Through his group the Red Clay Ramblers and a career that spanned four decades, Charles William “Tommy” Thompson (July 22, 1937-January 24, 2003) played a major role in keeping old-time music alive. Thompson was born in St. Albans and lived there until he was about 11, when his family moved to Florida.
Thompson played football at the University of Florida and Kenyon College, in Ohio, where he graduated in 1958. While stationed in New Orleans in the Coast Guard, he was introduced to classic jazz and blues. Then, at a fiddlers’ convention, banjo player Kyle Creed inspired him to study the claw hammer style of banjo playing. While in the doctorate program for philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Thompson co-founded the Hollow Rock String Band with his wife, Bobbie, and fiddler/folklorist Alan Jabbour. In 1971, Thompson took first place at the World Champion Old Time Banjo contest in Union Grove, North Carolina. After his wife’s death, Thompson started the Red Clay Ramblers with fiddler Bill Hicks and mandolinist Jim Watson. Joined in 1973 by pianist Mike Craver, the band became one of the best-known old-time music acts.
The band’s first successful musical, Diamond Studs, opened in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and moved to New York. Meanwhile, the Ramblers recorded a string of successful albums that stretched the boundaries of string band music. Thompson also appeared in his one-act play, The Last Song of John Proffit, set in a West Virginia cabin. The Ramblers added music to playwright Sam Shepard’s 1985 off-Broadway work A Lie of the Mind, his 1989 film Far North and 1993’s Silent Tongue. The band returned to the stage in the Broadway musical Fool Moon. Thompson was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and left the Ramblers in 1994. One of his last performances was in 1998 with his daughter, Jesse T. Eustice, who wrote a series of poignant letters about her famous father that were later turned into the musical A Tune For Tommy. Thompson was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2011.
This Article was written by Michael Lipton
Last Revised on December 19, 2011