Ch@t: Bluegrass singer, guitarist Edwards reflects on 60 years of playing

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The legendary Tommy Edwards was born in Siler City and, with wife Cindy, calls Pittsboro home, but his music is known around the country and the globe. As the lead singer and guitarist for The Bluegrass Experience, he’s a world champion bluegrass guitarist who has performed with some of the industry’s best musicians. And he’s an educator as well, having spent more than three decades in Chatham and Randolph schools as a teacher, coach and administrator. These days, Edwards operates an antiques store in Pittsboro by day. Many nights, particularly on weekends, you can find him in solo performances or playing with The Bluegrass Experience or other bands. This week, we spoke to Edwards about his musical career.


You grew up in a musical family. How did that influence you?

Having parents and extended family that sang, danced and played instruments showed me that music was a worthwhile endeavor. And the fact that family members supported my efforts was incredibly encouraging.


Hardest part and easiest parts of playing the guitar?

I think for many beginning players one of the hardest parts of learning to play is the toughening of the fingertips so that playing is not painful. The first day I owned a guitar I played until my fingers bled. And as someone who has been playing 60 plus years, it is still hard for me to learn complicated chord fingering as well as to understand where uncommon chords fit in certain pieces of music.

The easiest part is that one can use a few basic chords to accompany a host of songs from the campfire to the concert stage.


What is it about songwriting that you like?

I enjoy songwriting for several reasons. I enjoy telling stories and I like being able to (hopefully) create situations and choose words that stir the emotions of listeners. It is a creative process not unlike painting a picture. And for me, the key to writing a good song is to assemble the story, the words and the tune in a manner that makes the song entertaining so that people will choose to listen to it.


In addition to your work as a musician, you’ve worked closely with children as an educator. Did the two intertwine at all?

As an educator working with middle grades students, I felt it was important to maintain a professional manner in the classroom, so I was not bringing the guitar to school to play and sing for the students except on special occasions.

Sometimes I would play guitar along with a recording that we used on the final day of the two-week square-dancing program in physical education class. And when we held a “history day” I might play with visiting folk musicians. And I did not shy away from public performances in the county where students and parents could see me play as part of The Bluegrass Experience.

Being a teacher has helped my songwriting, not so much with subject matter, but with having to learn to communicate effectively with persons of all ages and backgrounds. There is a lot of writing that comes with the teaching profession and hopefully that has helped make some of my lyrics easier to understand. And I like to write songs about history (my major area of educational expertise) that (hopefully) educate as well as entertain.

Lastly, our school calendar featured a two-month summer break and duty-free weekends and holidays. This allowed me the time to travel to and perform at festivals and events outside of the Triad/Triangle area.


What do you enjoy about playing with so many different bands?

I am truly blessed to have played with a host of talented artists in The Bluegrass Experience, Carolina Lightnin’, The Leroy Savage Band and other groups including Chatham County’s Green Valley Ramblers and a trio called The Homespun Band. The members of those groups and others with whom I play or record with from time to time are far more than just musical collaborators. They are friends. They are helpers. They are generous with their art, their time and their expertise not only in music but also in other areas. Most are the kind of folks you can call to come pick you up when your car breaks down or you need some help moving the living room furniture!

And by playing in the various combinations, I have had the opportunity to travel extensively in the south as well as to perform in Finland and Northern Ireland. I have met people I would never have met otherwise. Toni Morrison, Bill Friday, Sam Ervin Jr., Charlie Daniels, Perry Como, a ton of political personages and a host of sports stars and coaches come to mind.

If there was a question about why I play with a more than one group/ or with different musicians, the answer would be: There are many great musicians in central North Carolina. By performing with a variety of musicians and singers, it gives me the opportunity to experiment with vocal and instrumental combinations that bring meaning and expression to the music being performed. And the younger artists bring great energy and new approaches that push me out of my comfort zone and encourage me to learn new material and challenge me master new instrumental techniques.


What does the future hold?

The Bluegrass Experience will have its 50th anniversary in 2021. There is a possibility that the band will put together an anthology album that will document the band’s history as well as highlight the talents and contributions of the 12 people who have been members of the band.

See Tommy Edwards and the Bluegrass Experience perform at Bynum Front Porch at 7 p.m. on Aug. 30.


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