When we received the news about Tommy Edwards’ passing, our hearts were full and sore. Like so many of you, we were enamored of Tommy’s kindness, charm, musical talent, and generosity. Tommy was the President of Chatham Arts Council some years back, and he never stopped being an integral part of the Chatham Arts Council family. The positive impact he made can still be felt today. Much is being written and said about this great person in Chatham and far beyond. If you’ll indulge us, we’d love to tell a few stories about this master storyteller, too.
The Facts: Tommy Edwards—Wide Lens
Folks who know music will, without fail, tell you that Tommy was a bluegrass icon, having performed professionally for 50 years, playing lead guitar with The Bluegrass Experience and Carolina Lightnin’—and mandolin and banjo in various settings. The Bluegrass Experience celebrates their 50th anniversary this year. Tommy formed the band in 1971 with the Beane brothers and friends Snuffy Smith, Charles Lee Conard, and “Fiddlin’ Al” McCanless. But Tommy was at his best as a songwriter. He said, “I love the creative part, and I love to tell a story.” His love of bluegrass inspired “Bluegrass Saturday Night” on Life 103.1, which he hosted for 16 years.
A Siler City native, Tommy had deep roots in this community. He was a local basketball and softball coach, and he spent years helping students in the Chatham County school system. Tommy taught History at Chatham Middle School and was as an Assistant Principal for two years at that same school. He retired after 30 years of service as an educator, but his love of teaching stuck with him. He could often be found mentoring young musicians, who were grateful that someone at Tommy’s level would take the time to help them perfect their craft. And his love of teaching spilled over into his music. “Being a teacher has helped my songwriting, not so much with subject matter, but with having to learn to communicate effectively with persons of all ages and backgrounds,” he explained.
In addition to being an outstanding musician, coach, and teacher, Tommy ran a well-respected antiques store in Pittsboro with his beloved wife Cindy for more than 25 years. He was a devoted husband.
Tommy recently received of one of the state’s highest honors from Governor Roy Cooper—The Order of the Long Leaf Pine Award—which is given to people who have made significant contributions to the state and their communities through their exemplary service and exceptional accomplishments. That award meant a great deal to Tommy and speaks volumes about the person that he was and the impact he made throughout North Carolina.
Tommy’s impact on the music landscape statewide is a big deal, of course. But because Tommy valued people—individual people—in such a rare and inspiring way, we thought it fitting to ask a few of folks from the Chatham Arts Council family to tell some stories about Tommy that you wouldn’t know from newspaper articles and official bios. We hope they bring you a smile.
The Feelings: Tommy Edwards—Up Close
From Gilda McDaniel, Chatham Arts Council Board Member:
I have had the honor of knowing Tommy since my earliest days as a Chatham resident, and I am incredibly proud and honored to be able to call him my true friend.
When I was first setting roots in Chatham, another dear friend mentioned Tommy Edwards and got a blank reaction from me. In disbelief, she said, “You don’t know TOMMY EDWARDS?!” I immediately knew I was missing something special and soon afterwards came to realize what she meant. You cannot live in Chatham, or much of NC, without knowing and loving Tommy.
I remember Tommy as always being generous and welcoming, genuinely glad to see everyone and share in their interests and share a joke or story. He was also the person to turn to when things got serious and good, solid advice or solutions were the call. His ability to relate to people was universal and genuine.
A true and joyful educator at heart, you came away from every delightful conversation with Tommy having learned something fun on any number of topics—music, of course, art, pottery, NC history or current events, sports, what was going on down the street. He enthusiastically enjoyed all and freely shared all. I wish I had a nickel for every time I fell back on the answer, “Ask Tommy. He’ll know.” And he would!
It would be impossible to try to count the number of people whose lives Tommy significantly touched: Through education—he was so proud of his thousands of students, keeping up with them long through life and proudly claiming them as “my kids”; Through music—how many people he delighted with his beautiful music and how many other musicians he supported and mentored; Through community activities—knowing and caring about all things Chatham; Through the arts—appreciating and promoting artists of all sorts. The list goes on.
Tommy was, of course, my introduction to the wonderful world of the arts in Chatham. He invited me to join the board of the Chatham Arts Council in about 2002, when we met in the back of the Edwards Antiques Store, and I was hooked. I have been on that board ever since and can’t imagine my life without it. Tommy opened my world up to me with that invitation and my life has been enriched ever since.
I was fortunate to get to join Tommy and Cindy on trips to their house in Oak Island, where we would spend time talking, walking on the beach, counting pelicans from the beach, and just being quiet. He was good at that, too! While there, I was somehow surprised to find out how much Tommy actually practiced his beloved guitar—long into the night. I guess it never had occurred to me that as much as Tommy played, he actually had to practice, too! Another valuable lesson freely given…
In the last few days since I have had to acknowledge that this world will always be changed by his loss, I keep coming back to one feeling of comfort. As a small only child, I traveled a lot with my parents. I was always comforted by the feeling of security and safety while riding into the night, falling asleep in the back seat with classical music playing on the radio. I have come to realize that I felt much the same feeling of warmth and kindness when falling asleep in the guest bedroom at Oak Island with Tommy quietly playing his beautiful music into the wee hours.
I will miss that and so much more about my dear friend.
From Lesley Landis, Chatham Arts Council Board Member:
Lightning-fast acoustic guitar picking bounced through the air. I thought it was a recording until I detected a tiny hitch in the timing and realized the ginger-haired fellow behind the counter was the source of the music. “I guess I need to practice more,” the guy said with an easy smile. I told him that he sounded great and that it was plain to see that he’d already put in quite a lot of practice. “Yeah, I’m slowly getting more comfortable. I think I’ll stick with it!,” was his self-deprecating reply.
This was the first time I met Tommy Edwards. He was staffing a shift in one of the dozens of antique shops that lined downtown Pittsboro’s main street in the late 1990s. In the following years, I got to know Tommy better as a perennial downtown business owner and then the former president and annual supporter, with his beloved wife Cindy, of the Chatham Arts Council. Tommy’s easy-going style and his quick quips never hinted at his prestigious standing in the world of bluegrass, or the multiple awards and accolades he’d earned, or the many friends and admirers he’d developed over his decades of service to music, education, the arts, and the Chatham community.
He could always be counted on to play from the little ClydeFEST stage for the opening hour of the annual kids’ festival that celebrates another local arts star, Clyde Jones. Tommy’s set always launched the day with a sweet local tone. And when he suggested that perhaps the Chatham Arts Council could turn the Bluegrass Experience Birthday party into a fundraising event, we jumped at the chance and for many years had phenomenal attendance at the Fearrington Barn. When the Arts Council reached out to him to write a feature about his work, he suggested we feature another deserving creative instead.
To say simply that Tommy Edwards will be missed reflects the understated flair for which he was known and loved.
From Molly Matlock, Past Chatham Arts Council Executive Director:
I heard somewhere that the social bonds of pilot whales are so strong that, within their pods, they don’t differentiate individual identity from collective identity. Tommy (and Cindy) Edwards created human bonds that are like that. My move to Chatham County in my mid-twenties gave me my first taste of real community. I grew up on a cul-de-sac in east Tennessee, and while we knew our neighbors, we didn’t know each other’s business the way real community members should. In Chatham County, people make it a priority to know enough about one another’s lives to know when someone needs a helping hand. Tommy was ready with that helping hand and modeled community commitment like few people I’ve encountered.
He and the Bluegrass Experience were instrumental in putting the Bynum Front Porch Music Series on the map. Tommy didn’t boast about his celebrity status, but he had gobs of it. He helped use it to connect me, Bynum, and the series to other traditional music greats like Tony Williamson, LaNelle Davis, Alice Zincone, Joe Newberry, Jim Collier, Kenny Jackson, Virginia Ryan, Andrew Marlin, and so many others.
He looked out for his bandmates at every turn, but he also cut his own fee substantially because he recognized the importance of bringing people, who may not otherwise interact, together around music. On nights when he wasn’t performing, he and Cindy set up chairs in the Bynum audience, and they were among the key people who made me feel the most at home and the happiest about what we were all doing there together. Though an endlessly talented musical superstar, he knew what was important. Human connection surpassed all.
Trying to encapsulate a life as influential as Tommy’s in a brief blurb feels like trying to stuff the entire ocean into a Mason jar. I remember how Tommy made sure that the history of the Chatham Arts Council intertwined with that of The Bluegrass Experience over the long haul. My phone rang off the hook as soon as tickets went on sale for the annual Chatham Arts Council BGE Anniversary Party. Everyone was terrified that the performance would sell out, and it always did. At many bluegrass events, people picnic and talk. But listening to the BGE was church, and reverence was mandatory. I once got shushed by a Tommy devotee when I was chatting in the back of the room with Ben. The relationship was brand new then. I’m still ashamed of myself and blushing over it.
Tommy also often discussed what a strong and rare marriage he had, and he shared what he thought was key for successful and lasting partnership. He credited Cindy with teaching him those secrets: appreciation for one another, honest communication, and an ability to listen to and honor what one another individually perceives as important. Be present when you ask one another to be, and have each other’s back.
He also talked a lot about how much he loved teaching and how proud he felt of the adults so many of his former students had become. I remember, in particular, him bragging on Jane Allen Wilson and Fiva McCanless. And he told me about what the Civil Rights Era was like in Siler City. He’s the only person who discussed that with me, and that makes this loss all that much more profound. Losing Tommy means losing a huge part of our story and, for me, losing a perpetual homecoming every time I saw him.
From Cheryl Chamblee, Current Chatham Arts Council Executive Director:
The way he grinned and raised his eyebrows after he made a joke. The way his hands were in constant motion except when it was time to get serious about a conversation. The way he held the door for one friend and shouted jokes at another friend and still managed to pay the bill for both of you on his way out of S&T Soda Shoppe.
Tommy had lots of big moments—lots of awards, lots of audiences, lots of Accomplishments with a capital A—but I always had the sense that it was the small moments that were more important to him than all the rest. Tommy, like all the best teachers, like all the best artists, knew how to see people—to really see them.
I already miss our milkshake meetings at S&T, already did miss them over this last year—our last milkshake plan having been interrupted by pandemic times. Those conversations were part history lesson, part local lore, part old home week, part “gettin’ our ducks to stand in a line”—and all joy. I told him once sitting in that booth with my face sore from laughing that I wished I had recorded that meeting—it was so dang full of good stuff—and I sure would love to have that audio now.
I laughed when I heard that Molly Matlock, CAC’s Executive Director just before me, had also asked Tommy the secret to his strong marriage, because I remember asking that same question during one of those milkshake meetings, after some lovely thing he said about Cindy. His answer that day—and my conversation with Cindy yesterday—tells me that it was their shared appreciation for all the small moments that made up 43 years together that made it work so well.
This is about the time of year Tommy and I would have been having milkshakes to talk about The Bluegrass Experience’s anniversary—and this year, it’s a big one. Number 50. That’s a long time for a band to exist, for artists to stay together—an almost impossibly long time. Back at year 42, I had just read the Malcom Gladwell book about 10,000 hours making you an expert. I realized then that Tommy Edwards and The Bluegrass Experience weren’t just experts at making bluegrass music—they were experts at making bluegrass music with each other. That’s so much gold in the world of art—the shared vocabulary, the knowing what’s going to happen before it happens, the deeply aligned rhythm—and we were lucky to be in the room to hear it happen.
I asked Tommy about that, and I still have the note where I wrote what he said next. He said, “I think if you talked with any of the members of The Bluegrass Experience about their tenure with the band, each would likely tell you that the friendship of his or her bandmates and their families is just as important as the music they’ve made over the years.” So . . . I’m sad Tommy doesn’t get that 50-year celebration—really sad—but I also know how much he loved the journey.
Tommy Edwards is part of my own family’s journey, too. Our daughter was six months old when I started working with the Chatham Arts Council. She was in the audience for her first Bluegrass Experience concert two months after that. A couple of years later, with walking and some words in her repertoire, she had developed quite a love for this man who played onstage at Mama’s work and always took a moment to pay her some mind. For weeks after the anniversary concert when she was three, she spent hours asking me to tell her more about Tommy: “What else do you know about Tommy? What do you think Tommy’s doing this morning? Do you think Tommy’s really tired because he played and sang A LOT last night?” Fast-forward another couple of years and another couple of anniversary concerts, and there I was in the audience, her then-five-year-old body heavy with sleep in my arms, the lights at Fearrington Barn twinkling, and I know I was not the only one with tears in my eyes. We were all savoring the moment that was—like all our moments—fleeting, while Tommy and the band played their closer, “I’ll Fly Away.”
What a life. Full of art. And full of love for the people around him. I trust he’s flying with joy.
We know that Tommy’s legacy will continue to shape the bluegrass world and those young musicians who hold him dear as the icon he truly was. We know that his stories will be told and re-told at kitchen tables, in booths in beloved downtown spots, around stages at clubs and bars and venues small and large. And we know that the time Tommy spent building and lifting up the work of the Chatham Arts Council and the presence of the entire arts community in Chatham is a legacy of love.
Thank you, Tommy. You are missed.
Gifts to the Chatham Arts Council will be directed to our Arts for Resilient Kids programming because of Tommy’s shared commitment to both education and art. Arts for Resilient Kids includes the Chatham Artists-in-Schools Initiative (which brings professional artists into schools), ArtAssist for Kids (which gets arts supplies to children in need), and ClydeFEST (where Tommy played every year).