Chatham bluegrass legend Tommy Edwards dies at 75

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Legendary Chatham County musician Tommy Edwards, a renowned guitar player and teacher whose performance career spanned half a century, died Saturday morning — one day after receiving The Order of the Long Leaf Pine award, the state’s highest civilian honor, from Gov. Roy Cooper.

Edwards, who also taught history in Chatham County schools, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. He was 75 and is survived by his wife, Cindy.

“Tommy was simply the coolest, kindest, funniest, lovin’est, pickin’est man on earth,” fan William Lewis, the cultural arts manager for the Town of Cary, wrote in a tribute on Facebook. “Boy, heaven just got a good one.”

A native of Siler City, Edwards was said to be as old as bluegrass itself. He was born July 20, 1945 — the same year that Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s “Blue Grass Boys” and ushered in a new musical genre. “The Bluegrass Experience,” the band Edwards later co-founded, thrilled bluegrass music fans with live and, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, virtual performances. 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the group’s founding.

Warren Ort of Pittsboro said he and his wife Barbara became big fans of Edwards after moving to Fearrington Village 12 years ago.

“He played at the Fearrington Roost a number of times a year, the Bynum Front Porch, the old General Store, and we always made it a point to attend the Bluegrass Experience’s New Year’s Eve show in Sanford,” he said. “Tommy Edwards was a fabulous musician, a good person and a great friend of Chatham County. He will be missed.”

The personable Edwards left an indelible impression on those who came to know him and his music, according to fan Hank Becker.

“He was such an inspiration — not just for his playing and band-leading but for the kind, gentle and warm person he was,” Becker said. “It is simply shocking. We will embrace his music forever.”

In addition to his musicianship, Edwards worked for decades in Chatham and Randolph schools as a teacher, coach and administrator. He also operated an antiques and music store on Hillsboro Street in Pittsboro. Before the pandemic, on many nights and weekends you could find him in solo performances or playing with The Bluegrass Experience or other bands.

Throughout his life, Edwards gained renown as a player and songwriter, twice winning the world championship title for bluegrass guitar at the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Festival. He also served in the North Carolina National Guard, and taught state history for decades in Chatham County public schools.

Friends and fellow musicians paint a portrait of a man with phenomenal talent and unending support for those around him.

“If you ever met him, you would recognize that he touched your life in some way,” Rick Lafleur, a band-mate and decades-long friend of Edwards, told the News & Observer of Raleigh. “He was a joy to be around. He really was.”

“Tommy was exceptional,” said David Brower, the executive director of PineCone, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting and preserving folk arts and music. “His right hand was just explosive, in terms of how nimble he worked through tunes.”

Jim Watson, a musician and longtime friend of Edwards, described him as “hardcore bluegrass, all the way.”

“He was, in some ways, the quintessential bluegrass musician,” Watson added, emphasizing he was a versatile singer and player with mastery over many songs and instruments.

Joe Newberry, another musician who had known Edwards for decades, said his time as a teacher influenced his habits as a musician.

“He was always sharing what he knew, with audiences and with young folk,” he said. “That was a hallmark of Tommy, 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.”

Newberry said Edwards was the kind of person to never miss a show, always showing up to support his friends and fellow musicians.

To Brower, Edwards “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.”

And that’s just how the musician met Lafleur, Watson and Newberry — all of whom recall first meeting Edwards through the music.

“It’s one of those things where the music forms a strong bond,” Lafleur said.

Edwards’ band, The Bluegrass Experience, had planned to celebrate its 50th anniversary this month.

“Tommy was never a star. He didn’t have any gold records,” Brower said. “But he played with passion. He played with heart. Music was a huge part of his life.”

“Whenever people gather in our region to play a tune, we’ll think about Tommy,” Newberry said. “How he was always ready for the next tune, the next show.”

‘A worthwhile endeavor’

In a 2019 interview with the News + Record, Edwards said that “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.”

He also talked about what remained difficult about music — and easy — for him.

“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,” he said. “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.”

The middle school students he taught benefited from his experience as a musician and songwriter, Edwards said, although they may have rarely seen his guitar.

“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,” he told the News + Record. “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,” he said. “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.”

‘There to entertain’

Four Oaks musician Russell Johnson, who knew Edwards for 40 years, remembered his brother taking him to see Edwards play at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill his first week at college.

“I went every week that I could,” Johnson wrote on Facebook. “That’s when I met Tommy. He was always ready to take a request, talk to anyone in the crowd, pick the strings off the guitar, and boy, he was there to entertain.”

Not long after, Edwards heard Johnson play mandolin. “We might give you a call to fill in sometime,” he told Johnson.

“That might as well been Bill Monroe asking me to be a ‘Bluegrass Boy,’” Johnson wrote. “I’m grateful for knowing Tommy these past 40 years and for the legacy he has left behind for bluegrass, flatpickers, bandleaders and entertainers. Rest in peace, Tommy.”

Performer and teacher Jefferson Hart recalled Edwards as “a pure delight every time I was lucky enough to run into him.”

“Just a lovely man who was very kind to me and my family, truly went out of his way, every time we saw him,” he wrote in a tribute on Facebook. “Just one of those people that made you feel good about humanity when the world itself is seemingly bursting apart at the seams.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Check for updates.

The News & Observer of Raleigh contributed to this story.


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