favicon.ico - 3638 Bytes Tommy Thompson

Memorial Tribute to Tommy Thompson

tomtwist.jpg - 29794 Bytes

Songwriter, Banjo Player & Founder of the Red Clay Ramblers

Tommy's Songs
Selected Lyrics

("The Ace", "Black Smoke Train", "The Face in the Mirror", "Hot Buttered Rum", "I Got Plans", "Merchants Lunch", "Regions of Rain", "Twisted Laurel", & "The Wall of Time")
Tommy Tributes

01/01/2022: hand.jpg - 1377 Bytes Nice Soundcloud file about Tommy from David Brower

Tommy Thompson was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame, Oct. 2011. FMI

Tommy's entry into the West Virginia Encyclopedia

YouTube vid about Tommy put together by John Baumgartner. "An overview of the career of Red Clay Ramblers founder Tommy Thompson, a 2011 inductee into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame."

TOMMY THOMPSON was one of the founders of the acclaimed string band the Red Clay Ramblers. Formed in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 1972, they recorded a series of albums on which they successfully fused old-time country, gospel and jazz influences and later worked closely with the playwright Sam Shepard on several of his film and theatrical projects.

Charles William Thompson (Tommy Thompson), banjo player: born St Albans, West Virginia 22 July 1937; married (one son, one daughter); died Durham, North Carolina 24 January 2003.

The Ramblers originally played tunes they had learned from 78s by pioneering hillbilly acts such as the Skillet Lickers and Charlie Poole. They quickly tired of this, however, and developed a style Thompson called "new-timey music; a bridge that connects the past and present". Their approach to this music was, Thompson noted, simple: "We like to make a big noise. We're entertainers, not preachers or poets. We get people hoping, laughing and feeling good."

Born in West Virginia in 1937, Thompson worked as a teacher before pursuing his interest in the banjo full-time. By the mid-Sixties he and his guitarist wife Bobbie were joined by both the mandolinist Bertram Levy and the fiddler Alan Jabbour in an outfit named the Hollow Rock String Road. Their tribute to the veteran Virginia fiddler Henry Reed, Traditional Dance Tunes (1968), remains one of the most important projects of its type.

In 1972, the year in which Bobbie Thompson died in a car crash, Thompson joined the fiddler Bill Hicks and multi-instrumentalist Jim Watson in forming the Red Clay Ramblers. A debut album was released in 1974 but it was only with the addition to their lineup of the pianist Mike Craver that they found a signature style.

In early 1975, the Red Clay Ramblers headed for New York where they performed in Diamond Studs, a hit musical based on the life of Jesse James. On returning to North Carolina they recorded the album Stolen Love (1975) and demonstrated their eclecticism by including a fine version of Ivor Novello's "Keep the Home Fires Burning". Later acclaimed Red Clay Ramblers discs included Twisted Laurel (1976), Merchant's Lunch (1978), Hard Times (1981) and Rambler (1992).

In 1985 they returned to the New York stage, performing the incidental music for Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind. They later collaborated with the playwright on two of his films, Far North (1989) and Silent Tongue (1993), but by the time the latter was released it was clear that Tommy Thompson was experiencing health problems. Diagnosed with the early stages of dementia, he was forced to retire from performing in 1994.


"The Red Clay Ramblers (circa 1973)"

by John Rosenthal

Back then, back in 1973 when there were no leash laws in Chapel Hill and the flower ladies were still allowed to sell their pansies and snapdragons and briefly beautiful sunflowers on Franklin Street, back then. in that very different time and very different town, there was Friday night at the Cat's Cradle. That was the night The Red Clay Ramblers performed. In present day America where people practically collapse in the presence of second-hand smoke, it seems almost irreligious to remember those beer-soaked Friday nights with the reverence they deserve. But I do.

orcrrosenthal1.jpg - 75941 Bytes There were a few dozen of us, Rambler loyalists, who had fallen in love with this playful, half-demented Appalachian string band with a piano player, and, come hell or high water, we'd be at the Cradle every Friday night, sitting on broken chairs under a slow drifting fog of smoke and sweating in the almost wavering heat of that stinking room. This was the original Red Clay Ramblers -- with Tommy Thompson on the banjo, Jim Watson on mandolin and guitar, Mike Craver on the piano, and Bill Hicks on the fiddle, and they made the sweetest music I'd ever heard. They sang weird old-time country ballads about prodigal sons who missed their mothers, and rubes who fell into the traps of city slickers, they sang Irish drinking songs and country gospel, and sometimes they'd just play straight out, hornpipes and reels and you'd sit there in the smoke and heat, a cold beer in your hand, and think you were on the road to heaven. The songs had wonderful titles like "Kissing Is A Crime," "The Girl Behind The Bar," "I Got The Whisky," and "The House of David Blues." In those years Tommy Thompson was the leader of the group, if such a crew of idiosyncratic musicians could be said to have a leader. A big spirited bearded guy with a powerful stage presence, he possessed a kind of startling high wit you didn't associate with old-time Appalchian music. He played the clawhammer banjo and sang the deeper notes. He was one of those rare musicians whose playing was both ferocious and sweet.

Eventually we pay a price for evenings like that, but in retrospect the price was right. In a world full of television sets and polite conversation, joy must be taken seriously. The real thing comes around only once in awhile and it doesn't last very long. If it did, it would kill you.

The Ramblers knew it too. In a very few years they had transformed themselves from a bar band to a concert band, and Broadway was just around the corner. Ten years later, when Tommy was a close friend of mine, he was 100 pounds lighter and drank fine wine. And the rest of us went on our way too, drinking less and listening to CDs in our living-rooms with new spouses. Good for us.

Nevertheless, the poet William Blake wasn't wrong when he wrote, "The soul of sweet delight can never be defil'd." At least I don’t think he was wrong. Because whenever I recall those exuberant nights at the old Cat's Cradle, I experience my own maturity as a kind of loss. For when the Ramblers closed down the show singing either "The Year of Jubilo" or "Traveling That Highway Home," and we rose out of our chairs applauding and singing, our very souls filled with laughter, we were cheering for ourselves -- for our loose and easy ways, for the beauty of the music, for our own good luck, and for our young, careless lives, which, in just a few years, would be the lives middle-aged people who dress warmly and drink lots of water.

copyright 2003 John Rosenthal. John is a writer and photographer who currently lives in Chapel Hill. His website: johnrosenthal.com
photo of the band by John Rosenthal, 1973


Tommy Thompson interviewed by Joe Vanderford for THE SPECTATOR, Nov. 1981. Tommy talks about the recent Red Clay Ramblers State Department tour of Africa, and other things.

Interview with Tommy Thompson, by John Wirt, Times-Dispatch, Richmond, VA, Nov. 1984. Some nice observations from Tommy.

DOWN HOME WITH THE RED CLAY RAMBLERS by Carol J. Oja and Mark Tucker -- well written article about the RCR's, including interview with Tommy in 1992. From the newsletter for the INSTITUTE FOR STUDIES IN AMERICAN MUSIC, CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC, BROOKLYN COLLEGE OF THE CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK

FOLK-LIFE Interview with Tommy Thompson, l978

Robert Earl Keen has recorded Tommy's song "Twisted Laurel" on his "Happy Prisoner (The Bluegrass Sessions)" CD.

Mary Chapin Carpenter records Tommy's HOT BUTTERED RUM on her new Christmas album.

The AUSTIN LOUNGE LIZARDS have recorded "Merchants Lunch" -- a song that Tommy and Mike wrote and recorded with the Ramblers back in 1977. This new version is on the LIZARDS' latest album "Strange Noises in the Dark", released in the Spring of 2004. Tom Pittman sings the lead vocal and does a great job!

Adam Miller, a folksinger and autoharpist from Woodside, CA, has recorded Tommy's song "Twisted Laurel" on his new CD "Orphan Train". FMI, visit Adam's website: www.folksinging.org/.

hand.jpg - 1377 BytesNPR's Steve Inskeep did a nice piece about Tommy on "All ThingsConsidered" Sunday Jan 26, 2003. Transcript. The audio is archived at: http://discover.npr.org/features/feature.jhtml?wfId=940062

hand.jpg - 1377 BytesHal Crowther on Tommy Thompson in the THE OXFORD AMERICAN

hand.jpg - 1377 BytesBill Hicks tribute to Tommy in the OLD TIME HERALD.

The Red Clay Rambler Reunion for Tommy Thompson aired Jan. 1st, 2004 on WUNC-FM. Portions of the June 14th '03 concert at the North Carolina Museum of Art were broadcast on a segment of "The State of Things", hosted by Frank Stasio. Current and former Red Clay Ramblers all took part. Selections included "You've Been a Friend to Me", "The Hobo's Last Letter", "The Ace", "Rabbit in the Pea Patch", "Cotton Eyed Joe", "Yonder", "Jim Canaan's", "Hard Times", "The Yellow Rose of Texas", "Churchill and Roosevelt", and "Traveling That Highway Home". Included was a especially luxurious little version of "I've Got Plans", one of Tommy's songwriting gems. Clay Buckner did the great singing on this one. The broadcast included a segment of Tommy performing "The Last Song of John Profitt" recorded in the mid-90's for WUNC. WUNC's "Back Porch Music" was a co-sponsor of the concert event and it was organized by George Holt. A totally awesome eve, and a nice broadcast of! For accounts and pix of the event: RCR Reunion at the NCMA)

Jack Bernhardt has written a remembrance of Tommy that appeared in the Spring/Summer 2003 issue of the North Carolina Folklore Journal. The article is transcribed here




Also sheet music for "The Ace" and "Merchants Lunch" (piano, vocal, instrumental chord charts) and many other songs are available at Mike's Sheet Music Store

The Orange County North Carolina Board of Commissioners Resolution in Honor of Tommy Thompson of the Red Clay Ramblers was passed March 24, 2003. "(To)celebrate the outstanding creative, cultural, and intellectual contributions of Tommy Thompson's life and his deeply rooted commitment to civil rights and progressive achievements during his life, and mourn the loss of this great cultural resource, who came to represent the music of the Tar Heel State to a worldwide audience." For a copy of the complete resolution go to http://originalredclayramblers.com/images/tt_resolution.jpg

From the vaults of the L'ARGILE ROUGE RANDONNEURS, here's some sonic gems. First up is Tommy and the band doing "Twisted Laurel", recorded at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, VA on April 24, 1982. Personnel: Tommy Thompson guitar and vocals, Jim Watson bass and vocals, Mike Craver piano and vocals, Clay Buckner fiddle, Jack Herrick harmonica. Then there's Tommy doing his hilarious version of "Oh How I Wish I Was in Peoria", Mike doing "Bidin' My Time", and Jim doing "Jerusalem Morning", a song he learned from his father. The three last tunes are from a gig at Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, in October 1983. Special thanks to John Sheffler at WCMU FM for digging these up!
"Twisted Laurel" (live)"
"Oh How I Wish I Was in Peoria"
"Bidin' My Time"
"Jerusalem Morning"
Diamond Studs
original Red Clay Ramblers site
Red Clay Ramblers recordings, past present future

cartoon by V. Cullum Rogers

Discography * Musicals * News * Press * Schedule * Store * Tunes * Home