Myrtle Irvin Green
Myrtle was a musician in her family band many years ago and we celebrate the legacy that she represents for the Hammett and Irvin families. The most famous of her family was her grandfather, Smith Hammett. Myrtle, like so many others who only heard of his musicianship and importance in the development of the “Scruggs -style” three-finger 5-string banjo style, never knew him directly. But unlike the rest, Myrtle was a direct family descendant of that tradition and has helped it stay alive as she has sought to preserve the knowledge of how it was passed down through her family. The second most famous person in her family was her brother Smith “Smitty” Irvin, first generation bluegrass musician who played with, performed with, and recorded nationally with players such as Roy Clark, Jimmy Dean, Bill Harrill and Buck Ryan.
Myrtle's mother was Smith Hammett's daughter. Her father H.G. Irvin, played with Smitty and learned enough of his style to pass it along. As the Irvin children came along, the seeds were planted for a family band to carry on this tradition. Smitty was the natural banjo player who not only carried Smith's first name, but the banjo genes as well. Brother Roy played guitar and later was a professional bass and guitar player, most notably with Jimmy Case and the Cherokees. Myrtle got the bass fiddle assignment in the band, so early that she had to stand on a chair to reach high enough on the neck of the instrument.
Papa H.G. Played the “little fiddle”, which is how they liked to distinguish it from the bass. So it was that this family band played here in Cleveland County in the 1940's at events uptown, way out in the county at Brackett's Park for a political rally, and in the studio of radio station WOHS at the same time that a young Don Gibson was on the local air waves. But the band had to move out to greener pastures just as others did. The Washington, D.C. Area had a strong club scene with World War II over and things picking up in the cities along the East Coast.
Myrtle stayed behind with her mother when H.G., Roy, and Smitty went to play nightly gigs where it might pay off. It was there that Smitty and his dad met and played with folks like a very young Roy Clark. It was said that Roy learned his first banjo licks from Smitty, the same ones that had been passed along from his grandfather and had thrived among the Cleveland County farms, fields and mills with players like Earl Scruggs (a relative of the Hammetts), the Brooks family, Dan Padgett, and a lot of others. Those licks and the style of three-finger banjo picking found a lot of fertile ground here and the Hammett family is known to be one of the original main stems from which it came. Brother Roy went on to tour extensively playing the music on U.S.O tours and venues far and wide. Smitty was on Television with the Jimmy Dean show and recorded albums with Bill Harrell and the Virginians, and with fiddler Buck Ryan on a duet album. He later retired from the music business mostly because he got tired of the traveling and touring. Myrtle raised her family and worked in her church, wrote poetry and collected her family's history which she now shares with the many folks who are interested in where the music comes from and what kind of people played it. “We were self-sufficient people,” she says. “My grandfather was a farmer and grew up farming and so did we. We put up food for the winter and the music came after all that was done.” She worries about how people today will survive without gardens and the knowledge of how to get by.
Myrtle does all she can to explain what she knows about the Smith Hammett legacy, her brothers'; lasting contribution to music, and her own place in the family band that kept it going. As the last surviving member of that time and that place and the music that it gave us, the Art of Sound Festival is proud to present Myrtle Irvin Green with the Heritage Bridge Award, 2010.