Ernie Thacker passes

Ernie Thacker could have quit a hundred times since that awful April night 12 years ago, when a car crash cut short his solo bluegrass career and left him paralyzed below the waist.

But he didn’t. He sang when he could, endured countless surgeries and hospitalizations, and kept right on smiling.

Even in November, when doctors first said he would need to have both legs amputated to stop a ravaging infection, then told him the infection had spread too far and would end his life, Ernie kept right on smiling.

Tonight, that smile is gone. A little after 7:00 p.m., his family posted on the Ernie’s Journey Facebook page, “The journey is over.”

Ernie was a star, starting with a five-year run singing and playing guitar with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys. That gig started when he was just 16 years old.

After that, he was touring on his own and putting together a CD for Pinecastle Records when a single-car crash left him grievously injured. He had organ damage, more than a dozen broken bones, and paralysis. He spent 14 weeks in intensive care. But the injuries that crushed his body did not crush his spirit, or his faith.

In mid-November, when Ernie was told that nothing could be done to save his life, and that he should get his affairs in order, one of the first things Ernie did was record a video so he could, in effect, tell folks the awful news in his own way and on his own terms.

There was Ernie, reporting on his condition in his folksy, aw-shucks way, with his wife Karen sobbing off camera. On one hand, the video wasn’t easy to watch. On the other hand, it was a gift from Ernie to the rest of us. He talked about his faith, and how he was certain where he was going when his broken body finally gave out. And he made a modest request for $15,000 in donations for a casket, his funeral, and other expenses.

He followed up with regular reports and he and his wife started Ernie’s Journey to help keep friends and fans up to date on his condition. At the same time, the bluegrass community rallied with fund-raising drives and benefit concerts that blew right by the goal Ernie had set.

The news on the Ernie’s Journey page was mostly upbeat. Ernie talked at one point about hoping to get well enough to record a Gospel project. At another point, he held an interview on social media, letting everyone know that he was still beating the odds.

But by Saturday, the tone of the reports changed. At one point, he coded and had to be revived. 

Some folks say it was a miracle that Ernie survived that horrific wreck in 2006. This time, though, there was no miracle.

But maybe we’re looking at this the wrong way. Maybe the miracle is that after Ernie received the worst news possible from his doctors in November, he didn’t just give up, withdraw into himself and fade away. He did what he was always meant to do. One last time, with grace and courage and humor, Ernie Thacker took the stage, using social media to talk of love and faith, to make a difference.

For a few short months, Ernie taught us how to live. And he taught us how to die.

At one point in his first video, which was both heartwarming and heartbreaking, Ernie said he hoped that people wouldn’t forget him.

There’s no chance of that. RIP Ernie.

UPDATE 4/12 – Funeral arrangements were announced today.

The family will receive visitors both Friday and Saturday evening at 6:00 p.m. at the Splashdam Freewill Baptist Church in Haysi, VA. A funeral service is scheduled for Sunday (4/15) at the Haysi Funeral Home.

Following the funeral, a procession will be led to the Hills of Home cemetery in Coeburn, VA where Ernie will be buried.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.