Tom was a passionate bluegrass fan and dobro player who switched to the instrument after hearing Josh Graves with Flatt & Scruggs in the late ’50s. In fact, Tom’s son Audey, another Tennessee grasser, tells us that his dad bought his first dobro from Josh, though he didn’t even realize who had sold it to him for several years. By that time, he had already traded it off to someone else.
People in east Tennessee remember Tom for two things, primarily. He ran a music store in Church Hill for 13 years called Ratliff Music, which catered to the bluegrass trade. Audey kept a space there as well where he built his highly-regarded Ratliff mandolins. He said that he and his dad had bought the building together, and put a glass partition down the middle to separate the spaces.
Tom was also known for the band he led called The Boys In The Band, with Tom on dobro, Audey on bass, and Frank Wing on banjo. That group formed when two other regional bands broke up, and those three came together. With various members they performed regularly in that area for some time. Their biggest claim to fame, however, was as the training ground for current bluegrass superstars Tim Stafford, Adam Steffey, and Barry Bales.
Audey remembers that he was giving Adam lessons at the time, and it was his first band, and Barry’s first time playing bass. Tim had only recently switched to guitar from banjo.
“Barry was working at my shop, and was a banjo/dobro player at the time. He was still a teenager. When I wanted to leave the group, I asked him if he wanted to play bass in a band. He didn’t know how to play so I started teaching him. He had to borrow Dad’s bass. Of course, he turned out to be a human metronome and a very, very good bass player.”
Ratliff Music opened after Tom retired from his job at the FAA, and he ran it until his health began to fail. But he continued to play until he fell and broke a hip about two years ago.
Fortunately, his wife, Norma, was able to care for him at home until he had to go into a nursing facility recently. Audey said that even after Tom was unable to recognize other friends, he still lit up whenever his wife came into the room.
A funeral service was held at Kingsport East Lawn Funeral Home shortly after his passing.
R.I.P., Tom Ratliff.