In our bluegrass community, some folks perform, some promote, some teach, some deal/trade instruments, some encourage others in the business, and then there are those that amazingly do it all, and do it well. Tommy Edwards of Pittsboro, NC, was one of those rare and precious gems.
Saturday morning, after a brief bout with pancreatic cancer, Tommy Edwards, 75, left this world, but left it better because of his existence. Born in 1945 (the same year Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe), he was a historian and poster child for bluegrass music.
Friday, the day before his death, Edwards received his home state’s greatest honor, 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. Tommy’s service to his community was truly exemplary and his accomplishments, exceptional, yet he never tooted his own horn.
Edwards was the leader and a founding member of the Bluegrass Experience, a band that was slated to celebrate their 50th anniversary last Thursday at the Duke Performing Arts Center in Raleigh, but was canceled due to his declining health.
Band mate and original member, fiddlin’ Al McCanless, reflected on his longtime friend, “We were often mistaken for brothers, and he was like a brother I never had. We had some great conversations back in the early days while I was riding shotgun and he was driving late at night. I used to kid him and say that he could play pretty good for someone who didn’t have an ear for music! Of course, he was a fantastic picker on guitar, banjo, and mandolin, could write great songs, and most importantly, he was an entertainer that was passionate about the music. He left a legacy in many areas and influenced scores of young people. He made significant contributions to not only music, but through his instrument collecting and trading, teaching, and antique furniture and pottery collecting. It is sad to see him go, but we honor one who had a life well lived. His legacy lives on.”
Another band member, Stan Brown, joined Bluegrass Experience in 1998. The banjo picker who had toured with Wilma Lee Cooper in his younger days credits Edwards for getting him back out playing.
“I was with them (Bluegrass Experience) for 23 years. Tommy loved the music and had more energy and drive than anyone I have played with. He never met a stranger and always made time for everyone, especially the children. He was definitely an ambassador for the music we all love.”
Stan’s wife, Julie, chimed in. “The first time I played a gig with Tommy was in ’96 or ’97. He called needing a fill-in with The Bluegrass Experience. I accepted and showed up to catch a ride with the band. The gig went well, and being a frat party, was very entertaining and an experience to say the least. We got home safely in the wee hours of the morning, and it was the first of many shows that I would play with Tommy over the years. Tommy was one of the best people you could ever play music with. You were guaranteed to have a good time and a bluegrass experience that you might not forget.”
Edwards impacted many Tarheel pickers throughout his years.
Russell Johnson, Director of the Carolina Bluegrass Band at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and mandolinist/vocalist with Diamond Creek Bluegrass Band, shared, “It’s hard to sum up in a sentence or two what Tommy has meant to bluegrass music here in North Carolina, and to the people he encountered along the way. He touched people whether it was as a teacher, coach, musician, radio host, instrument dealer, entertainer, historian, or just as a positive, happy person that you’d want to know. He definitely was an inspiration and influence when I started out.”
“He taught me that the most important part of playing music is learning how to smile when you do,” Andrew Marlin, mandolinist with Mandolin Orange, relayed.
David Brower, the executive director of PineCone, a Raleigh nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving folk arts and music, said, “Tommy was exceptional. His right hand was just explosive, in terms of how nimble he worked through tunes. He epitomized the spirit of bluegrass and old time music from the Piedmont, where strangers can sit down and play tunes and get to know each other through the music.”
Edwards was also involved with songwriting and workshops to teach others the trade.
“Tommy was talent with a heart. We’ve picked and laughed and worked through 50 years of friendship and music. Tommy said yes to helping, every time. He jumped in with both feet to help in the nonprofit work we did to bring music and songwriting to children and communities in coastal NC, helping for four years as sound guy, teacher, performer, and songwriter. He leaves a space that can never be filled, because only he could fill it,” expressed songwriter and performer, Louisa Branscomb.
“He was a fine musician and an even better person. He had such a positive attitude and was always ready to lend a helping hand and an encouraging word,” Jeanette Williams added, who worked alongside Branscomb and Edwards in teaching the craft of musical compositions.
“(I was) very sad to hear of the passing of my friend. Tommy has been a fixture on the central North Carolina bluegrass scene for as long as I can remember. He was always ready to pick, always with enthusiasm and his infectious grin, and he loved to share and hear bluegrass stories,” stated author and musical historian, Penny Parsons.
Jim Watson, a musician and longtime friend of Edwards, described him as, “the quintessential bluegrass enthusiast. The Bluegrass Experience played every Thursday night for 9 years starting in the early ’70s at the Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, and those were legendary nights, 3 sets of hard-core bluegrass played to a packed crowd. The Experience featured powerhouse vocals and a seemingly endless repertoire.”
“Tommy was always enthusiastic about playing – it seemed he’d do it anywhere, anytime, and his enthusiasm was infectious. All bluegrass communities need people like Tommy Edwards – a multi-instrumentalist who can bring a variety of people together for the joy of making music.”
The North Carolina bluegrass legend twice won the world championship title for bluegrass guitar at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ and Bluegrass Festival.
“I loved him dearly,” stressed North Carolina Bluegrass Association President, Vivian Pennington Hopkins.
Edwards also hosted a weekly two hour bluegrass radio show on Saturday nights on WLHC in Sanford, NC.
Buddy Michaels, host of Weekend Festival on the same station, shared, “Edwards has joined the Heavenly Angel Band. We have been friends and worked a lot of music venues over the years; him singing and picking, and me emceeing and hosting. Promoters would ask about good solid bluegrass bands and I would always suggest The Bluegrass Experience, knowing they would give a GREAT show no matter what, plus I knew they were the oldest GRASS band in North Carolina, and were always a crowd pleaser.”
“He was not only a heck of a flat top picker, but a very good singer, songwriter, and band leader. As the years went by, we became closer and even radio hosted on the same station. When we first learned of his illness, we were shocked, but ready to be by his side. It’s been tough on all his friends, students, and fans. I know why his students loved him so much. He was a great teacher, and taught me so much more about the music I love. Anyway, there will never be another like him.”
“Tommy was never a star. He didn’t have any gold records, but he played with passion. He played with heart. Music was a huge part of his life,” Pinecone’s Brower pointed out.
Edwards did appear on the 2003 Rebel Compilation Album, Christmas In The Mountains (REB-CD-1800), with his song, The Christmas Letter. The project also included Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks, Paul Williams, the Country Gentlemen, and Lost & Found. The Bluegrass Experience recorded four albums and their band leader had six projects of his own.
Co-owner of Edwards Antiques, Art, and Music in Pittsboro with his wife, Cindy, Edwards was a collector/trader of high vintage guitars. The Siler City native also served in the US Army and was a former middle school history teacher, assistant principal, football, softball, and men’s and women’s basketball coach for Chatham County Schools.
Former student and banjo picker, Tim Mendenhall, recalled the retired educator. “Mr. Edwards was our middle school vice-principal in 1977-79. He was gracious to invite my twin brother, Tommy, and me to perform during school assemblies. We were scared to play bluegrass in front of our classmates, but Mr. Edwards made us feel at ease playing in front of the student body. It was the three of us with him on guitar, Tommy on mandolin, and me on banjo. I will always remember how important it made us feel to play with Mr. Edwards because he was such a great local guitar player that we admired. Mr. Edwards will be remembered as a great teacher, a great guitar player, and even more importantly, an all-around great guy.”
“We had a lot of respect for him in our bluegrass community. RIP Mr. Edwards, you will be missed,” added Tim’s brother, Tom.
Joe Newberry who knew Edwards for decades, concluded, “A hallmark of Tommy was that he loved playing with folks, and was not above learning new licks even though he was an established player. He listened deep and played just the same. Whenever people gather in our region to play a tune, we’ll think about Tommy.”
A public celebration of Tommy’s life will be held in June. Date, time and location to be determined.