Tommy Edwards remembered at Celebration of Life

Energetic, prolific, and talented were some of the adjectives used to describe the late Tommy Edwards during his celebration of life service. On Sunday afternoon, an eclectic group comprised of some of the red headed guitar picker’s closest friends assembled in the restored barn at Fearrington Village in Pittsboro, NC, to pay homage to a man whose life touched many.

A bluegrass legend in central North Carolina, Edwards passed away on May 22 following a brief, difficult battle against pancreatic cancer. The 75 year old was a founding member of the Bluegrass Experience, a band that is in its 50th year performing. A songwriter, multi-instrumentalist (named World Champion Guitarist at Union Grove Fiddlers Convention in 1970 and 1971), radio show host, instrument dealer/trader, and promoter/mentor/supporter to the Tar Heel bluegrass community, Edwards was also a retired middle school history teacher, administrator, basketball coach, small business owner, and past board member of his local arts council. On June 27, he was remembered for it all.

For more than two and a half hours, numerous bands performed and various individuals shared their love, respect, and thanks for a life well-lived. Edwards’ friend in music and arts, Molly Matlock, served as the master of ceremonies. She first introduced a past president of Pinecone, a Raleigh-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving folk arts and music.

“Tommy was one of my oldest friends,” Ben Runkle shared. “We met in 1969 on Labor Day weekend at Camp Springs (Bluegrass Festival). He was the first person I actually met who played bluegrass. He took me under his wing and taught me all about bluegrass.”

Those opening remarks were followed by a performance by Tommy’s five decade band, which contained two original members, Al McCanless on fiddle, and Snuffy Smith on upright bass.

Smith introduced the group to those assembled, “We’re Bluegrass Experience…what’s left of us. We sure miss our buddy, but we must go on.”

Their five song set included an Edwards’ original Gospel tune, Help Me Find My Way Back Home, plus special guest appearances by other musicians who the beloved picker had performed with over the years. LaNelle Davis (who often performed with Edwards at wedding receptions) thanked Tommy’s wife, Cindy, for sharing him with others and sang Ernest Tubb’s classic, Waltz Across Texas. Then former school mate and band member, Leroy Savage, took the stage to sing Bob Dylan’s, Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.

Another to eulogize Edwards was Alan Button, president of WLHC radio in Sanford, NC, where Tommy hosted a weekly show called Bluegrass Saturday Night for 16 years.

“Tommy played two hours of the best in bluegrass. He not only highlighted IBMA winners and top songs on the bluegrass charts, but regularly played the music of others he knew. Tommy’s Christmas Letters (from Rebel’s 2003 compilation, Christmas in the Mountains) was one of our most frequently requested songs on our station. He had listeners that spanned from Canada to Russia to the Philippines. He had such an impact on us with just a weekly two hour show.”

Next to perform was Carolina Lightnin’, a trio comprised of Alice Zincone on bass, Rick LaFleur on banjo, and normally, Edwards on guitar. Their band performed regularly at a local barbeque restaurant, the Q Shack.

“It takes three to fill Tommy’s spot,” shared Zincone. Joining the original members on stage were mandolinists, Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange)and Jason Beverly, and guitarist, Jerry Brown (owner of Rubber Room studio where all Tommy Edwards and the Bluegrass Experience recordings were made). One of the songs they selected to play during the service was another Tommy tune, Midnight Run.

Other speakers included a former middle school student and one of the players from his basketball team.

Shirille Lee donned a tiara, stating that her former teacher, Edwards, had called her queen on social media. “Cindy was the apple of his eye and I was second,” she quipped.

Stan Lewter, Edwards’ former player who went on to coach basketball at Livingstone College and became a sports commentator, shared, “I come with a lot of emotions: great sadness, but joy that we shared a faith. We will all be together again someday, but I’ll still be trying to figure out what a Salty Dog actually is.”

Another spokesperson, Mark Hewitt, a neighbor, told the assembly, “Tommy was an encourager. He loved this place – central North Carolina, the music, arts, and crafts. He had a great memory and knew so many lyrics and so many stories about musicians, and had fast fingers. He was a pillar of the community with Cindy by his side helping non-profits and small businesses. She let Tommy be a rare bird: an orange crested, guitar picking, golden warbler.”

The husband/wife duo, Chatham Rabbits, also performed.

Clawhammer banjoist, Sarah McCombie, emotionally expressed, “Tommy made such a tremendous impact on me. Whenever we played with him, it was all about being included and being nice.”

Her husband, Austin, related about Edwards’ business sense, “Tommy was a true wheeler-dealer.”

Sarah agreed about a transaction in which Austin acquired from Edwards a 1941 D-18. “He left with two guitars and came back with one.”

Retired Raleigh News and Observer columnist, Jack Barnhardt, also praised Edwards. “He was a prolific songwriter. He was a son of the south, and had a vivid sense of place. He wrote about the Devil’s Tramping Ground (an unsolved North Carolina mystery) and wrote the first song I ever heard that gave a shout out to Krispy Kreme (donuts) from Edwards’ The Devil Wore a Sundress. In 2007, Bluegrass Experience headlined an Appalachian Festival in northern Ireland. It was held in a folk park. As I walked past the visitor’s center, I saw two guitarists swapping  tunes. It was Tommy Edwards and 17 year old Jake Stargel (Mountain Heart). Tommy was a generous, loving man.”

The last group to perform was a group of musicians that had been working on a collaborative album with Tommy.

Mandolinist, Jason Beverly, praised Edwards’ wit. “I loved Tommy’s puns. My favorite was: ‘You don’t have issues, you have a subscription!’ I played with Tommy and Leroy (Savage) at the Q Shack in the corner by the trash can. Tommy always saw the possibilities. He carried that energy forward.”

Andrew Marlin of Watchouse, née Mandolin Orange, added his own memories of the musician. “I met Tommy when I was 19 at Chapel Hill, and didn’t know what bluegrass was. He always had a hand shake, a hug, and a story. We started doing gigs together. He pushed me to take solos. We’d pick 5 hours without taking a break. We’re going to keep on pickin’ and bringing that energy to the stage.”

Marlin, joined by his wife, Emily Frantz, on fiddle, and a host of others launched into a final set of traditional tunes such as Little Cabin Home on the Hill, Old Love Letters, and Rabbit in a Log.

The afternoon of remembrances concluded with another president of Pinecone, Ron Raxter, sharing the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, the most prestigious award that the Governor of North Carolina can bestow upon a citizen. The state’s highest honor is presented to individuals who have made significant contributions to the state through their exemplary service and exceptional accomplishments. 

“My life changed because of Tommy Edwards. He taught me about my own musical heritage. When Tommy became ill, we got the Governor’s office to waive the time requirements for this award. We presented it to Tommy the day before he died.”

He concluded by reading the proclamation that included lyrics from the Not Carolina Toast Song:

Here’s to the land of the long leaf pine,
The summer land where the sun doth shine,
Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,
Here’s to “down home,” the Old North State.

RIP Thomas (Tommy) Shelton Edwards, July 20, 1945 ~ May 22, 2021

Donations in Tommy’s memory can be made to: Pinecone, Chatham Arts Council, or Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.

Share this:

About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.