I was saddened to learn that Tommy Edwards, a much loved traditional bluegrass musician and teacher, passed away on Saturday morning, May 22, 2021. Tommy was an exceptional musician who will long be remembered by the people who knew him. He was 75 years old and had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year. I remember “Mr. Edwards” as a soft spoken, laid back history teacher during my 8th and 9th grade at Ramseur School. Later I discovered that he was also one of the best bluegrass musicians and song writers in the business. I am thankful to have seen him perform countless times, and to own many of his recordings. His band, The Bluegrass Experience is regarded by many as one of the all time best Traditional Bluegrass Bands.
THOMAS “TOMMY” EDWARDS
July 20, 1945 – May 22, 2021
In North Carolina’s central Piedmont, as throughout the Old North State, Tommy Edwards was a bluegrass music legend. A founding member of The Bluegrass Experience, Edwards was a prolific songwriter and lightning-fast guitarist whose vigorous downstrokes imbued his songs with power and tone, earning him World Champion Guitarist trophies at the 1970 and ’71 Union Grove Fiddlers Convention.
Edwards passed away the morning of May 22, following a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 75. On Friday, May 21st, Governor Roy Cooper awarded Edwards the Order of the Longleaf Pine. The state’s highest honor is “awarded to persons for exemplary service to the State of North Carolina and their communities that is above and beyond the call of duty and which has made a significant impact and strengthened North Carolina.”
Edwards was born and raised in Siler City, NC., an hour south of Camp Springs, site of the late Carlton Haney’s famed bluegrass festivals. As a teen, Tommy worked in his father’s grocery store, where he honed the work ethic and relaxed social skills he would carry with him throughout his life.
It was in Siler City that Edwards formed the Green Valley Ramblers with brothers Paul and Donald “Earl” Beane and future Blue Grass Boy, Jerry Stuart. In 1971, Edwards and the Beanes enlisted Thomas “Snuffy” Smith, Charles Lee Conard and “Fiddlin’” Al McCanless and formed The Bluegrass Experience, the award-winning combo celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Success came early, as the band was crowned World Champion Bluegrass Band at the 1972 Union Grove Festival. The championship brought invitations to perform at prestigious venues, including University of Chicago and Finland’s National Folk Festival. The band won its most ardent followers closer to home through their nine-year Thursday night engagement at Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle from 1972 through ’81.
A 1970 graduate of East Carolina University and a U.S. Army veteran, Edwards taught history and coached sports for 30 years in the Chatham County School District. He blended his love of history and music into his songwriting, contributing five of 13 songs to his 2011 CD, “North Carolina: History, Mystery, Lore and More.” He also shared his passion with listeners on “Bluegrass Saturday Night,” the weekly broadcast he hosted for 16 years. His show featured classic and contemporary recordings as well as interviews with artists featured on his show. Tommy’s dedication to promoting and preserving North Carolina’s heritage was recognized by his induction into the prestigious North Caroliniana Society.
Edwards’ retirement from teaching allowed him the freedom to pursue his bluegrass obsession. He took full advantage, performing at street fairs, wedding receptions, music clubs, IBMA’s World of Bluegrass – anywhere and with anyone fortunate to accompany him on stage. Tommy’s solo albums feature such bluegrass luminaries as Bobby Hicks, Russell Johnson, Jim Mills, Matt Hooper, and Dewey Brown. His shows were nearly always attended by former students, their children or grandchildren. A true Southern gentleman, he was revered by all were fortunate to know him.
Almost any afternoon, Tommy could be found behind the counter of the antiques store he and his wife, Cindy, operated in downtown Pittsboro, a few blocks from their historic home. Folks would meander through, examining the diverse array of items along with vintage guitars, banjos, mandolins for sale or trade. Often as not, Tommy would be picking out a tune or holding an impromptu jam session with a friend or musician passing through town from one gig to the next.
To younger musicians, including Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin and Chatham Rabbit’s Sarah McCombie, Tommy was mentor, friend, and musical partner. He was generous and patient, offering encouragement and complementing the musical savvy of his youthful friends.
Tommy is survived by his wife of 43 years, Cindy Edwards, and current Bluegrass Experience band mates, Stan Brown, Mike Aldridge, Keith Thomas, and Snuffy Smith. Truly original, Tommy leaves a legacy of friends, music, and memories North Carolina is not likely to experience again.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Chatham Arts Council, PO Box 418, Pittsboro, NC 27312 and Pinecone, PO Box 28534, Raleigh, NC 27611.
A public celebration of Tommy’s life will be held in June. Date, time and location to be determined.
–Intro by WT Cox, Obituary courtesy of Donaldson Funeral Home