Billy Smith

He Understood Community

Billy Smith understood community: “To the sky and beyond, space cowboy.”

Photo by Shane Deruise

The Greenville music community is singing the praises and celebrating the life of one of their own, Billy Smith, who was killed in a car accident on June 24th.

By all accounts of family and friends, he was the free spirit that would give the shirt off his back to help a friend or stranger.

Mark Oliver, who played alongside him at many open mics, says, “He was the phone call so many made when something went boom in their lives. He answered and he was there unconditionally over and over again.”

“I can’t think of anyone in the local music community who was not touched personally by him,” Oliver says. “My first open mic I was nervous as heck–played Hank’s ‘Your Cheatin Heart’ and Keith Whitley’s ‘Nothing At All.’  Billy played behind me, setting me at ease, covering my errors, and sang harmony. I was hooked.” 

Billy’s mother, Barbara, remembers the first stage performance of her precocious boy who couldn’t sit still. He was 4 or 5.

“We were at my Mom’s house for Christmas–the whole family was there. He got a hair brush and stood up on the brick hearth of the fireplace and wanted everybody to come into the living room. He stood and sang this song that he just made up, called ‘Shadow.’ I wish we had a video of it, because it was hilarious.”

What his dad, Rick, remembers from the occasion is that his brother-in-law looked at him and said, “Man, you’re gonna have problems raising that boy.” And then he said, ‘I want a boy just like that.”

Then when Billy was about 10, his dad, who coached at the University of Kentucky, had the players over to the house for a meal. “Billy was beating on everything with sticks,” Rick Smith remembers. “Rob (one of the players) said, ‘Coach, I’ve got a set of drums over at home that I’ll give to him.’ I said, ‘You don’t need to do that.’  About a week later Rob and his mother, from about 400 miles away, drove up to the house and unloaded drums. And that’s where Billy got his first set of drums. And that’s when the neighbors started shutting their windows.”

At A.J. McMurphhey’s, 2010.

Barbara remembers taking her young son to a friend’s house to jam and when she picked him up, the friend’s mom said, “You know Billy really has a gift for drums. Where did he learn to play? And I’m like um–I had no idea. It came naturally to him. And he was an amazing drummer.”

In school, Billy played in marching band and sang in the chorus, where the chorus teacher Barry Turner, was a big influence, his wife Mandy says.

“My dad played the guitar, and when he was young, he played in a band. I feel like Billy got some of that from my dad,” Barbara says. When they stopped to think about it, Rick and Barbara said there are musicians on both sides of the family. 

His brother, Steve, says that Billy always loved music and at an early age his tastes began to evolve: “Like most people, as Billy became a teenager he started searching for his identity and music became an enormous part of that.”  

“As brothers, we could not have been more different–me logical and practical and rational and he was all emotion and feeling and impulse…and that’s one of the reasons everyone loved him. He loved and felt things bigger and harder than he knew how to express in words and actions at times, but thankfully he could always do it with music.”

In 2008, Billy graduated from ECU’s School of Business with a concentration in supply chain management. He was second in his class. 

“The funny thing is that Billy, all through high school, struggled,” Barbara remembers. “The day of graduation, we weren’t sure he was going to walk.”

“We had to meet with the teacher and beg her to give him a D-,” Rick says. “The teacher said, “I love him. He just doesn’t care about school.’”

Rick says that after ECU graduation, Billy hugged him and told him that he made that 3.7 GPA at ECU for him:“He wanted to prove to me that he was smart and could do it.”

Redhorse Black, 2014

While Billy played drums from an early age and played them in local bands such as Carolina Still, Redhorse Black, and the Still Shakers, he didn’t pick up the guitar until he was 30. He taught himself by watching Youtube videos and practicing until all hours of the night.

He also was a songwriter. “The very first song he wrote was called ‘Means to an End’,” Mandy says,  and it was about me. We’ve got notebooks where he has written songs.”

His signature song, according to family, was “Old Black Crow,” written collaboratively with Carolina Still. Billy was the lead singer on it. 

“Carolina Still has songs on Spotify that we can listen to and hear his voice,” Mandy said.  “Every time I hear his voice in those songs, there’s like a sensation in my heart. I can’t describe it. We keep trying to remind ourselves that he’s in a better place. And we’re the ones hurting. He’s okay. He suffered from some pretty debilitating depression and anxiety…especially anxiety. Really bad leading up to his death. And I try to remind myself that he doesn’t have to feel that anymore. That he’s not suffering.”

Carolina Still at Smoke on the Water, 2010. Photo by Tom Whelan

Barbara says she believes a lot of musicians suffer from that because they have that personality where they are deep thinkers and they worry about things in a different way. 

His sister Beth remembers the playful sibling rivalries: “Billy always thought he knew everything about everything. And there was some song and Billy was like ‘Oh that’s Ska music.’ And we were like ‘What are you talking about? That doesn’t even exist. You just made that up.  And he said ‘No, it’s a thing.’  We didn’t believe him until someone on a radio station used that term and we were like ‘It really is something!’”

Melissa Tilley has known Billy ever since he lived in a spare room at her house for three years. “My place was a hangout for musicians, ” she says, “bands like Redhorse Black. Kind of where the Still Shakers started was on my porch. He talked about Mandy, how his life wasn’t complete without her. If somebody needed something, Billy would break his neck to get there and help them. He went to listen to everybody. He encouraged everybody.”

With the Steel Shakers

Mandy remembers that when Billy first started playing guitar, he wasn’t confident enough to get up and play in front of people for a while: “He was shy about it. But once he got up there, it never stopped. He fell in love with it.”

Family and friends have been gathering memories since his passing and spreading them like confetti. Memories, like the fact that his nieces and nephews called him “Bubba” and he’d playfully put them in “Bubba Jail.” That he was a “crazy cat dad.” That he loved hats–and his family said that was good because he also loved to give himself crazy hair cuts, from Mohawks to man-buns. That he always had something funny to say. That green guitar picks were his favorite.

Music curator Jeff Blinder remembers when he was kicking off a house show and didn’t have the best PA system: “Billy said, ‘I have mine in the back of my truck and let’s just use that one!’ He was down to open the event before many people even showed up, then ran sound for each act making sure they sounded as good as they could. At the end of the night I went to give Billy a little of the donations we collected that night for performing and stepping in to assist with sound plus PA use and he said ‘Let the traveling act have it!’  Then he darted off to play acoustically for the folks still hanging around at the fire pit. Billy was as generous as it got and truly understood community.”

Fellow musician and friend Bryan Quintard perhaps echoes the sentiments of many when he says, “I will forever cherish our memories and musical journeys. To the sky and beyond space cowboy.”

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Originally published in the Daily Reflector August 5, 2023