Who was Quay Smathers?
Quay Smathers was born in Dutch Cove south of Canton, NC, in 1913 and lived his entire life in the community. He was a master carpenter, having built homes and churches throughout Western North Carolina that are still recognized for their craftsmanship and beauty.
Born into a musical family, Quay grew up singing shaped-notes with his family as well as playing old-time string band music with his cousins. His father, Gaston Smathers, led the historic Christian Harmony shaped-note singing at Morning Star Methodist Church in Dutch Cove until his death in 1944. Quay assumed the leadership role of the singing at only 35 years of age.
His mother, Lizzie Bracken Smathers, learned shaped-note singing from Rev. Benjamin Clark, a student of William Walker, compiler of The Christian Harmony. Quay often told the story of being awakened one night as a young boy by his mother singing "Angel Band" at the top of her lungs in her sleep.
Quay's brother Vaughn Smathers and sister Crystal Smathers Medford also participated in the Christian Harmony singings at Morning Star, and his uncle, George "Bruz" Smathers, sang until his death at age 101.
Quay played tenor banjo and guitar in a string band with his cousins as a young man, and with his daughters and sons-in-law later in life in the popular Dutch Cove Old Time String Band. But perhaps Quay was known on an even broader scale for his tireless efforts to teach the Blue Ridge style of shaped-note singing and officiate one of the oldest continuous shaped-note singings in the entire world.
Featured in documentaries, magazines, books, and even doctoral dissertations, Quay was the recipient of the prestigious North Carolina Heritage Award in 1990. He was honored in the NC Legislature and performed at the induction ceremony for dignitaries from throughout the state. Other accolades include the Bascomb Lamar Lunsford Award from Mars Hill College as well as inclusion in the 1974 Personalities of the South for "distinguished and outstanding service and achievements in the community and state."
Quay was in high demand to teach workshops for novice shaped-note singers at folk festivals as well as speaking at seminars for folklorists, ethno-musicologists and foreign academicians researching Early American music. He led numerous shaped-note singing schools at universities and churches, always caring more about mentoring new singers than any honors afforded to him by others.
Quay died in 1997 at age 84, and at the time many tributes were written about him in area newspapers that are still found online. Many of the singers he taught drove from out-of-state to sing some of his favorite shaped-note hymns at his funeral.
Today, his daughter June Smathers-Jolley continues to lead the historic shaped-note singing at Morning Star United Methodist Church in Canton in her father’s place, and Elizabeth Smathers-Shaw continues to teach folk music passed down to her by her father, including shaped-note singing, in Ohio.
The QSMSS strives to teach the Blue Ridge style of shaped-note singing Quay was famous for and worked hard to preserve. Participants will come away from the singing school with not only a proficiency in “singing the shapes,” but also an invitation to share in the legacy of a shaped-note singing legend.
Visit the Listen page to hear Quay lead singing schools as well as other shaped-note singers perform various selections from The Christian Harmony in the Blue Ridge style.
It is believed this clipping from a magazine published by the Champion Paper and Fiber Co.(circa 1948) in Canton, NC, documents the first time Quay led the shaped-note singing at Morning Star Methodist at age 35. Big brother Vaughn was there to offer support.
Quay's parents, Gaston and Lizzie Bracken Smathers, were shaped-note singers in Dutch Cove, NC. Gaston directed the historic singing at Morning Star Methodist Church until his death in 1944. Lizzie learned to sing from Rev. Benjamin Clark, a student of William Walker, compiler of The Christian Harmony.
Recipient of numerous awards and recognized by governors and academicians, Quay valued most the opportunity to teach others Blue Ridge style shaped-note singing.
Quay was known for his sense of humor. Listen to this little clip of a comment he made at the singing in Etowah, NC (circa 1973). He acknowledges the younger generation deserving a chance to learn from the experienced singers and he invites his teenage daughter Elizabeth to lead a song. But then he goes on to make a comment about the music teachers who were in the crowd that day - colleagues of Dr. Edith Card from Clemson Universerty who was there researching for her disseration on Christian Harmony singing.