HOWARD CITY — When you wade into the world of music with most high school students, certain names tend to rise to the surface — Maroon 5, Carly Rae Jepsen, Justin Bieber.
Tri County High School senior Isaac Smith marches to the beat of a different drummer — or he would if drums were featured more prominently in bluegrass music. Del McCoury, Earl Scruggs and Mississippi John Hurt are far more likely to find their way onto Smith’s iPod than any pubescent heartthrob crowding pop’s top 100.
Smith’s love of American roots music dates back to the year he was 10 years old and a chance visit to the former Gettin’ Picky music store in Howard City. Smith already owned an inexpensive student model guitar, a birthday present from his father, but the interest wasn’t there.
“I don’t know what it was, maybe a rebellious kid thing,” Smith said. “But I was totally against playing the guitar. I just didn’t want to do it.”
It wasn’t until he saw a fiddle hanging on the wall of the music store that Smith’s love affair with music really got under way.
“I looked at it and just knew that’s what I wanted to play,” Smith said. “I thought it was a really cool instrument.”
For four months Smith took private lessons from the store’s owner, Clint Gitchel, who wasn’t really a fiddle player, but knew enough about the instrument to get Smith familiar with the basics. From that point on, Smith picked up the requisite skills the way God and nature intended — by jamming with other musicians and hanging around Gettin’ Picky and Zellie’s Opry House, both music halls in Howard City, and watching the players there perform on a weekly basis.
Smith quickly became known as something of a wunderkind, able to absorb musical knowledge at a prodigious rate. That rapid progress, though, came with a cost.
“To a point it kind of came naturally,” Smith said. “People tell me I have a natural talent, but they don’t see that I practice five hours a day. It takes a lot more than natural ability.”
Smith is set to graduate from Tri County High School on Thursday night. This autumn, Smith will attend East Tennessee State University, where he has been awarded a music scholarship.
“East Tennessee State is the only school in the country with a bluegrass music program offering a bluegrass degree,” Smith said.
Though music is his main passion, in recent years Smith has developed an interest in working with special needs students. He has worked at Camp Sunshine, a special needs camp on Lake Michigan, and also has worked with special needs children at Tri County Middle School. In both cases, Smith has employed music to help reach his charges.
“I like the one-on-one interaction with the kids who have autism or Down syndrome,” Smith said. “I just really appreciate the way the special needs kids work. One year, I put on a workshop at a camp for blind and disabled students. There were also a lot of mentally handicapped there. I brought out my instruments and played for them. What I saw when I did that was a mind-opening experience. They just lit up.”
Like a lot of soon-to-be graduates, Smith is still deciding exactly which career path he intends to follow. All he knows is that he wants to use his musical gift to help others.
“I just know I want to be in that field,” Smith said. “I want to help the special needs kids get farther than they already are. Music is my release, so I want to incorporate that.”
Smith’s parents, Jim and Dawn Smith, have over the years been great supporters of their son’s musical aspirations.
“We are so proud of Isaac’s accomplishments. Watching him grow as a musician and grow as a person has been a joy,” Jim Smith said. “We were very pleased that he was awarded the performance scholarship to ETSU. Isaac understands the gift of music he has been given and understands the value of the scholarship as well. Now it is his journey, we consider it a privilege to be his parents.”