STEVE THOMAS - FULL CIRCLE
The first few generations of Americans who listened to and made Country music were overwhelmingly people with an intimate connection to the land. Most of those living and working in factory towns across the country had come from rural areas, and many were still living on farms. All shared the staples of birth, soil, family, community, movement, time and death that had ruled life since the inception of the Agricultural revolution. And the soundtrack for this worldview was handmade music: Country, Old-Time and Bluegrass.
Steve Thomas was raised just like that, but he comes from a different generation. Born in 1962 and raised in rural Montgomery County, Virginia, some fifty minutes outside of Roanoke, Steve was an anomaly, a true throwback—a farm boy living on a working farm with outhouses, chickens, hogs and cows; and, with no running water in the house. The nearest town was the hamlet of Shawsville. Other than his siblings, Steve had no neighbors close enough to play with growing up.
This isolation played a key part in his coming of age. Around the same time his father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1968, when Steve was 6, the family farmhouse burned down. Steve remembers neighbors helping every way they could with food, clothing and one neighbor offering his hunting cabin for the family to live in. And they did; all 7 of them! Steve, his younger Brother, two older Brothers, older Sister, his Dad and his Mother moved into the cabin, which measured no more than 500 sq ft.
Steve remembers that they weren’t poor in the conventional sense, but maybe in the rural sense, because everyone out in the country was cash poor... But his father had a vision and was driven, as was natural for so many in “the greatest generation,” World War II vets. He wouldn't squander resources on new clothes and such when “those hand me downs were perfectly fine” and “just be thankful you have them.” His greatest asset was timber. So, after the fire and his cancer diagnosis, he decided the best way to get the family back on their feet would be starting a sawmill. Steve and his brothers and sister all pitched in. Steve’s job was carrying slabs and sawdust away from the mill; and, keeping water in the house: He remembers, “I WAS the running water!”
And they weren’t poor in another sense: Steve was lucky to be raised in a community full of music and music-makers. He remembers informal jam sessions where old-time music makers on fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin would pull rugs back and make music, much as they had done for generations. One thing Steve learned was that music actually means something different when you live in it and grow up with it. It’s part of you, culturally and literally. It’s born of hard times and agriculture: It comes out of the dirt.
It wasn’t an idyllic life though. By the time he was 8 or 9 years old, his older siblings weren’t enamored with the farm life, and there was considerable drama, rebellion, anger and frustration. Although he was rarely the subject of physical punishment, he remembers the time after his father’s cancer diagnosis when he was too often left unsupervised. Rough neighbor kids would come around, bringing cigarettes and sometimes more nefarious things. This would later have a significant impact in his life.
By this time, Steve had also started learning to play music. He was inspired by his father’s group at church, “The Gospel Strings” which included his Dad on guitar and fiddle, along with a deacon named Paul Kidd and others who played simple gospel music. Thomas learned guitar pretty well by the time he was 10 or 11. Then his Father suffered a heart attack and miraculously pulled through! On the anniversary of the event the next year, his church bought him a new Yamaha guitar, which Steve wasn’t allowed to play. Except that he did, when his Dad was gone to the hospital in Roanoke.
When the elder Thomas returned, two things were obvious: one, Steve’s Dad’s health was deteriorating rapidly, and two, out of all his children only young Steve was developing a keen interest in music and playing. One thing that stimulated this was an itinerant fiddler who stayed with the family for a time, Tommy Malbuff. Tommy was an ex-Hells Angel and acquaintance of the legendary Kenny Baker. He was a smooth, powerful “modern” fiddler who played differently from the mountain fiddlers Steve had grown up hearing in the community. He turned Steve on to Kenny Baker, and Thomas discovered Kenny and Joe Greene’s first Country record, “High Country.” He bought it and wore it out over the next 3 years.
Steve’s Dad was a Master carpenter and brick mason, and built a “barn set” for the Roanoke Fiddle Camp; Banjo Club’s barn dance where he played with Charlie Whitehead and The Skyline Entertainers. His Dad would take him there to play with musicians close to his own age like Jeff Midkiff and Kevin Knox; and, also to fiddlers conventions where Steve met wunderkinds like Rickie Simpkins. When he first saw Rickie playing at Lithia, Virginia’s Fiddlers convention in 1975, a crowd was gathered around the youngster, who was playing every instrument incredibly well. Steve was in awe, and he was soon “seduced by the sounds.” Getting into the music community gave him a purpose in life—it was his oasis, along with church and his faith.
Like most locales in the Southern Appalachians, the area around Roanoke, Virginia was a hotbed of traditional music. Beginning in the late 40s, Country music was the rage, especially the new Bluegrass style. Everyone from the Blue Ridge Ramblers to Roy Hall and the Blue Ridge Entertainers had performed on WDBJ before 1943. Acts like Tommy Magness, Flatt and Scruggs and Reno and Smiley were based there for a time in the early 50s. Carlton Haney worked there with the latter group. In 1965 Haney would produce the first multi-day Bluegrass festival in nearby Fincastle. By the time Steve caught the bug, the area was home to first-rate musicians like Buddy Pendleton, Tim Smith, Jim Eanes, Timmy Martin, Midkiff, the Simpkins brothers and many others.
His Dad watched with pride as Steve jammed with older, more experienced musicians at Lithia in 1975, backing up fiddlers with his Charlie Monroe-like runs on the guitar. When it was time to leave, they packed the Rambler station wagon, and Steve was brimming with excitement. “I can’t wait to come back here next year,” he said. His Dad looked at him across the seat of that old Rambler and solemnly said, “Son, I won’t be here next year.” And his father was right…almost to the day. Tears still well up in Steve’s eyes as he tells the story: “Here was all this hope. I just loved him so much and we were having such fun. He was sick but we were finally having fun. And we hadn’t had much fun—between fires, cancer, kids going crazy, and my mother having to dress his wounds from surgery. But he told me not to cry, that it was Grace to him. God is good. God didn’t owe him anything.” At age 49, on May 2,1976, Neal C. Thomas passed.
Steve soon started getting serious about playing fiddle. He learned “High Country” exactly like Kenny Baker played it. And in spite of having cut off the end of his toe in an accident the same week, he was good enough to win the 15 year-old division at the Convention when he returned to Lithia in 1977. Turns out he may have been the only 15 year-old in the contest, but it was a huge trophy and it inspired him. Other contests, awards and recognition ensued. It was like “getting shot out of a rocket” compared to what he had been doing.
Soon, others were listening too. Ron Buckalew from the “East Virginia Grass” called him about playing in their band. It was the first time he had heard material from J.D. Crowe and the New South, who had just released their epochal “0044” Rounder album the year before. Steve remembers East Virginia Grass playing all the songs from that album in their shows. Other bands called Steve, including New Grass Revue with Robert Dowdy, Jack Leonard and Jeff Midkiff. It was while playing the fiddle with the New Grass Revue that Steve met and fell for Janet Dodson.
In these early- and mid-teenage years, Steve was undergoing typical changes and some were heightened through his musical connections. He was still playing in his Dad’s church, and was baptized at age 13, but by age 16 was introduced to some of the trappings of the music culture. Like the line in that great country song, “She told me not to smoke it, but I did and it took me far away.”
At age 16, Steve had moved to Salem, Virginia where he met Ricky Riddle who later went on to play with Wyatt Rice and Santa Cruz. Ricky introduced Steve to Jerry McMillan. They quickly brought Steve up to speed on the New Acoustic Music Scene, introducing him to Boone Creek, The David Grisman Quintet, New Grass Revival and The Tony Rice Unit classic, Manzanita.
Steve had become a first-chair violinist in the William Flemming High string program and Roanoke Youth Symphony. Even though he read music poorly, his ability allowed him to memorize phrases and feel. He graduated with honors and was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Shenandoah Conservatory the same year he won the Galax Fiddlers’ Convention as well as the Virginia state mandolin championship.
Steve was 18 when he met Tim Austin. Austin was very excited about putting a band together with the rhythm he heard in his head and could play on guitar. About a year later along with Jerry McMillan and Rick Williams, the band was formed. Steve came up with a name for the project: “Lonesome River Band,” a combination of the Little River Band and the Stanley Brothers song “Lonesome River,” which had recently been done magnificently by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver on their second album released in 1982. When Steve left the Lonesome River Band, he was replaced by Jeff Midkiff, who he’d played with in New Grass Revue.
For a time, he decided to go to Virginia Western Community College and see where it would lead him, but he quit after David Parmley called one day. David was the great lead singer and guitarist with the Bluegrass Cardinals, who lived in nearby Ferrum. Steve had occasionally filled in with the Cardinals, but now David was telling him that Del McCoury needed a fiddler. Rick Wiliams, who was by this time a member of Del’s band, drove Steve up for an audition. He tried out, but another Kenny Baker protege, J.B. Prince from North Carolina got the job. However, Prince didn’t last long, and Del called back. He joined Del and the Dixie Pals in the Winter of 1981, and Thomas counts it among one of his best memories, musical or otherwise.
At the time, Steve owned a VW beetle and would get off from the Fret Mill, a music store in Roanoke where he made “around a hundred bucks a week,” and drive 6 and 1/2 hours to Pennsylvania to make $60-$100 a show with Del. But it didn’t matter. This is where Steve got his education for “the old stuff.” McCoury would give lessons without giving lessons, never humiliating and always encouraging the younger musician. “Del was open-minded about music, but he wanted something based in melody.” Steve became close with Del’s son Ronnie, 4 years younger and already becoming a monster mandolinist. Steve along with Rick Williams spent 1982 playing for Del and filling out their schedule with the LRB. “I remember Tim Austin was getting serious about LRB and he pressed me as to what my plans were.” But Steve was afraid to follow Tim down the rabbit hole. In ’83 when he got a job offer to go to Nashville and play with the Grand Ole Opry’s Jim & Jesse, he couldn’t turn down the pay raise. Thomas was in the game for good.
By this time he and the love of his life, Janet, married, he started the job with Jim & Jesse. After a solid month out on the road, he found out this wasn’t going to be a good way to start a marriage, so he left Jim and Jesse and moved back to the Roanoke area. In November of 1983, he was invited to join The Lost and Found. There he “learned so much” from its members Dempsey Young, Gene Parker, Steve Wilson and patriarch, Allen Mills. He stayed with this band for two years. They Recorded a great album, The Sun’s Gonna Shine for Rebel Records.
In March of ’85, he had perhaps his greatest opportunity thus far in music: he auditioned for and got a job with the Country group The Whites, who at the time included Dad Buck and his daughters Sharon and Cheryl, along with dobroist Jerry Douglas, one of Steve’s musical heroes from his stints with legendary groups like the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe & the New South and Boone Creek. The Whites had started by playing Bluegrass and now had hits on Country radio. By this time, Steve was steeped in Bobby Hicks’s style, which was all the rage due to the Bluegrass Album series of records that featured Hicks, Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Todd Phillips and later Douglas. Steve glows when describing how much he learned playing with the Whites, and especially “Flux” (Jerry Douglas’s nickname).
Soon Steve and Janet moved to Nashville and started a family. Within a year Janet had a baby boy and another followed a few years later. He discovered that the competition there as a sessions musician was fierce, and although he played on a number of records, he found it difficult to make a decent living. So he continually ended up in different road bands, including Bluegrass stalwarts the Osborne Brothers, where he learned new things under Sonny Osborne’s pressure cooker approach.
Even when he left one band to play with another high-profile act, whether it was Bluegrass or Country, Steve was almost always more than just a road musician. He often became such a part of the group that he ended up playing at least some on records by acts like Aaron Tippin, The Osborne Brothers and Barbara Mandrell.
While he was with Mandrell, Steve finally realized he was not at all happy with the direction of his career. He was making great money, playing extremely high-profile shows in places like Las Vegas and Branson (“Dancing’ in Branson,” as he puts it), but he wasn’t into the music as much, and he wasn’t playing much Bluegrass. Every now and then, something would come up, like the groundbreaking and Award-winning “Carrying the Tradition” record by Lonesome River Band when it featured Ronnie Bowman and Dan Tyminski. But even then, he only played on a few songs (Alison Krauss played on most), and he felt like Tim Austin was just helping him out. He began feeling a little envious of others’ success.
It was in this climate that Steve tried a “short-cut” that ended up taking him on a 4 year trip to nowhere. The culture in Nashville encouraged it, especially among the songwriting community, which Steve joined eagerly, co-writing with legends like Hank Cochran—but not getting any cuts (and glad now that he didn’t, because he feels that money would have accelerated his spiral). Once on a session playing guitar and fiddle for Christine Allman, he was exhausted, and when offered speed, he took it.
“It gives you a shot like B12, and it’s hard to quit.” It was seductive stuff. As Steve’s habit intensified, he would stay up all night playing guitar, endlessly re-recording things at his home studio, up for days at a time writing, recording, and neglecting his family. Steve admits he “ended up becoming a different person.”
Although he was functioning, Steve now looks back with tears in his eyes at photos with his wife and young kids in a pumpkin patch: “I was high right there.” He was only in his 30s, outwardly happy and on top of his game, but he was going downhill fast. Two things made him reassess his path: the first…his wife Janet finally came to him and tearfully said she had promised that she wouldn’t leave him and she intended to keep that promise; but she was miserable. She just “wanted the old Steve back.”
The other event was not being hired back by Brooks and Dunn at the end of his tour that year with the band, something that had never happened to him before. He was sure it was a result of not caring about the music and using speed. He was thinking of something Janet had said: “How do you deal with the hypocrisy?” He was still going to church with his kids, but he was using the whole time.
After Brooks and Dunn let him go, Steve finally had enough. He went to hisp astor seeking council. The ensuing conversation brought Steve to the realizationbthat he didn’t have to bear the guilt and shame of his failures. He learned about Grace!
To Steve, bottoming out was the second devastating event in his life that ended up being a bridge to a new chapter. The first was his father’s admission that he wouldn’t be around for Steve, and his ensuing death so many years earlier. That ended up being a catapult into music; getting sober proved to be a different kind of springboard.
Steve continued to play with artists like Lee Ann Womack, John Michael Montgomery and others as he started his rehab. It took a full two years of hell to get through it. He struggled with self-loathing, weight gain and a sobering lack of energy. It was as if all his endorphins had been sucked out of his body. His friend fiddler Vance Davenport advised him to “just feel bad. Just feel it, don’t run from it.” And he did, eventually overcoming the self-loathing and a self-perceived decline in his reputation.
Today Steve Thomas is in a new chapter, a much better place. He does sessions, and produces artists like Jesse McReynolds, whose session The Songs Of Robert Hunter: a Tribute To The Grateful Dead, ended up garnishing the elder statesman’s first number one record. He teaches music two days a week at the Jonathan Edwards Classical Academy and takes private students at home, and occasionally teaches at music camps.
And he has kept his hand in the recording and performing game, this time under his own name. First came an unlikely novelty hit with Mark Newton, “Old McDonald Sold the Farm,” which climbed to #1 four times and finished in the top four most played songs in 2014 on Bluegrass Today’s chart.
In December 2018, Lonnie Lassiter, owner of Pinecastle Records called Steve to wish him a Merry Christmas. During their conversation Lonnie casually mentioned an interest in Steve making another record for their label. After some initial misgivings, Steve decided to do it if he could do it his way, doing Bluegrass and some more eclectic material. Ethan Burkhardt, CEO at the label, thought Steve would fit nicely on their roster at Bonfire Recording Company, a new label under the Pinecastle umbrella aimed at the Americana genre. And he wanted to feature some of the people who had helped him along the way, like Bobby Osborne and Del McCoury. Steve put together a recording touring band and over the past year they’ve been playing and recording their first project. The Band members are Jason Owen on Guitar and Vocals, Josh Matheny on Dobro and Vocals, Chris Wade on the Banjo and Austin Ward On Bass. The record brought Steve “full circle” in his eyes, back to what he had wanted to do with Lonesome River Band back in the early 80s when Tim Austin shared his vision, one that Steve was unprepared to run with.
Lots of things have come full circle in life. An incident in 2014 brought Steve all the way back to his childhood. He suffered a major financial setback in the crash of 2008. Then a fire in the fireplace of a rented house he was living in combusted into a bigger conflagration, and soon Steve and Janet were grabbing what they could and running for their lives. They lost a lot of personal possessions, including a Roth violin, expensive recording equipment, hard drives with recordings, and most of their clothes and all their furnishings.
Lo and behold, just as they had when his family’s farmhouse burned when he was a child, people came out of the woodwork of the community to help—this time from the music community. A benefit raised money, and just like that neighbor back in Montgomery County, Jesse McReynolds’ grandson, Luke McKnight, gave Thomas his house rent-free for 8 months. The lesson was clear to Steve: people still help each other, just like they did when he was a kid. Sometimes in the music community there’s envy, neuroses and all the trappings of middle-class American life, but in the end, “when it hits
the fan...” People are there for you.
Sometimes people love tragedy. And there’s definitely some in this story. But tragedy has turned to comedy. Janet is still there, after his kids have grown, and the couple is still truly in love, truly enjoying life. Steve’s is truly a redemptive story, a Grace story.
And Steve Thomas and the Time Machine are out on the road spreading that story through his music, joyful tunes like “Down in the Wildwood.” In the video for the song, Steve and the band are playing and the camera cuts to Thomas’s face... Like always, his smile is blazing and infectious.
But unlike that smile in the pumpkin patch, it’s a real smile this time.
- Tim Stafford