Banjo virtuoso Tom McKinney passed away peacefully at the CarePartners Hospice Center, Asheville on Friday morning, August 31, 2018. He was 76 years old.
Thomas Haynes (Tom) McKinney III was born on November 25, 1941, in Orange County, Florida, was a powerful Scruggs stylist, a strong traditional singer, and the inventor of the famous McKinney capo that Tony Rice made famous in the 1980s, perhaps placing McKinney in the same group of banjo innovators as Earl Scruggs and Bill Keith.
As a boy, his parents owned and operated an orange grove. From a very early age McKinney was driven to perform for people; at the age of five, with help from his mother, he taught himself to play the ukulele. Growing older, he learned with the aid of chord books to play his father’s guitar, and by the age of 16 he could play any standard folk song in any key on the guitar.
While serving in the U.S. Navy on a deployment to Antarctica, McKinney became interested in the five-string banjo. He quickly became very proficient at playing the instrument, and when he was discharged after four years-service he began seeking a musical career. When at college and working at various music stores he became even more proficient, adding the bass to his existing talents on guitar and banjo. He became a member of the Nashville Association of Musicians.
Beginning in 1969, he began his professional career playing and singing with a number of bluegrass groups, including the Boys from Shiloh (with whom he cut an LP for Rural Rhythm), the Shenandoah Cut-Ups, and the Country Grass. In addition he played a number of fill-in dates with Curly Seckler and the Nashville Grass.
More recently, McKinney played with the Redeye Ramblers, joining in 2007. On top of playing the banjo and singing, he wrote a number of songs / tunes and arranged much of his music.
McKinney recorded two albums of his own; Uptown on Five (Tune Records, released 1972) and There Is A Time (Grassound Records, 1979). On these he plays all the instruments and sings all the parts, with many of his compositions featuring on the first LP. He put some of his recordings on a compilation CD, The Best of Tom McKinney’s Banjo.
Also, McKinney recorded an album with Jake Landers, Present Original Songs & New Banjo Sounds Of The 70’s (Tune Records, released 1971).
Among the albums on which he played banjo are Herschel Sizemore’s album, Bounce Away and Red Rector’s Back Home in Madison County, Bo’s Bluegrass Band, Take Me Back to Tulsa and Roger Howell’s Hills & Heroes.
McKinney’s banjo playing is heard in two films, one of which is Disney’s Nashville Coyote (released in 1972).
Away from the limelight he taught many students how to play the banjo, Balsam Range’s Marc Pruett included, and was known worldwide for designing the McKinney stainless steel capo for banjo and guitar.
He was a qualified draftsman and metalsmith and utilised these skills in developing his capos – one for banjo and one for the guitar – starting when he first went out on the road (1969) and continued on and off up to and beyond 1985, when the design was patented. Tom’s design involved a thin piece of polished stainless steel that encircles the neck from below, with a hinged clasp that closes at the top. An adjustment screw is used to tighten the saddle from below. They were immediately popular for allowing quick capo changes, and a light weight that added no coloration to an instrument’s tone. They are now manufactured under license by Elliott Capos in Texas.
This video features Tom McKinney singing the old Bill Monroe number, On My Way Back to The Old Home.
He is shown playing with The Del McCoury Band at Milton Harkey’s Bluegrass First Class Festival.
R.I.P. Tom McKinney
A memorial service for Tom McKinney will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Wednesday, September 5, at Brittains Cove Presbyterian Church in Weaverville, North Carolina. The body will lie in state at the church for an hour prior to the service.
A private burial will be held following the service.
Flowers are acceptable and appreciated, or memorials may be made to:
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital
501 St. Jude Place
Memphis, Tennessee 38105
The Wounded Warrior Project
PO Box 758517
Topeka, Kansas 66675-8517
…or the charity of your choice.
Online condolences may be sent to the family at www.blueridgefuneralservice.org