One of the truly outstanding acts of old-time music was the fiddle and guitar duo of Narmour and Smith, who were quite comparable—both in style and ability—to the Stripling Brothers of Alabama, personally I’d even go so far as to venture that I might like these two better.
The pair was made up of William Thomas Narmour, the fiddler, and Shellie Walton Smith, who played the guitar. Narmour was born on March 22, 1889 and Smith on November 28, 1895, both in Carroll County, Mississippi, where they spent most of their lives. Narmour learned his craft as a boy, on a fiddle fashioned for him by his father—also a fiddler—from a cigar box. He joined forces with Smith, his neighbor, to provide music at local functions. When Smith was unavailable, Narmour sometimes with the local blues musician Mississippi John Hurt. At a 1927 fiddle contest in Winona, Narmour and Smith were discovered by record dealer, talent scout, and veterinarian Dr. A.M. Bailey, who referred them to the Okeh company to cut a record. Thus, they traveled some hundred miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, to record their first six sides on February 15, 1928. Those first thee discs proved a considerable success, and so the duo returned to the recording microphone the following year, this time traveling a longer distance to Atlanta, Georgia. That session resulted in one of the most successful “hillbilly” records of the time, a two-sider featuring “Charleston No. 1” and “Carroll County Blues”. Its popularity was so that six months later Narmour and Smith took a train all the way to New York City, where they put down another eight tunes on two September days, plus an appearance on Okeh’s “Medicine Show”, a musical skit record much like those made by the Skillet Lickers. They concluded their Okeh engagement in 1930, with two sessions in San Antonio, Texas. After four years of recording silence, Narmour and Smith returned to Atlanta for one final marathon session, this time for Bluebird, who had also poached the talents of fellow old-time stars Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers for their respective last recordings. In all, the duo of W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith left behind a recorded legacy of nearly fifty sides. Both Narmour and Smith remained in their native Carroll County for the rest of their lives, living primarily as farmers, and later finding work at the local school as a bus driver and janitor, respectively. Narmour also operated a garage in Avalon. Willie Narmour died on March 24, 1961, two days after his seventy-second birthday. Shell Smith followed him seven years later on August 28, 1968.
Okeh 45317 was recorded March 11, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia by W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith, at their second session. Narmour playing the fiddle, and Smith on guitar. Unfortunately, this junk store copy is quite worn; both sides play fairly well for the first two-thirds or so, becoming quite crackly toward their ends (such that if I tried to clean them up, I’d surely lose my mind). Nevertheless, both sides still put out a strong signal over the crackle.
“Charleston No. 1”, as its name would suggest, was the first in a series of “Charlestons” played by Narmour and Smith, up to “No. 3”. They later re-recorded the three “Charlestons” for Bluebird in 1934 titled as “The New Charleston”. The number is said to take its name from Charleston, Mississippi, rather than the popular dance or the likewise named cities in South Carolina or West Virginia.
Narmour and Smith’s famous “Carroll County Blues” is a sublime performance, a prime example of just how these two really could get right. Like with the previous number, they later followed up “Carroll County Blues No. 2” and “No. 3”, and re-made all three for Bluebird as “New Carroll County Blues”.