Weekend All Things Considered (NPR), JAN 26, 2003
"Remembering musician Tommy Thompson"

profile by Steve Inskeep

Musician Tommy Thompson died Friday at the age of 65. Thompson founded the Red Clay Ramblers in 1972. It was a quartet that could play about any form of music: tango, blues, American traditional music and this dramatic rendition.

(Soundbite of music)

RED CLAY RAMBLERS: (Singing) When we was in the city, we was wondering where to go. A sign spelled out Palatchi(ph) up in lights above a show. We thought 'twould be a Western till the stage lit up with light. The 97 people sung without a horse in sight.

INSKEEP: That's Tommy Thompson singing the low notes.

When you say Tommy Thompson in political circles, people think of the former Wisconsin governor. But when you say Tommy Thompson in musical circles, there is absolutely no mistake. People think of a banjo player who preserved old-time American music and didn't take himself too seriously. Thompson's distinct banjo style graced the Broadway stage in the clown comedy "Full Moon." During those live performances, Thompson noticed he was making mistakes for the first time in his performing career. He talked about it in an interview with NPR in 1995.

(Soundbite of 1995 interview and banjo)

Mr. TOMMY THOMPSON (Musician): The tunes that I played eight times a week on the run of that show and had plenty of time to practice, too, and nevertheless once in a while there would be a blooper that just comes from nowhere, you know, it just sneaks up on you. It did bother me to be in that situation where I knew that my performance was not going to be perfect, that somewhere during this hour I'm going to blow something.

INSKEEP: Those mistakes were, in fact, symptoms of early onset Alzheimer's disease. He said he didn't let it stop him, though, from continuing to do what he could to preserve old-time American music. Thompson faced his disease with a kind of serene wisdom.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. THOMPSON: It would be much, much worse if this had happened when I was just getting started. But I've had 20 years or more with the ability and the occasion and the freedom to do it and do it well, and that's all I need. I don't have to be wonderful my whole life.

INSKEEP: Musician Tommy Thompson died Friday. He was 65.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: And that's NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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