"Tuning up for Carrboro Day," by Dave Hart, The Chapel Hill
News, Friday, May 1, 1998
"No longer a Red Clay Rambler, Thompson still sings," by Susan Broili,
Chapel Hill Herald, June, 1998
from "An inspiration to us all," by Perry Deane Young, The Chapel
Hill Herald, June, 1998
Tuning up for Carrboro Day
Though weakened by illness, former
Red Clay Rambler Tommy Thompson will hop on stage again and sing with his
By Dave Hart, Staff Writer
The Chapel Hill News
CARRBORO—There was a time in this
community when it was hard to miss Tommy Thompson.
As a founding member of the Red Clay
Ramblers, Thompson was, of course, highly visible on stage, where for 22
years he sang and played the banjo for the Ramblers’ distinctively witty,
rambunctious brand of bluegrass. He was also just around town a lot,
a big bear of a man with a quick smile and laugh lines at the corners of
In 1993, Thompson began to notice
that he was experiencing memory lapses. They were slight at first—a
forgotten lyric or banjo lick, a misplaced name—but they grew increasingly
troublesome. He sought treatment at Duke and was diagnosed with a
memory disorder similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
By the middle of 1994, he’d decided
he should quit the band. Thompson played his farewell concert with
the Ramblers at the ArtsCenter in September 1994.
But this Saturday, at the Carrboro
Day festival, he’ll be back. Thompson and his daughter, Jessica Eustice,
will sing a short selection of tunes to open the reception celebrating
the Carrboro Collection art exhibit in Town Hall.
“We’re a little nervous,” said Eustice,
a professional tutor. “We’re no big deal. I can carry a tune,
but that’s about it. We’ll do a couple of songs that Dad wrote, just
three-song set. I don’t know how polished it’ll be, but we’re excited
“I’m really looking forward to it,”
said Thompson, sitting on the back porch at Charles House with Eustice
last week. It’ll be nice to sing again.”
Not that he ever actually quit.
His condition clouds his memory, primarily his short-term memory, and causes
him significant physical difficulty. But he brims with melody.
“Dad always has a song from every
occasion,” Eustice said. “When I was a child, whatever activity we
were doing, he’d come up with a song to go with it. He’d sing a line, and
we’d all join him.
“That hasn’t changed at all.
Sometimes a tune or a lyric doesn’t come back right away, but it does come
back eventually. He sings all the time. I think he plays his
banjo, too, but only in private. It’ll be in one corner of his apartment
one day and in another the next, so I know he’s picking it up.”
Thompson is no longer the burly giant
he was when he played with the Ramblers. But, sitting in the shade
at Charles House, he still carries a strong, gentle presence. As
he and his daughter softly sing an old tune of his, “Hot Buttered Rum,”
he leans forward, closes his eyes and loses himself in the song.
“I don’t know what I’d do without
music,” he said afterward.
(back to top)
No Longer a Red Clay Rambler,
Thompson Still Sings
Dad, daughter singing duo
By Susan Broili
The Chapel Hill Herald
CARRBORO – Sometimes life throws
a curve that can bring people even closer together. Such is the case
with Tommy Thompson, 60, and his daughter Jessica “Jesse” Eustice, 37.
Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease
in 1994, Thompson now believes his memory loss, the pins and needles in
his hands and feet, could be attributed to mercury poisoning. He
had his old fillings removed for that reason.
But whatever the cause, he still
has trouble remembering. When he speaks, he sometimes searches for
the words he needs to express what he thinks and feels. He doesn’t
always readily recall all the words to all the songs he knows, even the
many he has written in his long career as a Red Clay Rambler and before
that, in the Hollow Rock String Band.
But the music is still there – as
people will see when
they duo performs at the “Fete de la Musique: A Festival of Music and Friendship”
in Carrboro on June 21. They will be joined by former Red Clay Ramblers
Bill Hicks, on fiddle, and Mike Craver, at the keyboards.
Sometimes, it takes humming a few
lines for the songs to unfurl. Sometimes Eustice prompts him
and sometimes he prompts her.
So, Eustice and Thompson began singing
together for people at Charles House, where Thompson goes daily to enjoy
social and other activities with other adults facing health challenges.
“It was dad’s idea. We picked
out some songs and just sang them. It was low key, like a family.
We sang a cappella,” Eustice said.
That went over so well that a Charles
House staff member suggested they perform at Carrboro Day, where they made
their first public appearance together to an enthusiastic response.
“The music is my dad’s first love.
Music is a spiritual thing for him,” Eustice said. “It means a lot
to him to do it. That’s one of the things he hasn’t lost – the ability
“And speaking the language of music
with him, for me, I’ve had the best connection I’ve ever had in my life
and that is wonderful for both of us.
“This is really great for us.
The connection. In a way, it’s a connection with a whole life that’s
gone, with my mother, too, who died when I was 10,” Eustice said.
Her mother, Barbara,
was an artist who taught at Duke University. She also played guitar.
“Dad taught her how,” Eustice said.
Though Eustice had never performed
with Thompson before in public, there were plenty of opportunities to join
in when she was growing up.
“Music was just a natural part of
our life,” she said. “When I was little, they wanted me to learn
to play an instrument, but I didn’t see any need because everybody else
“I’m perpetually learning to play
the guitar now,” she said.
Singing together has been a learning
“When we make eye contact, it helps
jog his memory and it helps both of us,” Eustice said.
“The wonderful thing is that all
his life, dad has been a genius at harmonizing. What’s really astounding
to me is he still holds onto that ability. He’s still got it.
I sing melody. He harmonizes. I don’t have to help him.
He helps me,” Eustice said.
For the upcoming festival, Eustice
said they will probably sing the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side”
and the song, “Sparrow in a Treetop,” from Thompson’s childhood.
And, they’ll do “Hot Buttered Rum”
a love song written by Thompson.
“Even though it’s summer, it’s still
a beautiful song,” Eustice said.
Thompson especially likes the last
verse, she said. “That’s the verse my dad really sings his heart
When burning embers in the darkness
Bring cold comfort to the heart
And Bitter memories freeze the
And songs of love are left unsung
In the dead of winter
If springtime never comes,
You’re my sweet maple sugar,
Honey, hot buttered rum.
Sitting in the sunroom at Charles
House, Thompson spoke about the song.
“I think I like that one the best,
because it puts all the sweetness in it, but also it’s not all sweet,”
He’s enjoying singing with his daughter.
“It’s something I never had thought
of, and now having my daughter, there’s a new generation of Thompsons.
She could sing when she was a little kid. It comes natural to her,”
It has always come natural to him,
“I can’t remember when I couldn’t
sing. When I was a little kid, I could sing and nobody else in my
family could until Jesse came along. It’s good to have it continue.
It’s so good to have the music go on through her,” Thompson said.
Then, another song comes to mind.
Thompson sings the tune “da, da, da” then the words for part of "Hard Times,"
an old folk song so fraught with emotion for him that he says he’ll put
the song last on the program.
“I can hardly sing when I’m trying
to sing that song because of the content of it,” Thompson said.
“It’s a song about how hard things
are, not happy things, that it’s going to be there – the bad as well as
the good. Forever, there’s always going to be sorrow,” Thompson said.
He acknowledges his own recent hard
times as he struggles with memory loss.
“That’s why I’m not a Red Clay Rambler,”
But, with Jesse, he’s remembering
more and more of his music. “A lot of practicing and we’ll do it,”
He continues to cope with his symptoms
and is now looking into alternative medicine, he said. “If it had
taken music away from me, I think I would just let it go. Without
music, I couldn’t…That’s the one thing I can do,” Thompson said.
An inspiration to us all
By Perry Young, Columnist
The Chapel Hill Herald
Tommy wasn’t just a talented musician,
but the kindest, gentlest man any of us had ever known. Who could
forget how he patiently nursed his beloved daughter, Jesse, back to health
after she had been horribly injured in a car wreck that had killed her
mother? Such a man did not deserve to live his life an empty shell
without the music that had delighted and inspired so many.
And Jesse wasn’t about to let this
happen. She has grown into a beautifully poised and talented young
woman with all of her parents’ best qualities. A few weeks ago, Jesse
staged a small concert with her father at Town Hall. They sang only three
or four songs a cappella, but it was a smashing success.
With Jesse leading and guiding him,
Tommy was able to sing the old songs like “Hot Buttered Rum” that had once
made us all so happy. One of the residents of Charles House, the
adult daycare center where Tommy now spends his days, was so proud of her
colleague she shouted: “We knew him when.”
A second concert was presented last
weekend by Jesse and Tommy, and it became the centerpiece, the most memorable
event, at Carrboro’s wildly successful Fete de la Musique.
This time they had musical backup from fiddler Bill Hicks and guitarist
Mike Craver from the original Ramblers band.
More than a few of us old timers
were moved to tears as they sang, “There is a dark and sunny side of life,
so keep on the sunny side; It will help you every day if you keep on the
sunny side.” Several hundred of us responded with a standing ovation
for the music and for Tommy and Jesse. His memory returning in a
flash, Tommy grabbed the mike and said, “Break a leg.”
Backstage, I stood with dear beautiful
Jesse as she watched her father being swamped with hugs and kisses from
old friends and new. “We should all be so lucky to have such a daughter
as you,” I told her. “Oh,” she said, “but it’s so important for Dad;
look at him.” There stood Tommy, as he had so many times, basking
in the glow of friends and fans, an inspiration to us all.
(We've also excerpted a column
on our "Stories" page that Perry Deane Young wrote about the Red Clay Ramblers
and Jim Watson's concert in March, 1999.)