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Buddy Thomas

There are some musicians whose creations simply cannot be separated from their personal history, and such is the case with the wonderful fiddler Buddy Thomas. His troubled life and many problems including physical ailments made music a very important outlet for him, as well as an inlet, so to speak. He absorbed an incredible amount of traditional musical material from what he heard all around him and was something of a walking history of Kentucky fiddling. Raised in abject poverty in one of the most isolated parts of that state, Thomas learned music not from the radio or televised videos, but from having it personally handed down through the oral tradition. Songs he heard his mother whistling or ones that had been taught to him by countless older acquaintances were all part of the library of songs this man carried within his heart. There is a melancholy feeling in a great deal of this music, combined with the fiddler's deep concentration on continually improving his interpretations of pieces even 30 years after he first learned them. These were some of the aspects of Thomas' performances that made him such a well-loved artist by fans of the old-time genre. Thomas suffered so badly as a child from what he thought were rickets that he was unable to walk until he was 11 years old. Despite this and developing frequent nosebleeds, his memories of his childhood are full of stories of toil as well as extreme violence and insanity. Hillbillies firing rifles at each other because of a disagreement about a horse was the view out of his front window, not the plot of an action picture on the late show.

Thomas' first musical action took place fooling around on one of the many banjos that were lying around the old homestead. Both his parents played old-time songs on the banjo, and his mother was also an organist well-known for her finesse at backing fiddlers. He fooled around with various instruments but stuck mostly with the fiddle and developed an aversion to vocalizing based on his opinion of himself, which he once expressed in a manner that indicates definite potential as a music critic: "I always felt like a mule-a-eating briars when I did." Sing, that is. No, fiddle was his real love, and he learned to play it despite an older brother's threats to beat him up if he did so. A good fiddler had the potential to be so busy that the mean brother might never catch up with him, though.

Thomas has recalled extensive gigging possibilities in Kentucky and Ohio for a man packing a fiddle, including many more parties and social gatherings than would be common by the year he died. A girl in Concord, KY, even organized a fiddle contest in which the winner would get to marry her. The champion turned out to be local fiddle hotshot Dick Swinington, and they all lived happily ever after. It was after the fiddler's death that the story gets odd, as the obsessed widow got to stalking her old house, hanging around the woods outside and calling her husband's name. According to Thomas, a few local fiddlers hid in the woods one night and began playing an old-time fiddle tune when she showed up, scaring the little lady so bad she never came back. It was this sort of tale that made interviews or conversations with Thomas almost as interesting as his recordings.

As a young man, Thomas became interested in the fiddlers around the Portsmouth area of Kentucky, particularly a local storehouse of fiddle tunes named Morris Allen. Although making rapid progress in his abilities, Thomas was not able to always focus on music as he drifted back and forth between Kentucky and Ohio. Sometimes he would be employed playing bluegrass in bars, but at other times he might be holding down a factory job that left him too tired by the end of the day to think about fiddling around. A major break for Thomas occurred in the early '70s when the Rounder label released his album Kitty Puss. With a gorgeous cover and featuring the fiddler backed only by guitarist Leona Stamm, this album became a favorite of the old-time crowd, as well as an enduring document of fiddle music. "Possum Up a Simmon Tree" and "Turkey in a Pea Patch" were some of the tunes he recorded for this album, no doubt with all the whistling inflections he learned from mom preserved intact.

A new life involving the friendly atmosphere of folk festivals and an enthusiastic younger audience was a promising possibility for Thomas that was never fully realized. He laid down to take a short nap during a square dance performance in the fall of 1974 and never woke up again. All the years of sub-standard medical attention had finally caught up with him. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi
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