Smith Vinson, a Tupelo native, left too soon.
It’s been 22 years since his death, but he’s still on the minds of family and friends.
Smith was a guitar picker, an original longhaired folk rocker who released one studio album, One Time for the Cow on Playboy Records (1973).
Even his departure was different, a concept ahead of its time for this small southern town. By all accounts it was a “wake” in 1996. Everything was cleared out of the casket and reception area at Lee Memorial in Verona, and replaced with tables and chairs. Those who went told stories, played music, laughed and toasted their friend until past midnight. Smith was also one of the first, around here, to choose cremation.
“It was a very unusual urn, with some sort of musical significance,” said Steve Holland, who oversaw the ceremony. “Last time I saw Smith’s wife, she had that urn with his ashes, strapped in the passenger seat of her car.”
It’s said his wife intends to add her ashes to Smith’s when she passes.
His sound was somewhere between David Bromberg and Jonathan Edwards, very laid back with whimsical songs like “Bill Collectors Are Such a Drag” to the more serious ones like “Long Summer Nights.”
The album was produced by Ray Harris (1927-2003), from Mantachie, who later moved to Tupelo — he got a job at the Firestone tire plant in Memphis, where he met the bass player Bill Black. In 1954, Black told Harris that he was working with a young musician who was also born in Tupelo, Elvis Presley.
Those appearing on the album were Bob Pieczyk, bass; Larry Morgan, piano and organ; Mike Reeves, drums and Merle “Red” Taylor, fiddle. Red was from Saltillo, and later played with Paul Howard, Cowboy Copas, and Hank Williams in addition to Monroe's Blue Grass Boys.
Another musician who played on One Time for the Cow, was Danny Strange, who played guitar on the album but wasn’t credited. “I played on every track. We recorded it at the Natchez Trace Recording Studio,” Danny said. “Smith and I were good friends. He was a great artist. We never toured to support the album. I don’t really know why. I was ready to go.”
It was Ray who worked up the deal with Playboy Records, but no one really knew the details. Playboy Records was an American record label, based in Los Angeles, California, and a unit of Playboy Enterprises. The label had some well known artists signed early on, including Al Wilson, Barbi Benton, Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds, Greg Kihn, Mickey Gilley and Joey Stec. The label's biggest hit was Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds' million-seller, “Fallin' In Love,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975.
Smith’s album cover speaks volumes about the kind of fellow he was, never taking himself too serious — with guitar and music stand, in front of a bellowing heifer. When the Tupelo native sings “And I wonder what they did with that old Jersey cow, one time for the cow” — then there’s a ding — which was someone hitting a dinner bell with a ball peen hammer.
“That had to be Homer Ray Harris’ idea,” Danny said and smiled. “Kenneth Christian, who was the engineer on the album, took that picture for the cover.”
Later in the 1980s and 1990s the boy played around Tupelo, most frequently at the Stables. “I recorded everyone of those shows. Those were good times. The music was different and good,” Danny said. “Charlie Watson played violin with us, and Jody Lackey played sax on some.
“We also played this club next to where Proud Larry’s was in Oxford. The owner at Proud Larry’s came over and liked what he heard,” Danny said.
Smith liked playing local, driving fast, but didn’t get outside the immediate area much because he had a fear of flying. “He had an old Ford Galaxy stationwagon and he drove us from Booneville to Tupelo in about 15 minutes. This was before there were any interstates,” Danny said and laughed. “There were probably claw marks on the dashboard where I was hanging on.
“He got an opportunity to tour with Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee admired Smith’s playing and asked him to go on their European tour with him. Smith asked, ‘Have they built that highway yet?’”
Smith got the news in March of 1996 that he had cancer, he died two months later. He left behind his wife, Doris and their daughter, Heather, who at last count was living in Nettleton.
Those recordings Danny made at the Stables were available at one time, on cassette on Ebay, and at least one of them had a couple studio tracks.
“The album is live, except for three songs, “Key to My Kingdom,” which Smith had written for Doris several years before, and “Thank You Mr. Fender,” which he recorded at their home about two months prior to his death,” said Sandra Vinson Christian, Smith’s sister, back in 2009.
There are a few copies of the original album One More Time For the Cow for sale off the internet.
Smith Vinson will be a part of the exhibit Lee County Originals which will be at the Oren Dunn City Museum, beginning Sept. 1 and running through Oct. 31.