West Virginia fiddler Tommy Cordell passed away in Florida on September 30, 2022. He was 65 years of age.
Born in Saint Albans, West Virginia, on March 2, 1957, Thomas ‘Tommy’ Cordell had, in his own words, been a “fiddle, guitar, mandolin player all my life.”
His father, a truck driver, played guitar for square dances at the American Legion Hall. Cordell himself started playing guitar at the age of five and continued to play it as his main instrument until he was 17. That was when he started playing a fiddle owned by a member of his father’s band.
Cordell took a few lessons from Clark Kessinger, a champion fiddler from West Virginia, and learned what he could from records. According to Jim Gabehart, “Mike Humphreys, was also a nearby resource.”
Gabehart continues …
“I first met Tom when I was 15 and he was 19 I believe, and we jammed some before he joined a band being formed by me and guitar player-singer, Bob Ashley, called Bluegrass Heritage. At that time, late summer of 1977, he was employed as a pipefitter with Union Carbide, a very good job. He also played over the next couple of years with the Wriston Brothers (southern Ohio); Free Spirit (my second band), High Time Picken Band (with John ‘Buckwheat’ Green); but his life changed forever when he left his job at Carbide to join Dave Evans’ band and become a full-time, life-long professional musician.
He was one of five brothers (two predeceased him). Although his father played music, I’ve never heard of any of the other brothers playing. Tom was married to wife Theresa for over 30 years, until her death in 2011, and they had three children Allen, Austin, and Christina, all of whom live in Florida.
His life after making the choice to make music his living wasn’t always easy, but he left an indelible impression on everyone that had the pleasure of playing with or being entertained by him.”
Also in the later part of 1970s, he played with The Laurel Mountain Boys, as Paul Adkins (leader of The Borderline Band) remembers ….
“I’m very saddened to hear of the loss of longtime friend Tommy Cordell. I’ve known Tommy most of my adult life. We are both from the beautiful state of West Virginia and have similar backgrounds. I first met Tommy when he was a teenager and I was in my early twenties, being about five years older than him. He was from St. Albans, I was from Wayne. Our paths crossed often in those days as we were both playing with local bands at the same venues. I knew the first time I heard Tommy that he was well on his way to becoming a great fiddle player. We were in countless jam sessions and actually enjoyed working together in The Laurel Mountain Boys band that was led by the late Don Sowards.
Tommy’s fiddle playing matured very quickly and he became one of the top fiddle players in bluegrass and country music. I never got the opportunity to record with Tommy, but I have precious memories of playing music with one of the very best to ever draw a bow across the strings. Not only was he a fellow West Virginian but a very dear friend.
Rest In Peace, Tommy, and thank you for the great music and friendship.”
Adkins also remembers that they played a lot of the same places. “Some of the venues were The Mountaineer Opry House in Milton, The Rose Garden Inn near Hurricane, and various other bars in the Huntington and Charleston areas of West Virginia.”
Cordell stood 6 feet 5 inches, very much a gentle giant as Kevin Williamson (Williamson Branch) elaborates …..
“When I was 17, I joined Dave Evans & River Bend. Tommy was the fiddler in the band and, though he was only a few years older than me, he took me under his wing. He was such a big guy, but he was a protector by nature. He always came to my defense, always making sure I had what I needed. At the time, he lived in St Albans, West Virginia, and I lived in Kenova, so he would give me a lift home after our trips. We were buddies. We recorded one project with Dave, Going Round This World on Rebel Records. Nowadays when I listen to it, I’m struck by the raw energy and emotion of the project. We were all playing as though our lives depended on it, and in some ways they did. Tommy found such joy in playing music and it rubbed off on the rest of us.
He also loved the loved his family fiercely. I will sure miss his big presence.”
He stayed with Evans for three years, making many personal appearances, and recording a few sessions while a member of River Bend. He then did brief stints with Larry Sparks & the Lonesome Ramblers, and the Boys From Indiana.
Cordell was playing in North Carolina in 1984 when he met Orlando bluegrass musician Jim Fee. This led to him moving to the state where he was likened to Chubby Anthony – leader of Big Timber Bluegrass until he passed away in 1980 – he joined the band and cut an LP in April 1985.
In February 1987 he recorded his solo album, a collection of very well-known tunes all given individual treatment that distinguish them from run-of-the-mill performances.
Tommy Cordell – Me and My Fiddle
In June 1990 Tommy Cordell and Big Timber Bluegrass went on a month-long tour performing in Nashville at the Station Inn, as well as the International Country Music Fan Fair.
Big Timber Bluegrass – Bluegrass On My Mind
Also, he had his own Fiddlin’ Tommy Cordell Band for a while.
R.I.P., Tommy Cordell.
We are very grateful to Paul Adkins, Jim Gabehart, and Kevin Williamson for contributing their recollections.
Fiddlin’ Tommy Cordell
- Florida Blues (Old Homestead Records OHS 90179, released 1987)
- Playing It Simple (Vetco LP-3037, 1980, re-issued on Crosscut CR-1031)
- Goin’ Round This World (Rebel REB 1602, 1981)
- A Few More Seasons (Rebel REB-1608, May 15, 1982)
- Poor Rambler (Rebel REB-1616, August 25, 1983)
- Classic Bluegrass (REB-CD-1119, November 1, 1993)
Big Timber Bluegrass
- Bluegrass On My Mind (A & O Productions AO1000, 1985)
- Plain Path for Kids, Vol. 2 (January 23, 2009)