Tommy was born in West Virginia, in 1937. He graduated from Kenyon College in 1959, served in the Coast Guard, and entered the graduate program in Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the mid l960's. But his passion for the five-string banjo began competing with academia and eventually won out. In 1966, he co-founded the Hollow Rock String Band, a group devoted to old time dance tunes of the southern mountains. In l972 he co-founded the Red Clay Ramblers.
A large and prepossessing man, with a ginger beard and an ample belly, Tommy often projected a comic stage presence. The Red Clay Ramblers received their initial professional boost as musicians and cast members of DIAMOND STUDS, a home-grown Chapel Hill musical about the life of Jesse James, which was picked up by interested New York theatrical agents and moved to Off-Broadway in l975. The success of STUDS encouraged the band to begin touring professionally, driven in part by Tommy's tireless booking efforts.
In addition to Tommy's vocal and instrumental talents, he soon began adding his songwriting to the band's repertoire, producing Rabelaisian romps and pithy ballads, with genuine poetic nuance. His writing maintained a sure sense of tradition, rarely veering into self-consciousness or losing touch with his West Virginia roots. Several of his best lyrics capture with perception the poignant yearnings of a youth spent in the shadow of coal towns and railroad bridges.
Tommy's most ambitious endeavor was the LAST SONG OF JOHN PROFFIT, his one man show about the fictional title character's acquaintance with Daniel Decatur Emmett, the real-life originator of blackface minstrel shows and the composer of "Dixie."
In addition to many recordings on the Flying Fish and Sugar Hill labels, touring both nationally and internationally, and major festival and Prairie Home Companion appearances, Tommy Thompson and the Ramblers remained involved in theatrical work throughout their career, collaborating with such talents as playwright Sam Shepard, in both stage and film work, and also with performance artists Bill Irwin and David Shiner.
Although Tommy bowed out of the band after his dementia diagnosis in l994, he managed to face his situation with a clear-eyed serenity. "It would have been much much worse if this had happened to me when I was just getting started," he said in a NPR interview in 1995. "But I've had 20 years or more, with the ability and the occasion and the freedom to do it, and to do it well, and that's all I need. I don't have to be wonderful my whole life," he added with a chuckle.
Tommy is survived by a daughter, Jesse Thompson Eustice, and a son, Tom Ashley Thompson, both of Durham. They have helped to establish the Tommy Thompson Memorial Fund for the UNC-CH Curriculum in Folklore. Donations can be made to the Curriculum in Folklore, UNC English Department, The Arts and Science Foundation, CB #6115, UNC-Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-6115.