Clarence “Tom” Ashley (1895–1967)

Updated: March 22, 2013

Banjo player and early country singer.

Born Clarence Earl McCurry on September 29, 1895, in Bristol, Virginia, Clarence “Tom” Ashley grew up in Ashe County, North Carolina. At an early age, Ashley learned clawhammer banjo playing and traditional ballads from his Aunt Ary and his Aunt Daisy. Increasing his repertoire by learning songs from guests in his mother’s boardinghouse, Ashley soon started singing on the street for money. He eventually married Hettie Osborne and settled outside Mountain City in Shouns, Tennessee. Earning a job in Doc Hower’s medicine show, Ashley trained new recruit Roy Acuff. Ashley remained on the medicine show circuit intermittently until at least 1943. During these years, he and fiddler G.B. Grayson played in the West Virginia coalfields and at circuses in Saltville, Virginia.

Ashley also worked with a popular string band, the Carolina Tarheels, which featured Ashley on guitar and lead vocal, Dock Walsh on banjo, and either Garley Foster or Gwen Foster on harmonica. From the 1940s to the 1960s, he sometimes performed as a comedian with Charlie Monroe and with the Stanley Brothers.

Much of Ashley’s song repertoire, including “Red Rocking Chair” and “Walking Boss,” reflected a strong African American influence, as did his banjo playing. His influential interpretations of “House Carpenter” and “The Coo-Coo Bird” in “sawmill” tuning were close in style to the versions played by his African American neighbor Dave Thompson.

In 1960 folklorist and musician Ralph Rinzler befriended Ashley. The album Rinzler soon recorded, Old- Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s (which features guitarists Doc Watson and Clint Howard and fiddler Fred Price), was embraced by urban folk revivalists, and Ashley was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival and in Europe. Ashley continued to sing, play banjo, and win ribbons at music conventions in Appalachia, as well as to play on campuses and at other folk revival venues nationally, until his death on June 2, 1967.

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Clarence “Tom” Ashley