoky Mountains, was emerging as a major country music center. Buoyed by promoter Lowell Blanchard’s Mid-Day Merry-Go-Roundand his later Tennessee Barn Dance,the station hosted an impressive paradeof major country performers—from the Louvin Brothers to the Carter Family, from Carl Story to Carl Smith, from the Carlisles to Flatt and Scruggs. Still others came through as guest artists. Many of them recallmaking that trip to the WNOX studio, enjoying the loose atmosphere andgood announcers, but being a bit puzzled at something they saw just out-side the main studio doors. It was a thin-faced man who slightly resembled Danny Kaye, usually looking a bit frazzled and down on his luck.
In front of him were three boxes: They were songs, original songs, he had written. Thereally good ones, he explained, were for sale at $25 apiece; the average oneswere $15; the lesser ones were $5. His name was Arthur Q. Smith, and whenhe sold you a song, then you got it—not only to copyright it, but to put yourname on it and record it or sell it or do what you wanted with. In an erawhen country songs were routinely bought and sold like old guitars, ArthurQ. Smith emerged as one of the best songwriters in the business—but hardly anybody except the musicians knew that.
Like almost everything else about him, even the name “Arthur Q.Smith” is shrouded in mystery. His real name was James Arthur Pritchett, butnobody knows why he wrote and performed as Arthur Q. Smith. The musicscene at that was full of Arthur Smiths—there was Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith,then on the West Coast with Jimmy Wakely, and there was Arthur “GuitarBoogie” Smith from North Carolina. Some people contend that “Arthur Q.Smith” was a slang term in Alabama for somebody who was pretentious andarrogant —- “Who does he think he is, Arthur Q. Smith?” Another story saysthat he had been performing on WNOX and using the name of his stepfa-ther, Arthur Smith, when “Guitar Boogie” suddenly hit. To prevent confu-sion with the North Carolina guitarist, he added the “Q.” to his name. Thiswould make sense, because most of what we can find out about the man sug-gests he had a subtle sense of irony, and a sort of Br’er Rabbit sort of clev-erness that allowed him to make people think they had outfoxed him.
Arthur Q. was born in Grissom, Georgia, but his family moved toHarlan, Kentucky, where he was reared. He made his way to Knoxville inthe late 1930s, and began working around the radio station; one of thefirst songs he sold was a piece called “Stuck Up Blues” that Roy Acuff, whohad then moved from Knoxville to the Grand Ole Opry, recorded as earlyas 1941. It was the first in a long line of “secret” hits. Not long after that,he sold “How Will I Explain About You?” to bluegrass founder BillMonroe—one of four songs Monroe would eventually buy from Smith.(Monroe recorded “How Will I” in 1946 at his first session with his semi-nal bluegrass band featuring Flatt and Scruggs.) His biggest hit from thisearly period was “Rainbow at Midnight,” sold to Lost John Miller, butmade into a top hit by the Carlisle Brothers and by Ernest Tubb.
The two songs of Arthur’s best known to country music fans are “IfTeardrops Were Pennies” (a giant hit for Carl Smith in 1951) and“Wedding Bells” (a 1949 Number Two best-seller for Hank Williams); foreach of these, Arthur had to watch the royalty checks go to someone else—and it was all legal. Hank Williams, to give him credit, recognized the kindof songwriter Arthur was, and for a time hired him to work in his tourband and to do some booking. The problem was both men had seriousdrinking problems, and neither was more dependable than the other;finally Hank’s wife fired Arthur and his band. Arthur kept pitching songsto Hank, and one of them—“The Man in the Moon Cried Last Night”—Hank had agreed to record at his first session in 1953. Of course, it was asession Hank never made. Arthur quipped to one of his friends, “I finallygot the SOB to record one of my songs, and then he goes and dies.”
Some people, like Acuff, Monroe, and Johnny Wright, were in lateryears anxious to give Arthur credit for the songs he had written for them.Monroe considered him one of the great bluegrass songwriters, and wasnot surprised to see Ricky Skaggs make the charts in the 1980s with “IWouldn’t Change You If I Could.” Other performers, though, adopted a“don’t ask, don’t volunteer” attitude. We now know that Arthur’s cus-tomers included Kitty Wells, the Stanley Brothers, Johnnie and Jack,Maybelle Carter, Jim Eanes, Ernest Tubb, and Carl Butler. One letter fromJim Eanes preserved in the family archives requests some twenty-one songsfrom Arthur. And there are persistent rumors around Knoxville that oneof Arthur’s customers was Don Gibson, and that Arthur had something todo with Gibson’s career song, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Gibson himselfhas vehemently denied this, but friends recall that after Gibson becamefamous, he would regularly return to Knoxville and meet with Arthur, andthat afterward Arthur would be flush for a few weeks.
Arthur apparently wrote songs easily, scratching down lyrics on scrapsof paper and old envelopes. For someone as talented as he was, he wascuriously inept when it came to forging his own career. He actuallyrecorded a handful of sides under the name “Arthur Q. Smith” for theKing label in the late 1940s, and went north for a time to work as a writerfor King records. For a time he was signed to Acuff-Rose, the big Nashvillepublisher, but was eventually let go because he would continue to sell goodsongs on the side to his old friends instead of through the company.Though he had a family of six children, his drinking continued to alien-ate them, and his sons recall that on more than one occasion they had topull Arthur’s head out of a gas oven when he was trying to kill himself.
A modern psychiatrist might say that Arthur had a classic inferioritycomplex, or some inner drive that pushed him headlong toward self-destruction. Yet we now know that, even as Arthur was enriching othersingers with his unacknowledged songs, he was playing a little game withhistory. He kept a big notebook, and whenever he sold a song to someone,he would write at the bottom of his song lyric exactly who he sold it to, howmuch he got for it, and the date. He also kept letters from singers eitherpaying him for songs or asking for them. It was an incredible archive thathis children discovered only after he died, and in recent years it has helpedArthur’s widow get a fair share of royalties from hits like “I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could.” Though he was willing to give up the composercredits on a song, it almost seems as if he were wanting to leave behind thetrue story, in hopes that someday history would vindicate him. And it has.
Arthur was diagnosed with cancer in 1962, and checked himselfinto a VA hospital; he died in 1963. In his later years he had become afamiliar figure around the streets of Knoxville; one witness recalls, “Hewas sunburned really dark, but not like some dude who’d been out inhis cabin cruiser on Fort Loudon Lake, or playing golf at CherokeeCountry Club. No, he was tanned more like some poor devil who’dbeen pounding the concrete all day trying to bum a drink.”
One of Arthur’s champions is the legendary dean of Nashville songwrit-ers, Harlan Howard. He had heard about Arthur and his song selling fromproducer Chet Atkins. “I failed to understand how anyone could sell a song,”he recalls. “I can’t imagine not having my name on a song and hearing it onthe radio. . . . You shouldn’t go through life being that unappreciated or unre-spected.” In fact, in 1991 Howard wrote a song dedicated to Arthur, “BeCareful Who You Love (Arthur’s Song),” which was recorded by HankWilliams. It wasn’t a big hit, but it did call attention to Arthur’s sad story. Severaltimes friends have tried to get Arthur nominated to the Nashville Songwriter’sHall of Fame, some members of the country music establishment still feeluneasy about him getting in. It is a frustration Arthur would have understood.