Born into a multi-generational family of musicians, Tony Williamson and his brother Gary quickly earned the title of “child sensations” on the national bluegrass stage. Back home at their school in rural Randolph County, however, their music earned them some teasing from their classmates. Tony and Gary were undeterred.
“Music was such a fun part of my childhood, my father and his friends gathered to play every Friday night. My brother and I soon joined in. From early on, I was filled with confidence in my musical abilities,” said Tony.
“By the time we were teenagers, we were really kicking up some dust with fast picking, high harmonies and, as song writers, we began expanding the harmonic components of Bluegrass at a time when most other bands rarely strayed from a three-chord formula.”
With Tony on mandolin and Gary on banjo, they were winning coveted prizes at many of the fiddlers conventions, including First Place Mandolin and First Place Band at the World Championships at the Old Time Fiddler’s and Bluegrass Festival in Union Grove, N.C.
After Tony graduated from the University of North Carolina with highest honors in 1975, he hit the road with a succession of Bluegrass bands. “I entered a world of endless travel and late night jam sessions,” he recalled. “In time, I learned to ignore the fact that the business of music was drastically incompatible with my idealistic notion of what it meant to be a creative artist.”
He performed in France, Ireland, Japan, Taiwan, Brazil and Peru. He has played with the likes of Alison Krauss, Chris Thile, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Bobby Hicks, Tony Rice, Vassar Clements, David Grisman, Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Don Stiernberg, and Robin and Linda Williams of Prairie Home Companion fame.
By the early 1980s, in a “flurry of disillusionment,” he dropped out of the music scene at a time when his colleagues began moving to Nashville to become household names. He moved back home to Chatham County, borrowed money from his father and bought a secluded, abandoned farm that had once belonged to the son of a slave, his wife and their 29 children.
“Bluegrass songs are all about log cabins. I dreamed of living in a log cabin and I had tasted a primitive lifestyle in an idyllic childhood,” said Tony. “I positioned two 150 year-old oak tobacco barns eight feet apart and connected them with a ‘dog-trot’ in the same way as the ‘old folks’ – my great-grandfathers, great uncles and so on. I did everything by hand.” (Recently, he and his wife Andrea added a bank of solar panels so they can generate their own electricity.)
“I embraced the primitive life style that I had tasted as a child. This was a precious decision. What was not precious was my attitude about my career path,” said Tony.
He recalled one of his students visiting him while he was raising heavy logs to build his cabin. “He said, ‘you once told me that you didn’t swing a hammer because your hands were too precious.’ I replied, ‘That was before I realized that no one gives a damn.’”
“You’ll never play music again.”
“Looking at photos from long ago, I see a young man filled with enthusiasm, youthful discovery and thrilling accomplishment. I see a confident entertainer and, later, a cocksure gunslinger. Indestructible,” Tony reflected.
“If at any time along this journey I would have been told I would have to put my mandolin down and never play again, I would have been incredulous…no, actually, outraged. But just such a thing happened to me around 1988.”
After a series of accidents, one of the top orthopedic surgeons in the country told Tony his musical career was over. “This began a very dark period of my life,” he said.
He tried playing gigs, masking the pain with drugs, alcohol and medications. “I indulged in gluttony, gained an enormous girth, taxing a sturdy 6-foot frame with over 300 pounds. My life, my music, my family all suffered tremendously. “
In 1999, an old friend noticed Tony’s pain. “He wrote down a phone number on a piece of paper which I kept in my pocket for nearly a year,” Tony confessed. “Finally, I made the call. Was it a minister? Alcoholics Anonymous? A shrink? No, none of these.”
“It was a little Chinese lady, a master of Eastern medicine. In such a kind and non-judgmental way, she began leading me gently toward healing myself. First acupuncture on a weekly basis. Then slowly, slowly, a complete lifestyle change: herbal tea, organic food, exercise, meditation. “
An authentic purpose
“Since that time, I have performed more prestigious venues, recorded more of my own music and have delighted more audiences across the globe than I ever did before the injuries. I manifested a beautiful and brilliant woman to join me in an amazing marriage.”
“Today, every time I take my mandolin out of the case, I give thanks for my ability to play. I am honored to share music with people who want to listen.”
“I realized, finally, that someone did give a damn – me.”
“I will never forget this lesson. Music was and is my authentic purpose. It was not until I almost lost it completely that I realized how important that is.”
Benefit Concert for the Meals on Wheels program, Chatham County Council on Aging: Sunday, May 21, Carolina Meadows, Chapel Hill, NC; intimate dinner with a demonstration by Tony at 5 pm, followed by a concert with other artists (including Tony’s brother Gary). Watch the COA website or email Melanie for details.
Purchase recordings: When asked how many recordings he has done, Tony replied, “I seriously do not know. I had 14 vinyl albums out before the advent of CDs. I probably have more that were released just on CD and if you count the projects by other people that I played on, I suspect it would get into the hundreds.” Purchase CDs and digital downloads.
Watch for new recordings: “I am working on music and arrangements for several new and fresh recordings – one to be a follow up to my ‘Lloyd Loar Mandolins’ CD and another a sequel to ‘Bluegrass’ with my brother. Thanks to Rad Andy (Tony’s son), we are digging back into the vault and remastering, converting analog to digital and releasing recordings from the early days of the Williamson Brothers: Live In Virginia Vol. I and II; Live At the Green Level; the Bluegrass Gentlemen and Bluegrass Dawn.”
Mandolin Central is an international resource for professional grade mandolins, guitars and banjos. “I have a busy online presence and also a shop on my farm available by appointment,” Tony said. Contact information.
From the artist:
Full name: Tony Craig Williamson
I live: in Chatham County, N.C.
I grew up: in Randolph County, N.C.
As a kid, I used to get in trouble for: fighting, defending myself or other kids from bullies.
I took up the mandolin: upon my brother’s fifth birthday. My dad got him a cheap mandolin and he told me not to touch it. I was almost four. I had it in my hands every waking minute!
My favorite mandolin is: Lloyd (my first Loar). We have been together since Pearl Harbor day of 1977. It is exquisite, signed by Lloyd Loar just like Bill Monroe’s. I play Lloyd every day.
At UNC I majored in: English Literature. You can still check out my honor’s thesis on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in Wilson Library. I was not allowed to be a music major – I was denied enrollment in the UNC School of Music because I played mandolin.
If I hadn’t been a musician I probably would have been: a writer or journalist, literature professor, an archaeologist, history teacher or a woodworker/luthier.
My perfect day: meditation in the morning, great quality hearty breakfast, music practice, walks in the woods along the river, sunset meditation/connection with my beloved, a fabulous wine dinner with friends and music/jam sessions way into the night.
Three words that describe me are: beautiful, wonderful man. My wife’s three words that describe me are: loving, gentle, kind.
Three things on my bucket list are: creating a North Carolina Mandolin Ensemble to attract young people to perform modern music on my vintage mandolins; publishing a book of stories from my exploits and travels; and finishing Jefferson’s French and Italian wine tour of 1787. I have already retraced his steps in Bordeaux – have Burgundy and Piedmonte yet to go!
Most people don’t know I: spent six months in an ashram in the remote east coast of Taiwan; that I was an experimental archaeologist known for my flint knapping; and that I wrote the first biography of Bill Monroe, which he approved but was never published.
Three Chatham County artists I admire are: Terry McInturf, Al McCanless, Ricky Lindley.
I’d like to be remembered as: a man who walked lightly on the earth; who shared music with those who found his music enjoyable; who found delight in experience and experienced delight fully; and shined love and light along the way.
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