A conversation with Ron Thomason

Bluegrass musician, storyteller (oops, satirist) and leader of our host band, Dry Branch Fire Squad We recently asked Ron a few questions. Here’s what he had to say:

Ron ThomasonWhen did you first hear bluegrass and what did you think?
I doubt that this I remember the first time I ever heard bluegrass music, but I clearly remember the first time it made an impression on me because the impression was indelible. My father and I were riding into Honaker from our farm in Russell County, VA; the year was 1949 (possibly ’50), and we were in my grandfathers ’49 Ford pick-up. The radio was tuned to WCYB in Bristol; it was very early in the morning, and the Stanleys were on. The song was “How Mountain Gals (sic) Can Love”, and (since I vetted this story with Ralph many years ago) I now know that this could well have been the first time they ever performed that song and that Carter did some more “writing on it” several years later before they recorded it for the first time. Anyways, even at the young age of 5 or 6 that “lonesome mountain” sound got to me way down deep so much so that I can remember that incident today as if it were yesterday. My dad said many years later that he remembered it too, because he remembered that I was “changed” by that show (he didn’t remember the specific song, or at least I never heard him relate the tale with the title in it).

What led you to become a bluegrass musician?
I was a musician before I was a “bluegrass” musician. The reason I took it seriously was for the money. When I was 13 I got my first paying gigs by playing drums in a rock ‘n’ roll band. All the rockers were older than I, and they played a lot of bar gigs, so either my mother or father had to go along to chaperone me. We were very poor, and the money came in handy. Back then I also played some banjo and guitar and soon (around 7th or 8th grade) I was in a couple of “folky” combos, and we got some college gigs even though we were way younger than the folks we were playing for. I went to college on a collection of scholarships (part athletic and part [unbelievably] academic), and fortunately this was during the “folk boom” of the early ‘60s, so skills like I had on the guitar, mandolin, and banjo made it possible for me to make a lot of extra money. (Which true to my hillbilly roots I used to buy a ’55 Oldsmobile convertible with a chromed 348 cu. in. engine.) I played whatever paid, but I loved playing bluegrass music. After college I decided to “move up” in skill to what I considered the professional level. I rented an apartment, bought a hi-fi, and practiced every evening till I could play all the Bill Monroe, PeeWee Lambert, and some other licks that I really liked and was accessible to me. I began playing some with a wonderful band in OH that had some great, seminal musicians (among them was Tom Boyd, who is in DBFS these days). I went to a Stanley show where they were short a man and sat in. Ralph gave me a job. And the rest, as they say………….

Which artists have influenced your singing and playing?
I never wanted to sing; I wanted to be a mandolin player in someone else’s band. But Ralph Stanley (as he says) made me sing. And while I loved the singing of the Blue Sky Boys, Fiddlin’ John Carson, and Jimmy Martin; Ralph was always my favorite. So for those two reasons, he was far and away the greatest influence.

How do you decide what songs to do?
Jay Leno says that “the punch line (in humor) is all that counts.” I believe that in music all that counts is the song. I will only do songs that get to me down deep inside. I have to be moved by the way the words and the tune fit together. Material is everything in performing, and it’s true in spades to someone whose singing abilities are as limited as mine. I have to really want to relate (for lack of a better word) the song to individuals in the audience (and I never view the audience as a conglomerate). I have to relate to the song, and I always school myself as well as I can to the deeper meaning of any song that I think is important enough to sing. Sometimes I’ll pick songs which have drive or good melodies so that I have material to use to “cleanse the palate” so that our sets don’t consist solely of jamming the heavy stuff down the audience’s throats with the “bark still on.” Instrumentals are good for that as well. All the things we choose have to fit together in a multitude of ways and functions to make them individually important enough to do.

Who or what inspired you to become such a great storyteller?
First please imagine that whoever wrote this question had left out the word great. I don’t consider myself a storyteller, but I know some folks do. I think of myself as a satirist. I learned “formal” satire from my best college prof, Dr. Reid Sinclair. However, what got me to talking to audiences was the fact that I thought the way a lot of bluegrass acts presented their sets was really lame. This was in comparison to acts that sought to entertain like the Country Gentlemen and the Lewis Family. I knew right away that I could never be entertaining in the way that those energetic acts were. And I knew that I didn’t want to be dry. Furthermore, DBFS started at a time when a large portion of the audiences that came to bluegrass shows were urban folks, just as now. So I decided that I wanted to (and needed to) sort of painlessly “school” these folks in some of the country ways because I felt that sharing such things could make the music more accessible to them. I also believe that humans like to use their brains the same way that horses like to run. It’s our greatest evolutionary asset. So without any inspiration but a drive to do something which I felt dedicated to I just set about trying to get proficient at saying things in a somewhat entertaining way. I know a lot of people have said that it looks like I improvise a lot, but the fact is that I prepare, prepare, prepare and look at it as if it’s a job that is always with me.

Which of your stories do you think is your best? (The one about…..)
Here’s a little known secret: Bands always put their best material on their first recording. Then they spend the rest of their careers trying to rise to (or above) that level. I think some of my best stories were the first ones I ever told. Some of them were built around our alter-egos, the Gordo Bros., who were some guys I invented so that we could do songs which were “traditional hits” and not always have to be doing “DBFS songs.” But over the years the DBFS repertoire became so big that the poor Gordo Bros. retired. Still occasionally folks will come up and ask for, say, “that one about how God created women” or “ that one about sailing to Europe.” I personally always liked my “Fox on the Run” story.

Do you have a favorite song to perform? Conversely, is there a song that makes you cringe when it’s requested?
My favorites change all the time, I think, according to my mood(s). I like the ones that the band likes to perform the most because there’s nothing like really “jelling” on a song. As to the last part of the question, I decided that when I formed the band I’d never do any songs that I don’t like. And I don’t.

If you weren’t a bluegrass musician, what profession would you like to pursue?
I have always been lucky in getting to do the things I most wanted to do in life. The several professions that I’ve pursued are music, farming, teaching, and horse training. If I could no longer do music, I would choose to work with horses. I’m convinced that the time I spend with horses is not deducted from my life span. But even if it were doubly or triply deducted I would still choose to spend a lot of time with such noble, beautiful, hard-working and interesting individuals.

What job(s) would you LEAST want to have?
There is a host of these; such as the following: A&R man, implement dealer, office worker, administrator, personnel manager, soldier, and computer geek are ones that come to mind.

What inspires you?
People of high character, songs sung with soul, great love and friendship, beautiful mountains, and many of the horses that I’ve gotten to cross paths with in my life.

Who do you most admire and why?
There are many folks in this category, and I am unable to pick one above the rest; but I won’t avoid the question. In the field of bluegrass music I greatly admire my friend and partner, Mary Tyler Doub. She knows where she stands; she has values which I share, and she represents our festival with enthusiasm, love, and a spirit of openness and community. She puts the reputation and positive image of our festival waaaaaay ahead of business considerations. She treats everyone associated with the event with exceeding respect, warmth, and dignity; that is, staff, audience, volunteers, and everyone else who participates in making Grey Fox work. And she represents all of us with the most positive image and highest ethics through her work and participation in many areas of the bluegrass music industry where her skills are needed and utilized.

We know you’re an avid hiker, climber and horseman. Where do you like to do do these activities?
I love hiking and climbing in the Sangres, which are in my back yard pretty much. My favorite place to be climbing is in a little range called The Seven Sisters. Those peaks have a lot of prominence and present little problems for my level of skill and endurance, which is “not of the highest.” Anywhere I can sit a horse is a wonderful place to ride. I love going across the road from my ranch and riding in the BLM and also up high on a trail called the Rainbow Trail, which varies from about 9,000’ to 10,500’ in altitude.

What’s the last book that you read?
Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh — the master of the sentence fragment.

Do you have a favorite food?
Oh, it’s so hard to pick: I know it’s either chocolate donuts, chocolate-chip cookies, chocolate cake (with white icing) or Dark Horse Chocolates (the English selection).

What’s your favorite festival?
I like a festival where the folks treat me and each other like family—Grey Fox, of course. It’s not like coming home; it is “coming home.”

What advice would you give to young people in their late teens or early twenties?
Are you kidding (why would anyone that age want advice from an old gomer like me?) But here goes: Treat your body like you’re going to be using it for a long time: Don’t do drugs. Consume everything in moderation, especially food. Work out; get into good arobic shape and stay there. Make your health your first priority, and always make what’s good for yourself you’re number one task to get done. Be a good friend. And accept this: Life is mostly hard work, so the best thing you can do is to work hard for as long as you can at jobs that you really enjoy. Don’t be “bought off.”