Songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tony Thomas ably and proudly shoulders the legacy of his musical and cultural forefathers and mothers. Born in LaFollette and raised in the Briceville community, Thomas came of age surrounded by the still-vibrant, though quickly disappearing, sounds of old-time mountain music. In his own close family, his parents, as well as many aunts and uncles, made traditional music of some shade, whether banjo and fiddle playing, hymn singing, or ancient ballad singing-young Tony heard and savored it all. In the early 1970s, Tony’s own developing skills as songwriter, singer, and guitarist were put to use when he joined the Mystery Mountain Boys, a quintessentially mountain-style bluegrass band comprised of young coal miners. With this ensemble, Thomas helped perpetuate a lineage of traditional rural bluegrass from the New River communities of Anderson, Campbell, and Scott county. Like the legendary New River Boys lineups of the 1960s and early 1970s, the Mystery Mountain Boys garnered a loyal, hardcore following in East Tennessee and recorded several 45rpm, and an LP, with the Cumberland Sound label in Oliver Springs, TN. Until the band’s dissolution in the early 1980s, Tony sang lead and baritone, and composed much of the outfits’s original music.
After his time with Mystery Mountain Boys, Thomas continued to play bluegrass and gospel music, first with the Backwoods Boys and later with the group Coal Creek. In the 1990s, he also formed a long-standing relationship with John Rice Irwin and became a regularly featured performer at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris. In this setting, Thomas was able to resume cultivating a more old-time mountain music sensibility, often turning to banjo, and sometimes fiddle music, as his outlet of choice. The museum backdrop was also one against which Thomas was able to treat visitors and locals alike to his growing storehouse of original songs, a stock that spanned from tragic coal mining balladry to absurd Jerry Springer-inspired novelty tunes. Thomas also emerged as trusted accompanist and MC for several regional old-time musicians, old and young, including Charlie McCarroll, Ethan Ferguson, and Linda Gunderson. In 2003, Thomas reunited with Elmer and Cline Phillips to reform the Mystery Mountain Boys. With the addition of teenage radio personality and bluegrass fanatic Alex Leach, the Boys picked up right where they had left off, delivering up for East Tennessee audiences a refreshingly unvarnished bluegrass experience. With Elmer’s death in 2007, the Mystery Mountain Boys are again on hiatus; Tony, however, continues to play out with seemingly endless energy, continuing to delight audiences and support young, like-minded mountain musicians. In addition to all of this, it may be Thomas’s own efforts as a fieldworker- having recorded extensively musicians like McCarroll, Charlie Acuff, and Voyd “Happy Jack” Rogers-that stands as his greatest legacy. Only time will tell, though, as Thomas continues on, forging the path of a true mountain musician for the 21st century.
Listen to Tony Thomas perform “The Ballad of Jimmy Kyle”:
Earl. T Bridgeman plays and sings a powerful blues forged in Pikeville, TN in the Sequatchie Valley. The son of legendary fiddler Shorty Bridgeman, young Earl T., through the encouragement of an uncle, came to favor the sounds of bottleneck-style guitar. Though he spent a career in the Navy and traveled across the world, Earl T. always returned home to Pikeville and to his distinctive electric-downhome playing of the blues. Over the years, he has performed throughout the region, continuing to share his wrenching, sensual music anywhere people care to listen, be it in a club, juke joint, tea house, or outdoor cafe. For Earl T., this music possesses a universal appeal: “The blues touches everybody. Life is not peaches and cream. Somebody might be born with a silver spoon, but I don’t know them.”
Music remains a family occupation, as Earl T.’s son, Earl Thomas, currently enjoys a celebrated recording and touring career playing soul and gospel-infused blues. In 2003, Earl Thomas recorded his father and produced “516 Rockford Road,” a critically acclaimed independent release. Whether heard live or on a recording, to hear Earl T. is to hear a rare and hard-earned musical expression: “Blues comes to your soul. It’s like a minister delivering a message. When I’m feeling good, that’s when I want to express myself. Course when I’m feeling bad I want to do it too!”
From an irresistible child performer to a decorated Navy elite–Retired Rear Admiral James “Red” Best has taken quite a singular journey in his lifetime. Affectionately dubbed “little Red” Best by his friends, neighbors, and fans, the Admiral was born and raised outside of Dayton, in Rhea County, Tennessee. In this rural area, he grew up playing in the swimming holes on Richland Creek, and camping for days at a time in “the Pocket,” now a part of the Laurel-Snow State Natural Area. After winning a grade school talent show in the late 1940s, he launched a precocious radio career, commuting regularly, often several times a week, accompanied by his devoted father, to perform on Knoxville’s revered Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round and Tennessee Barn Dance programs. Showcasing his boyish charm and developing harmonica chops, “little Red” delighted and impressed audiences with his versions of traditional tunes like “Little Red Wing” and “Train and the Car Race,” an arrangement of which he adapted from that of fellow Rhea county native and Grand Ol’ Opry fiddle star Curly Fox. As a child performer at the center of East Tennessee’s historic radio community, Red was lucky enough to play alongside many country music legends, including Bill Carlisle, Don Gibson, and Chet Atkins.
But a longterm musical career was not in the cards for Best. After high school, he enlisted in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. He quickly earned his strips as a fighter pilot, eventually logging over 6000 hours during the Vietnam conflict. He subsequently rose through the Navy ranks to become commanding officer at Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego as well as managing massive naval fleets and aircraft squadrons all over the world. After retiring from the Navy, Red could have moved anywhere he desired. He chose, though, along with his wife, to return to Rhea county. Over the years, he has maintained his harmonica virtuosity-in part because he could fit the instrument in his uniform shirt pocket wherever his responsibilities guided him. Today he remains a gifted and mature musician and plays often with local bluegrass, country, and rock groups. He has also been featured from time to time as soloist, presenting his storehouse of harmonica tunes for audiences much as he did as child in the golden age of East Tennessee radio.
Listen to Red Best perform “Old Train Race”:
Emma Lou Wilson has spent most all of her seventy-eight years living and farming in Speedwell, TN, a small unincorporated community in Claiborne County. Born into a family rich with fiddlers and singers, Wilson inherited a love of the old sentimental and unaccompanied ballads from her parents and grandmother. Her appreciation for music was also shaped by regional professional musicians, like the original Carter Family, that she, like so many others of a certain age in the Cumberlands, heard as a child on the radio. Her impressive repertoire includes such Anglo-Appalachian ballads as “The House Carpenter,” “Black Jack Davy,” and “The Pretty Fair Maid.” Lou has also earned a reputation as a gifted accompanist for old-time fiddlers, most notably at the side of her revered cousin Fiddlin’ Bob Rogers, who requested her backing when he returned to Speedwell from his employment at the Crystal Ballroom in Los Angeles. Today Lou is often found accompanying her fiddling son Russ.
Though she has never attempted to turn her remarkable singing and playing abilities into a career, Lou does perform from time to time at local festivals and other events. Those who hear her are not likely to forget her clear and precise sound. Lou has shared her talent for many folklorists over the years, and we are lucky to have her music preserved on tape. As other musical traditions continue to thrive in the region, unaccompanied ballad singing has nearly vanished from the Cumberland Plateau. Lou, it seems, is among the last of a kind.
Listen to Lou Wilson perform “Picture on the Wall”:
Buster Turner has carved a remarkable musical livelihood, his songs and reputation circulating first locally, and then regionally and nationally, for nearly seven decades. Born outside of Tazewell in rural Caliborne County, Turner grew up hearing all shades of mountain music, from the fiddling and banjo playing of family members, to his mother’s hymn and ballad singing, to the popular “hillbilly” selections he tuned in from Knoxville and Nashville radio stations. Like many young East Tennesseans, Turner headed North in search of greater employment opportunities. Once moved to Detroit, with mandolin firmly in hand, Turner began playing around and recording with other southern migrants, including future mandolin innovator Frank Wakefield, originally of Roane County, Tennessee. Together, Turner and Wakefield cultivated a country and rockabilly-inflected bluegrass punch that set the later on his now legendary path toward collaborating with Red Allen, David Grisman, and Jerry Garcia. Turner later returned to Tazewell to form the classic early and mid-1960s lineups of bluegrass super-group The Pinnacle Mountain Boys. Initially a trio consisting of core members Turner, Don Gulley, and Doyle Niekirk, the PMBs entertained on daytime and weekend radio programs on stations in the Tazewell and Cumberland Gap area. Revered banjo master Lorne Rogers soon joined the group, picked up during an appearance on Knoxville’s Tennessee Barn Dance. In 1963, Turner and the PMBs, now without Niekirk, but with the addition of veteran area fiddler Charlie Collins of the Blue Valley Boys, won a Pet Milk-sponsered contest, the prize being an opportunity to perform on the Grand Ole’ Opry in Nashville. With Rogers’ tragic death in 1964, banjo wunderkind Larry McNeely joined Turner and the Boys, bringing to a peak the outfit’s distinctively buoyant bluegrass sound.
With the departures of Collins and McNeely in 1966, though, the Turner-led PMBs finally dissolved. But Turner did not, and has not, slowed down in the intervening years. Throughout the 1970s he played with his own music-making brothers, as well as with the talented Honeycutt Brothers, all of the Tazewell area. He continued to pick and sing on the radio, and for many years booked and hosted variety shows, barn dance programs, and bluegrass festivals for loyal audiences in his native Claiborne County. Today, Buster owns and operates, along with his son Darrell, FM station WTAZ, broadcasting country, bluegrass, and gospel in the old and New Tazewell vicinity. He also manages the Turner Music Theatre, a vibrant venue showcasing live local music each Friday and Saturday night. In 2006, he was honored by Claiborne County, when city officials hosted a “Buster Turner Days Festival” at the local fairgrounds. In 2008, moreover, Turner’s Pinnacle Moutnain Boys, with Gulley, Charlie and Allen Collins, McNeely, finally reunited for the the first time in over forty years and the Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival.
Listen to Buster Turner, the Turner Brothers, and the Honeycutt Brothers, perform “Alter of Prayer”:
James T. “Tom” McCarroll was born in 1928 in Emory Gap, TN. Son of the legendary Jimmy McCarroll of the Roane County Ramblers, Tommy learned to play old-time fiddle, guitar, and banjo. In addition to regularly playing for dances on the weekend, he worked for the city of Lenoir City in Loudon County for over 30 years. His daughter Tammie, the only one of the Jimmy McCarroll’s 13 grandchildren to play music, was making her own 45 rpm records in junior high school. She recorded some of her own compositions, and played with her grandfather’s band throughout his life. Along with her father Tammie performed on local country music television and radio throughout the Cumberland region. Over the past several they’ve been frequent guests at Knoxville’s Laurel Theater and on FM radio station WDVX. They also recently performed at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, WA and released a CD titled Generations.
Listen to Tom and Tammie McCarroll perform “Rubber Belly” and “Billy in the Lowground”:
The Lantana Drifters, led by Edd and Audine Webb, play a hard-driving style of old-time stringband music. Formed nearly thirty years ago just outside of Crossville in the heart of the Cumberland Plateau, the band is well-loved among flat-foot dancers for its faithful and full-force interpretation of the traditional fiddle-based repertory. In 1989, revered East Tennessee fiddler Charlie Acuff joined Webb and Company, helping lead them to first place at the Knoxville Dogwood Arts Festival. Charlie and his brother Gale got their start in 1938 in a band that played a 6:00 a.m. radio program on WROL radio in Knoxville. The two learned to play as children in a household where their father made fiddles as a hobby (he made 36 during his lifetime). When Charlie was 12 years old, his grandfather taught him to play the fiddle. At the same time, his father’s sister was teaching Gale to play the guitar. Five decades later, in 1989, Charlie became the fiddler for the Lantana Drifters. The band has also been heard on Garrison Keilor’s Prairie Home Companion and took first place on five occasions in old-time stringband competition in Smithville, Tennessee. Though Acuff has recently left the band, they continue to play at festivals throughout Tennessee.
Listen to the Lantana Drifters perform “Cindy“:
Once dubbed the “Stradavarius of the Cumberland Plateau,” Jean Horner has humbly earned and sustained an unmatched reputation in Tennessee and beyond for string instrument construction. Born, raised, and still residing in Westel, TN, near Crab Orchard Gap and Grassy Cove in the Cumberland Mountains, Horner grew up listening to the fine old-time fiddlers of the area, both in face-to-face settings and on his mother’s crank-up Victrola. Later, the radio introduced him to the diverse and sometimes distant musics of a fast-paced world, and he didn’t turn away. The local old-time fiddlers, and the stars of the radio, inspired him to pursue both the traditional mountain styles, as well as the the fancy shuffle fiddling technique heard on “sophisticated” national broadcasts. In time, Horner emerged versed in both, and developed a highly personalized and appealing style.
Having made his first violin at age 16, Horner, later, while in the U.S. Navy, spent downtime visiting museums in search of old instruments for study and inspection. Home from the service, he established himself as a cabinet maker, and desigined his second fiddle from pattern he secured from Popular Mechanics magazine. The rest, as they say, is history. Over the years, Horner has made hundreds of fiddles and garnered the attention and patronage of some of the country’s finest fiddlers and violinist. All the while, Horner has continued to pick in jams and at a jamborees, usually with his longstanding Fiddle Shop Band. In 2009, Horner was honored by the state of Tennessee with a Folk Heritage award. None of this, however, has gone to his head, as he continues to diligently carve out his musical niche in Westel, his shop and home located still in the very place where his ancestors have been since the late18th century, nestled in the beautiful wilderness along the Cumberland Trail.
Listen to Jean Horner perform “Sugar in the Gourd“:
The Woodson Gap Singers have not sought nor desired special recognition. Longtime members Ruth Lawson, Brenda Minton, Margie Williamson, Patricia Walls, and Loraine Milton perform old-fashioned gospel music, ardent and unadorned, for their small church community in Duff, TN, located in Campbell County. Though they have travelled occasionaly to surrounding states, and released a few powerful recordings, the Singers have, for nearly four decades, taken the greatest care and pride in keeping the music honest and meaningful to the community of folks in the Woodson Gap congregation. Recently, they have received attention from festival promoters interested in showcasing their forceful sound to larger regional audiences. In 2007, the Woodson Gap Singers opened the first annual Louie Bluie Music and Arts Festival with spirit and reverence. Whether hearing them at home in Duff, or encountering them at a Sunday morning singing or festival, listeners are taken with their fully traditional and resolute musical sensibility.