The Carrboro Interviews with Tommy and Jesse

We have exerpts from three news stories for you here.  The first two discuss not only Tommy and Jesse's upcoming performances, but also the affect of Tommy's Alzheimer's-like symptoms on the family and his music.  Then Perry Young gives us an eye-witness account of the performances.
from "Tuning up for Carrboro Day," by Dave Hart, The Chapel Hill News, Friday, May 1, 1998

from "No longer a Red Clay Rambler, Thompson still sings," by Susan Broili, The Chapel Hill Herald, June, 1998

from "An inspiration to us all," by Perry Deane Young, The Chapel Hill Herald, June, 1998

Tuning up for Carrboro Day

Though weakened by illness, former Red Clay Rambler Tommy Thompson will hop on stage again and sing with his daughter.

By Dave Hart, Staff Writer
The Chapel Hill News

CARRBORO—There was a time in this community when it was hard to miss Tommy Thompson.

As a founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers, Thompson was, of course, highly visible on stage, where for 22 years he sang and played the banjo for the Ramblers’ distinctively witty, rambunctious brand of bluegrass.  He was also just around town a lot, a big bear of a man with a quick smile and laugh lines at the corners of his eyes.

In 1993, Thompson began to notice that he was experiencing memory lapses.  They were slight at first—a forgotten lyric or banjo lick, a misplaced name—but they grew increasingly troublesome.  He sought treatment at Duke and was diagnosed with a memory disorder similar to Alzheimer’s disease.

By the middle of 1994, he’d decided he should quit the band.  Thompson played his farewell concert with the Ramblers at the ArtsCenter in September 1994.

But this Saturday, at the Carrboro Day festival, he’ll be back.  Thompson and his daughter, Jessica Eustice, will sing a short selection of tunes to open the reception celebrating the Carrboro Collection art exhibit in Town Hall.

“We’re a little nervous,” said Eustice, a professional tutor.  “We’re no big deal.  I can carry a tune, but that’s about it.  We’ll do a couple of songs that Dad wrote, just a little three-song set.  I don’t know how polished it’ll be, but we’re excited about it.”

“I’m really looking forward to it,” said Thompson, sitting on the back porch at Charles House with Eustice last week.  It’ll be nice to sing again.”

Not that he ever actually quit.  His condition clouds his memory, primarily his short-term memory, and causes him significant physical difficulty.  But he brims with melody.

“Dad always has a song from every occasion,” Eustice said.  “When I was a child, whatever activity we were doing, he’d come up with a song to go with it. He’d sing a line, and we’d all join him.

“That hasn’t changed at all.  Sometimes a tune or a lyric doesn’t come back right away, but it does come back eventually.  He sings all the time.  I think he plays his banjo, too, but only in private.  It’ll be in one corner of his apartment one day and in another the next, so I know he’s picking it up.”

Thompson is no longer the burly giant he was when he played with the Ramblers.  But, sitting in the shade at Charles House, he still carries a strong, gentle presence.  As he and his daughter softly sing an old tune of his, “Hot Buttered Rum,” he leans forward, closes his eyes and loses himself in the song.

“I don’t know what I’d do without music,” he said afterward.
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No Longer a Red Clay Rambler, Thompson Still Sings

Dad, daughter singing duo

By Susan Broili
The Chapel Hill Herald

CARRBORO – Sometimes life throws a curve that can bring people even closer together.  Such is the case with Tommy Thompson, 60, and his daughter Jessica “Jesse” Eustice, 37.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, Thompson now believes his memory loss, the pins and needles in his hands and feet, could be attributed to mercury poisoning.  He had his old fillings removed for that reason.

But whatever the cause, he still has trouble remembering.  When he speaks, he sometimes searches for the words he needs to express what he thinks and feels.  He doesn’t always readily recall all the words to all the songs he knows, even the many he has written in his long career as a Red Clay Rambler and before that, in the Hollow Rock String Band.

But the music is still there – as people will see when they duo performs at the “Fete de la Musique: A Festival of Music and Friendship” in Carrboro on June 21.  They will be joined by former Red Clay Ramblers Bill Hicks, on fiddle, and Mike Craver, at the keyboards.

Sometimes, it takes humming a few lines for the songs to unfurl.   Sometimes Eustice prompts him and sometimes he prompts her.

So, Eustice and Thompson began singing together for people at Charles House, where Thompson goes daily to enjoy social and other activities with other adults facing health challenges.

“It was dad’s idea.  We picked out some songs and just sang them.  It was low key, like a family.  We sang a cappella,” Eustice said.

That went over so well that a Charles House staff member suggested they perform at Carrboro Day, where they made their first public appearance together to an enthusiastic response.

“The music is my dad’s first love.  Music is a spiritual thing for him,” Eustice said.  “It means a lot to him to do it.  That’s one of the things he hasn’t lost – the ability to perform.

“And speaking the language of music with him, for me, I’ve had the best connection I’ve ever had in my life and that is wonderful for both of us.

“This is really great for us.  The connection.  In a way, it’s a connection with a whole life that’s gone, with my mother, too, who died when I was 10,” Eustice said.

Her mother, Barbara, was an artist who taught at Duke University.  She also played guitar.  “Dad taught her how,” Eustice said.

Though Eustice had never performed with Thompson before in public, there were plenty of opportunities to join in when she was growing up.

“Music was just a natural part of our life,” she said.  “When I was little, they wanted me to learn to play an instrument, but I didn’t see any need because everybody else played.

“I’m perpetually learning to play the guitar now,” she said.

Singing together has been a learning experience.

“When we make eye contact, it helps jog his memory and it helps both of us,” Eustice said.

“The wonderful thing is that all his life, dad has been a genius at harmonizing.  What’s really astounding to me is he still holds onto that ability.  He’s still got it.  I sing melody.  He harmonizes.  I don’t have to help him.  He helps me,” Eustice said.

For the upcoming festival, Eustice said they will probably sing the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” and the song, “Sparrow in a Treetop,” from Thompson’s childhood.

And, they’ll do “Hot Buttered Rum” a love song written by Thompson.

“Even though it’s summer, it’s still a beautiful song,” Eustice said.

Thompson especially likes the last verse, she said.  “That’s the verse my dad really sings his heart out on.”

When burning embers in the darkness
Bring cold comfort to the heart
And Bitter memories freeze the tongue
And songs of love are left unsung
In the dead of winter
If springtime never comes,
You’re my sweet maple sugar,
Honey, hot buttered rum.

Sitting in the sunroom at Charles House, Thompson spoke about the song.

“I think I like that one the best, because it puts all the sweetness in it, but also it’s not all sweet,” Thompson said.

He’s enjoying singing with his daughter.

“It’s something I never had thought of, and now having my daughter, there’s a new generation of Thompsons.  She could sing when she was a little kid.  It comes natural to her,” he said.

It has always come natural to him, too.

“I can’t remember when I couldn’t sing.  When I was a little kid, I could sing and nobody else in my family could until Jesse came along.  It’s good to have it continue.  It’s so good to have the music go on through her,” Thompson said.

Then, another song comes to mind.  Thompson sings the tune “da, da, da” then the words for part of "Hard Times," an old folk song so fraught with emotion for him that he says he’ll put the song last on the program.

“I can hardly sing when I’m trying to sing that song because of the content of it,” Thompson said.

“It’s a song about how hard things are, not happy things, that it’s going to be there – the bad as well as the good.  Forever, there’s always going to be sorrow,” Thompson said.

He acknowledges his own recent hard times as he struggles with memory loss.

“That’s why I’m not a Red Clay Rambler,” Thompson said.

But, with Jesse, he’s remembering more and more of his music.  “A lot of practicing and we’ll do it,” he said.

He continues to cope with his symptoms and is now looking into alternative medicine, he said.  “If it had taken music away from me, I think I would just let it go.  Without music, I couldn’t…That’s the one thing I can do,” Thompson said.
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An inspiration to us all

By Perry Young, Columnist
The Chapel Hill Herald

Tommy wasn’t just a talented musician, but the kindest, gentlest man any of us had ever known.  Who could forget how he patiently nursed his beloved daughter, Jesse, back to health after she had been horribly injured in a car wreck that had killed her mother?  Such a man did not deserve to live his life an empty shell without the music that had delighted and inspired so many.

And Jesse wasn’t about to let this happen.  She has grown into a beautifully poised and talented young woman with all of her parents’ best qualities.  A few weeks ago, Jesse staged a small concert with her father at Town Hall. They sang only three or four songs a cappella, but it was a smashing success.

With Jesse leading and guiding him, Tommy was able to sing the old songs like “Hot Buttered Rum” that had once made us all so happy.  One of the residents of Charles House, the adult daycare center where Tommy now spends his days, was so proud of her colleague she shouted: “We knew him when.”

A second concert was presented last weekend by Jesse and Tommy, and it became the centerpiece, the most memorable event, at Carrboro’s wildly successful Fete de la Musique.  This time they had musical backup from fiddler Bill Hicks and guitarist Mike Craver from the original Ramblers band.

More than a few of us old timers were moved to tears as they sang, “There is a dark and sunny side of life, so keep on the sunny side; It will help you every day if you keep on the sunny side.”  Several hundred of us responded with a standing ovation for the music and for Tommy and Jesse.  His memory returning in a flash, Tommy grabbed the mike and said, “Break a leg.”

Backstage, I stood with dear beautiful Jesse as she watched her father being swamped with hugs and kisses from old friends and new.  “We should all be so lucky to have such a daughter as you,” I told her.  “Oh,” she said, “but it’s so important for Dad; look at him.”  There stood Tommy, as he had so many times, basking in the glow of friends and fans, an inspiration to us all.

(We've also excerpted a column on our "Stories" page that Perry Deane Young wrote about the Red Clay Ramblers and Jim Watson's concert in March, 1999.)

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Tommy Home
August 11, 1999