Tommy Edwards died on a Saturday, the day after Jamie Dawson from the PineCone Board of Directors delivered him the Order of the Long Leaf Pine Award. He was 75 years old.
The Order of the Long Leaf Pine is one of this state’s highest honors. Governor Roy Cooper conferred the award in recognition of Tommy’s 30 years as a teacher in the Chatham County Schools, his service in the North Carolina National Guard and for the model he set as a musical ambassador for the state. PineCone nominated him for the award and had intended to present it to him on stage at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium at a 50th Anniversary Celebration for Tommy’s band The Bluegrass Experience. We’d been planning the show for more than a year. It was the anchor date for the 2021 Down Home season.
Tommy wanted to play the anniversary show. We talked about it with him on a near weekly basis. Tommy always wanted to play. Even as the pandemic swelled, he found opportunities to share the music he loved with people. He played one of our weekly sessions on Zoom. He did a Bynam General Store livestream. He played to socially distanced crowds at the brewery in Pittsboro. He even figured out a way to safely play a regular gig during the height of the pandemic for the folks at an assisted living facility. Tommy just loved to play, and he loved to play for others.
Tommy Edwards was the embodiment of everything we aspire PineCone to be as an organization. He was welcoming, willing to play with anybody, any time. Amongst the memories of Tommy that tumbled out on social media were scores of testimonials from musicians who had a musical breakthrough thanks to Tommy. Familiar names like Russell Johnson, Andrew Marlin and John Teer considered him a teacher and mentor. But likewise, scores of back porch players who may never play on stage remember picking with Tommy at a jam. Tommy sat knee to knee with some of the world’s best bluegrass musicians and absolute beginners. He welcomed them all and treated them like friends.
We will also remember Tommy as the consummate entertainer. Whether he had an audience of 1 or 100, he could make them laugh with his dry wit. For 50 years Tommy served as the front man for The Bluegrass Experience. The band introduced a generation of North Carolinians to the music by playing every Thursday night at the Cat’s Cradle. Bill Smith, one of the owners at the time, credits the band for keeping the club in business. Without Tommy, the band and all their friends coming every week, Bill says they would have gone broke.
Tommy Edwards was our friend. He was born in 1945, the year many say when bluegrass music itself was born. Just like the music, he will live on in the hands of the musicians he mentored and in the hearts of those who loved him.
(written 5/21/21 by David Brower)