Tommy's music: He is the laid-back gray-and-red-bearded "Father Banjo." The fellow who writes wonderful love songs like "Hot Buttered Rum" and desperate prayers like "Regions Of Rain." The fellow whose warm singing style owes much to Burl Ives, whose presence onstage is powerful, homespun, from the heart.
He is a guiding light for roots musicians in North Carolina and beyond.
"You can't measure his kind of encouragement and friendship like you can box office in Hollywood," says fellow Rambler Bland Simpson. "But I've seen it a thousand times. People coming up saying, 'I started playing music because of you.’ There is a song, 'Twisted Laurel,' that is one of his best," he says. Its wistful refrain goes: And the dark water springs from the black rocks and flows / Out of sight where the twisted laurel grows.
"It's a snapshot of a coal town, of one man at various stages of life," Mr. Simpson says. "Nominally, it's very simple. But there's this tremendous mystery implicit and a huge drama going on.”
"The Ramblers had a lot of escapades in the early days when we were all on the wild side," says band member Jack Herrick. "Tommy was always the leader of the pack."
Critics dubbed the Red Clay Ramblers a "what's-it" band for its high-strung eclecticism that embraced backwoods folk, gospel, bluegrass, Irish instrumentals, Dixieland and more.
With the Ramblers established, Mr. Thompson ventured into musical theater. He co-wrote and appeared in "Life On the Mississippi," performed with other Ramblers in the off-Broadway "Diamond Studs," and created a solo show, "The Last Song Of John Proffit." The Ramblers composed and. performed music for Sam Shepard's off-Broadway play "A Lie Of The Mind" and his movie "Far North."
"When you're on the stage you can't love the fact that you're a big deal," he says. "Acting is more like being an old-fashioned telephone operator. The signal comes in, you send it back out. In the process, you're bringing people together."
His life: He has a story to tell. There's no rush on this one. He works through it nice and easy, taking long pauses to study the floorboards and feel the sunlight pouring through the windows. When he was 15 and living in northern Florida, Tommy took a summer construction job. Every day a flatbed truck would pick up the laborers and then swing by an ice company. Big blocks of ice served as the crew's drinking water for the day. "One morning we took a corner and the slab of ice started to slide off the truck. Well, being young and thinking I could do anything, I reached out to grab it. I laid my stomach on that ice and stretched my arms over it. But I couldn't stop it, of course. I was going to slide right off with it. It would crush me, kill me. There was a man on the truck, the toughest man in the whole crew," he says. "He had an imprint of a chain running right up his arm. That man reached out with one hand and grabbed my belt. Then he pulled me off the ice and back into the truck with the wind knocked out of me. I never said anything to him and he never said anything to me. But that day, the man with the chain running up his arm saved my life."
A tall, broad man, he played football at Kenyon College in Ohio. "When I went to college I didn't worry. I didn't communicate with my family much . . .. We weren't getting along. It became such a strain…When I was a child ... I remember sitting outside with my toy trucks and a model railroad I had. I was the oldest and gave the impression I didn't need a lot of attention. . . . I created my own little world. When I got to college I made my own family." He had spent most of the 1960s in the graduate program of UNC-CH's philosophy department. Finally he chucked the doctorate and decided to swing full-time with his banjo. By the time he reached his thirties he was drinking too much, smoking two packs of Marlboros a day. He weighed 270 pounds. His mother was worried. His father had died at 54. Mr. Thompson is two years shy of that age now, a fact he does not take lightly.
Walking saved his life, or at least added a few years to it. While writing "Life On The Mississippi" he would pace his neighbor-hood for inspiration. Lo and behold, his bulk began to disappear. "I realized then that I could actually be healthy," he says. He quit smoking, cut down drinking and kept walking.
"You wanted to know the kindest thing anyone had ever done for me," he says, his words still colliding and stumbling. "It was not a single thing, it was not a moment. It was many people and it happened over a long time. All of my friends, through all the disruptions, they accepted me. And that's how I made it."
CHARLES WILLIAM THOMPSON
Born: July 22, 1937, St. Albans, W. Va.
Family: daughter, Jessica Laura Thompson of Philadelphia; son, Tom Ashley Thompson of Chapel Hill.
Education:Kenyon College (B.A., philosophy, 1959); University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (graduate study, philosophy,1963-70).
Religious affiliation: Episcopalian.
Military: U.S. Coast Guard, lieutenant junior grade, New Orleans, La. (1960-63).
Career: Composer, musician, actor. Hollow Rock String Band member (1966-68); Red Clay Ramblers founding member since 1972.
Albums: 'Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin’ Al' (1972), 'Stolen Love' (1975),'Twisted Laurel' (1976), 'Merchants Lunch' (1978), 'Meeting in the Air' (I 978), 'Chuckin' the Frizz' (1980), 'Hard Times' (1981), 'A Lie of the Mind' (1986), 'It Ain't Right' (1986), 'Far North' (1989).
Theater: 'Diamond Studs' (1974), 'Life On The Mississippi' (1982), 'The Last Song Of John Proffit' (1984), 'A Lie Of The Mind' (1985), 'The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Texas' (1989).
September 17, 1999