by Samantha Gratton | photography by Ben McKeown
It all started in 1994, when Hank Smith received a pawn shop banjo for Christmas. He didn’t play at the time—but he couldn’t put it down, either. “It was something of an anomaly. I don’t have a musical family,” says Smith, who grew up in Florence, South Carolina.
While everyone around him was listening to grunge, Smith was teaching himself how to pluck Nirvana songs on the banjo. And when a friend loaned him a Béla Fleck album, he knew it: this was the kind of music he wanted to play. He slowly learned more traditional fingerpicking bluegrass-style songs, mostly through monthly jam sessions for the Southeastern Bluegrass Association, getting good enough to play gigs on the side as he moved through college and then graduate school. He moved to Raleigh in 2006, after commuting to play in jam band Barefoot Manner for four years. With Smith on the banjo, they created a modern bluegrass or, “newgrass,” sound. In the ten years since Barefoot Manner left the road, Smith has continued to live and work in Raleigh.
In 2015, Beer and Banjos was just getting off the ground as a weekly night of music at former Irish pub Tir Na Nog. Smith had completed leadership training with the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and decided to pour his skills into the local music scene. When the pub closed that same year, he helped find Beer and Banjos a new home at The Raleigh Times, where you’ll find him every Tuesday, hosting new talent alongside the house band, The Allstars. Smith looks for up-and-coming artists, both locally and regionally, in anything from bluegrass and Americana to acoustic and singer-songwriters (recently: Magnolia Project, Momma Molasses and Counterclockwise String Band). “If we think it sounds cool and they have something to say, we’ll book them.”
“It’s been fun because we’ve had some bands come through that are now notable in their own rights,” says Smith, like Fireside Collective from Asheville. Beer and Banjos has grown to not only serve as a weekly home for artists, but to also produce a showcase event during IBMA and give out annual awards. In 2018, Beer and Banjos was franchised, expanding into The Pit in Durham.
“It’s an event that people know they can count on,” says Smith. “And we’ve ended up with a cadre of artists that are helping to create the scene as well.” He even met a few of the members of his band, Hank, Pattie & The Current, through Beer and Banjos. In June, they released their fourth album, Rise Above, a modern-bluegrass-meets-soul-crossover sound that features Smith on banjo, Pattie Hopkins Kinlaw on violin and vocals, Robert Thornhill on mandolin and vocals, Billie Feather on guitar and Jonah Freedman on bass and vocals.
When he’s not playing banjo or fostering the local music scene, Smith is training the next generation. He teaches banjo as an adjunct instructor at UNC and through private lessons.
He’s even managed to connect with his inspiration, Béla Fleck, first at IBMA in 2013 (when Smith divulged to the artist that he’d started a Béla Fleck and the Flecktones tribute band) and again in 2018 through the Béla Fleck Blue Ridge Banjo Camp. So when Fleck came to play a concert at UNC this past January, Smith lined the legend up for a master class with his students. Twenty-five years after he first started playing banjo, Smith says it feels like he’s come full circle: he now has Fleck’s phone number. “It blows my mind.”