Blue Dogs, Blue Notes, and Bluegrass
Like so many other musicians who have made a home in Nashville, singer Tomi Lunsford has spent her life immersed in country music. A native of Asheville, NC, she played in a family band from a young age. Her father, Jim Lunsford, was a journeyman fiddler who played with superstars of classic country and bluegrass such as Roy Acuff, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Reno and Smiley, Bob Wills, and Marty Robbins. Her great-uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a lawyer and famed collector of folk songs from the mountains of North Carolina.
Nashville’s Yma Sumac
For Tomi Lunsford, these rambling roots in the culture of Appalachia have supported equally impressive branches. Her playful vocal style draws from jazz and the blues. There are traces of Billie Holiday, Betty Carter and Carmen McRae in Lunsford’s voice, as well as Memphis Minnie and Alberta Hunter. She boasts a four-octave range.
In spite of her singular style and impressive pedigree, Lunsford is not yet widely known. In 2016 she released the album Come On Blue, a follow up to her 1997 debut High Ground.
Gwen and the Music Inside Out crew hit the road to visit Tomi Lunsford at her home in Nashville.
Connect with Tomi Lunsford
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Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Tomi Lunford’s great-uncle, Bascom Lamar Lunsford, was a classic country gentleman-scholar. He was born in Mars Hill, NC in 1882, and spent much of his life in the town Leicester, NC (pronounced “Lester”), now a suburb of Asheville. He was a teacher and a lawyer, but his passion was preserving and promoting the folk traditions of Southern Appalachia. So much so, the floor of his home was custom-built, “so you could have a clogging team in the living room.”
Lunsford founded the 1927 Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, NC, which provided a prototype for the 1st National Folk Festival in 1936. The Mountain Dance Fest celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2017.
Though he’d been collecting folk songs for decades, in 1928 Lunsford made a commercial recording of “Jesse James” and “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground” for Brunswick Records. In 1952, the latter number appeared on Harry Smith’s seminal “Anthology of American Folk Music.” That album has been cited as a major influence by 1960s folk revivalists such as Jerry Garcia and Jim Kweskin.
Here you can see Lunsford’s demonstration of mountain clogging for David Hoffman’s 1964 documentary, “The Complete Bascom Lamar Lunsford Bluegrass Story:”
Tomi Lunsford’s jazz-inflected approach to country music seems novel in modern-day Nashville. But throughout the 20th Century, country and bluegrass musicians across the country have had periodic love affairs with jazz.
As early as the 1930s, Texas swing bands crossed the plains between Dallas and Kansas playing a blend of big band jazz and country. Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys were among the most popular of these ensembles.
Country guitar legend Chet Atkins’ first major band was a jazz combo called the Dixieland Swingers. In 1956, building on his relationship with the country duo Homer Haynes and Jethro Burns, Atkins released a collection of jazz standards called Jazz From the Hills.
A major influence on Atkins, Kentucky picker Merle Travis also drew heavily from jazz technique in developing his signature guitar style.
Enter New Grass
In 1975, blind Florida fiddler Vassar Clements released his groundbreaking album, Hillbilly Jazz. Joined by David Bromberg and Elvis Presley drummer DJ Fontana, Clements helped kick off the “new grass” movement; traditional artists exploring novel approaches to their craft.
Around the same time, a young ensemble called the New Grass Revival was starting to turn heads and offend die-hard traditionalists with its highly innovative and improvisational approach to string band music. Band members Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, and Curtis Burch have since become synonymous with the style.
If you’re enjoying this music, check out a few more country jazz numbers from across the 20th Century.