The tradition of Appalachian music has some colorful characters. One of them was Clarence “Tom” Ashley. Born in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1895, he was the son of George McCurry, known locally as a “one-eyed fiddler” and “hell-raiser.”
The father was also an adulterer who soon disappeared from the scene. Young Ashley was soon relocated to Shouns, Tennessee, where he was raised by his mother and maternal grandfather.
Although Ashley’s formal education would terminate by fifth grade, he possessed a quick wit and desire to learn. His first musical instrument came at age 8 in the form of a “peanut banjo.” A guitar came at age 12.
By then relieved from the burdens of a classroom, he could focus on mastering regional ballads. Of such tunes there was quite a collection, as his community placed much value on music; many an evening would culminate in song.
For Ashley, a life-changing event came at age 16, when a medicine show arrived at nearby Mountain City. In spite (or perhaps because) of its shadowy background, the medicine show brought a variety of prime entertainment to the area.
Not content with mere spectatorship, Ashley wanted in on that action; by the time the show left town, the young man had his first professional experience as a banjo picker and singer.
Perhaps now is a suitable time to visit the sketchy nature of these medicine shows, where the “medicine” was actually nothing more than colored water. Sold at a dollar a bottle, it promised relief for most every ailment in the compendium of human misery. Though the product was utterly ineffective, its marketing was second to none.
One of the most notorious hawkers of this bogus medicine was a man by the name of Doc White Cloud. For a span of three decades, Ashley would perform at shows run by this charismatically crooked Doc, who thrived in an era where, for so many people, medical science was as mysterious as voodoo.
Aside from his musical duties, Ashley would perform comedy and the less glamorous tasks of hauling water (medicine?) and feeding horses. Though far removed from wealth, these shows at first enabled him to eke out a living of sorts. He also recorded music with several bands.
In Ashley’s recording career, there was a huge gap, spanning from the early 1930s to 1960. This was likely due to the Great Depression, which wreaked havoc on the recording industry as it did on so much else; with people struggling just to put bread on the table, the prospect of spending money on banjo music was not embraced by many.
Unable to proceed with his vocation, Ashley turned to the murky hazards of West Virginia coal mines. At different periods, he worked at sawmills, tobacco fields, cattle farms, anything he could find really.
Just when it seemed that Ashley and his banjo were destined for provincial obscurity, the 1960s arrived; this period brought, among many other things, a revival in folk music.
Ashley went back on tour, only this time there were major venues, such as the Chicago Folk Festival, Newport Folk Festival, even Carnegie Hall.
In the fullness of time, he would be summoned to perform abroad in England. His first transatlantic trip was a success; but the second one never occurred, for his health began to decline. Ashley succumbed to cancer on June 2, 1967.
To quite an extent, Ashley was an innovator; he employed a unique tuning style known as “sawmill”; this enabled him to achieve a highly visceral sound that added twang and character.
Aside from his renditions of various Appalachian ballads, Ashley performed a memorable version of “Amazing Grace.” Interestingly, he is credited with the first known recording of “House of the Rising Sun” – the slow, haunting tune that would later attain ubiquity thanks to The Animals 1964 release.
Ultimately, his influence would extend to several notable musicians, including counterculture icon Jerry Garcia. When young Ashley joined the medicine show, it launched a journey far greater than one would have imagined.
For further information, be sure to visit www.clarenceashley.com