By Chris Stuart
In the fall of 1984, Mary Doub (now a respected promoter and champion of bluegrass) was considering starting a festival. She was looking for an official host for the festival and had seen the Dry Branch Fire Squad, a band fronted by a lanky, mandolin-playing philosopher named Ron Thomason. Mary recalls, “I really wanted someone that I thought could project the kind of festival I wanted, and Ron was the perfect person. I just love the way his mind works and the way he communicates with an audience.” She phoned Ron and asked him to think about it. He hesitated for a second before replying, “I’ve thought about it and I accept.”
Thomason is not a man who usually acts without due consideration. But in this case, he immediately felt that “yes” was the right response. Twenty-six years later, the festival, Grey Fox, is still going strong and Dry Branch Fire Squad is still the host. And Ron Thomason, from his very first gig to the present, has become to bluegrass what Will Rogers was to the country—a gentle conscience that makes us laugh, but keeps us thinking, too.
Some facts: the Dry Branch Fire Squad played its first gig in October 1976, making 2011 their thirty-fifth year. Ron Thomason first played on stage as part of Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys in 1969, so he can also tell an audience that he’s been playing music professionally for over forty years.
Musician for forty-two years; school teacher for thirty years; horse trainer for twenty-seven years. That might describe three different people, but somehow Thomason has done it all. He taught English and Math in secondary schools from 1967 through 1996, with a stint at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, in the ’70s. In April 2010, he was honored by the Ohio State Senate. And he was inducted into the Clark County Educator’s Hall Of Fame. He says, “I loved school and I never quit loving it.” When he retired to Colorado to devote more time to horse training, it was a tough decision. “I don’t mind saying that for five or six months after that, I would occasionally weep. I couldn’t remember missing something as much as that.”
Horses are another lifelong love. Ron began riding when his father brought a horse onto his grandparents’ farm in southwest Virginia. Thomason later farmed in Ohio while teaching and bought a ranch in Colorado, moving there permanently in 1999. The ranch, Equus Aerie, borders the San Isabel Wilderness on a mountain called Eagle Peak about 18 miles from Westcliffe, Colo.
Ron describes a few of his horses, “My horse Klassic Shaklan was the Canadian National Champion futurity colt and later the Canadian National Champion stallion. My two elder retirees, Saalo Nazeer and Saalo Supreme, were both multiple champions in various disciplines like English Pleasure riding, Endurance Racing, and even Halter (or In-Hand). My mare, Czem (pronounced “Gem”), is an Endurance champion. My other mare, Kaz, was a Texas English Pleasure Champion. Heidi’s horse, Bartali, is an Endurance Champion. Chance is a prospect that is already an Endurance Racing champion that I believe may become one of the greatest Ride’n’Tie horses ever. Our orphan, Dazzle, was adopted from a horse rescue situation and is a wonderful ride but due to mistreatment in his youth will never be able to become a champ. I also have a Wall of Honor in my barn which bears the nameplates of many champions I have had over the years that have gone up home to Green Pastures.”
Last year, Ron and his partner, fiddler and singer Heidi Clare, participated in three endurance races. He says, “We came across the finishes in all of them together and first. Since those races are determined to end when the horse’s pulse comes down to sixty, we did not tie: she won two and I won one. In each, there was less than a minute’s difference.”
Thomason still has one of his first champion horses. He recalls how that particular horse helped get him into training. “When he was just a puppy, this horse trainer was looking to buy him and started smacking him like that’s how he was going to train him to behave. We almost got into a fight. I realized training horses can’t be rocket science and I certainly wasn’t going to let anybody smack my horses.”
Ron learned to train horses the same way he learned to play bluegrass—by observing and doing. As he tells it, “The two things in my life that were always treated as secrets are how to play bluegrass and how to train horses. Back when I was trying to learn bluegrass music, people who really knew how to do it, treated it as the world’s greatest secret. I remember watching Monroe’s right hand and thought, if you want to play like Bill, you’ve got to do what he does. And you’re going to have to build up that strength. Same thing about horse training. Nobody would tell me about it. I just watched and watched and took away what I wanted from it.”
Thomason has a specialized clientele and attributes his ability to do that to the independence that playing music has given him. “I never could have afforded to have a good horse if I hadn’t played music. Music gave me the income to have that extra spending money.”
He is considered one of the best showmen in bluegrass music, has recorded over 23 albums, and maintains a steady schedule of gigs, including hosting the Grey Fox festival and the closer-to-home High Mountain Hay Fever Festival in Westcliffe. But his success is based on doing it his way.
Banjoist Bill Evans, who played in Dry Branch from 1993 to 1997, and who has booked the band for the past 15 years says, “Ron has been one of my most important mentors in bluegrass music. His honesty and integrity in dealing with people and his honesty to his art is what I respect most. He’s unique in that you hear his own voice in everything he does. And, he’s always been there when I’ve needed him.”
Thomason originally named the band the Dry Branch Fire Squad because he didn’t want to put his own name out front. He just wanted something for a Thursday night gig at the Crying Cowboy Concert Saloon in Springfield, Ohio, in October 1976. “That’s why we got stuck with such a bad name!” Thomason says, “I just wanted a name that was for a Thursday night gig at a bar. And I didn’t want a name that wasn’t a band name. I didn’t want to be the bandleader. Bluegrass music is a band music.”
Thomason describes his family as fairly typical Appalachian folks. He was 16 years old before the household had electricity. His father’s parents lived near Honaker, in southwest Virginia. His grandfather was a coal miner and developed black lung disease. His father was a Training Sergeant in the Army, stationed in Columbus, Ohio. During those years, Ron, his parents, and three sisters moved back and forth frequently between Virginia and Ohio.
Ron still remembers sitting in a Chevy truck in 1949 on the farm and hearing for the first time the Stanley Brothers on WCYB out of Bristol. “I remember that sound just like it was yesterday. It just changed my life. And I can say the same thing about the Blue Sky Boys. When I heard them, it changed me again. It amazes me that I can remember that. But I can also remember hearing Tex Ritter when I was four, and I can remember poems my grandmother taught me back then. I haven’t put anything new in my brain since.”
As Thomason sometimes discusses onstage, country people don’t necessarily consider music a legitimate career option. His father was an athlete and Ron became an excellent gymnast and football player. But a distant cousin, Buzzy Price, had a guitar and shared it with Ron when they were seven or eight years old. They wanted to play like Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley’s guitarist. Thomason’s next instrument was the drums. He was twelve or thirteen and a rock-n-roll band called The Ramrods needed a drummer. As Ron remembers, “Back then, if someone asked if I could play the drums, I’d just think, ‘Well yeah, give me some sticks!’”
A career in music was not yet in his thinking, though. “We were really poor. My parents absolutely forbid me to play music.” But he also remembers the dignity with which Bill Monroe, the Stanleys, Reno & Smiley, and other early bands comported themselves. “A.P. Carter used to come to the roller rink in Honaker for a concert. I was so impressed by the fact that he wore a suit and a tie. If you look at modern old-time bands, they might be in bib overalls, but if you look at the old bands, those guys dressed in the best clothes they had.”
After high school, Ron attended Ohio University on four scholarships. It’s hard to imagine his spare frame playing football, but he played both offense and defense for Ohio University. He was also a gymnast and set the Ohio state record for the longest handstand. He was mostly interested in academics, though, and majored in both Math and English.
While at Ohio University, he played music and got to know some of the great musicians in Springfield, Ohio. A friend of his father’s had given him a mandolin and he was getting a lot of encouragement from his football teammates. Or, as Thomason puts it, “I guess they thought I wasn’t very good at football, so maybe I’d do better at music.”
Tom Boyd, who currently plays banjo and resonator guitar with Dry Branch, met Thomason in college recalls, “Ron had interests in folk and rock music as a drummer, and then became more interested in bluegrass music and the mandolin when he heard a little band that I worked in with Brian’s dad, Howard Aldridge, and Frank Wakefield. I think maybe Frank’s frontman chatter may have given Ron some inspiration to develop his own style of fronting. In no time at all, Ron was recording his first album and he asked me to participate.”
After graduation, Thomason went straight into teaching, but was still playing music on the side. He had a large collection of Monroe and Stanley records and decided he was going to bring his playing up to a professional level. By 1969, he was playing part-time in a band in Columbus, and was playing at the Astro Inn when Ralph Stanley came in to play. Stanley asked Thomason to sit in with him and later asked him to join the band. It was at a time when the State of Ohio had closed the schools early and Ron was available. Thomason recalls that Ralph would introduce him by saying that the first time they met, Ron had told him, “I have to play music,” and Ralph responded with, “Well, come on and do it.”
It was an important moment in the history of the Clinch Mountain Boys. Roy Lee Centers was the lead singer, Curly Ray Cline was on fiddle, and George Shuffler played bass, just before Jack Cooke joined. It was also the summer the band first met Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. Thomason played mandolin on Skaggs’ and Whitley’s Second Generation album on those songs where Skaggs played fiddle, and Ron’s Gibson F-12 mandolin can be seen on the cover.
George Shuffler and Thomason are still friends and both horsemen. When asked about his relationship with Ron, Shuffler says, “We played together with Ralph and I got him a job playing mandolin on a Lee Allen record. He’s one of my best friends. He could make a sick man laugh!”
By late Fall 1970, Ron wanted to go back to teaching. He recalls, “When I told Ralph that I wanted to go back to teaching, he told the guys, ‘I hate to lose Ron more than ’ary a man.’ I thought that was great since I’d never thought of myself as a man.” Thomason continued to play with Stanley over the next few years, though, whenever he was able.
Humor has always been an important part of the Dry Branch show. Ron says, “Bluegrass grows out of a tradition that’s part minstrel show and part Toby The Clown, but like a lot of fine music like jazz and blues, bluegrass suffers from the fact that it’s also a really great music. Most people never listen to it or play it casually. It’s asking an awful lot of people who can present that kind of music to also try to do something [humor] which is entirely different from that.”
The stories that Thomason tells on stage can seem off-the-cuff, but they are deliberately crafted. He recalls honing a few of them while driving a tractor on his farm. “What I loved most about farming in Ohio was the hours on a tractor. It’s hard work, but it’s a thoughtless project, so I could always think about stuff. I pride myself on writing every word.”
Although Thomason has been accosted from the audience a few times with “shut up and pick!” (the band thought of naming one of its albums the phrase), he feels that, “What I do is satire and what I’m attempting to satirize is a culture that stereotypes people.” He is also one of the few bandleaders in bluegrass who establishes direct communication with the audience to the point that, “If I can’t see the audience, I can’t do anything. When we do concerts, I ask them to turn up the house lights. If I can’t see faces, I can’t do it.”
The current lineup of Dry Branch has been together for six years, although all four have known each other well over thirty. The band—all veteran Ohio bluegrass musicians—is composed of Thomason on mandolin and guitar, Brian Aldridge on guitar and mandolin, Tom Boyd on banjo and resonator guitar, and Dan Russell on bass. The latest album on Rounder Records, Echoes Of The Mountains (2009), features this lineup, one of the strongest among the many strong bands that Thomason has put together.
Tom Boyd recorded with Mac Wiseman, Benny Martin, Hylo Brown, Red Allen, the Allen Brothers, Larry Sparks, Mike Lilly & Wendy Miller, Dave Evans, Jethro Burns, and played on Thomason’s first solo album in 1972.
Brian Aldridge is on his second stint with Dry Branch. His dad, Howard Aldridge, had a big impact on bluegrass in Ohio, and on all the members of the band. Brian describes being part of the band. “Playing in DBFS is definitely not like a job for me. I feel like I am a part of something pretty special. The music we play is authentic and maybe organic in the sense it doesn’t have harmful additives. It’s not for everyone. If you want to hear the real polished stuff, there are plenty of bands you may enjoy a lot better. If you like music that is a bit raw and more like the original mountain music, if you have a feel for stuff like that, then if you aren’t already a fan, give us a listen.”
Dan Russell on bass (also a superb reso-guitar and pedal steel player) is on his second stint with the band, as well, and has played with country music artist John Anderson. He played banjo in the band before Tom Boyd joined.
The band plays fifty to sixty select shows a year. Ron was influential in starting the High Mountain Hay Fever festival. When money was needed for a county health clinic in Westcliffe, a group suggested a bluegrass festival. Run entirely by volunteers, the festival has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars for the health clinic. Don Belveal, who describes himself as the “best free emcee” of the High Mountain Hay Fever festival, speaks highly of Ron: “He’s moved into the community and has made a huge contribution. He’s a very easy guy to work with and knows a lot about a lot of things—a good businessman, a gifted musician, and a real consensus builder.”
For the Grey Fox Festival, Thomason has been a business partner for its entire run. He says, “Mary and George Doub have been life-long friends. We have sure had some adventures in the festival business, but all through it, we have steadfastly stuck with our vision of what a festival should be. We have tried to give back to the bluegrass community, and have done so in the form of scholarships, which we have given in the name of the festival for more than 25 years now.”
Dry Branch has also played at many Gettysburg [Pa.] Bluegrass Festivals, and for the past few years has been a regular at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. Warren Hellman, promoter of Hardly Strictly, met Ron in an odd way. Hellman’s doctor had told him they should get together because both were into traditional music and horses. Hellman is an active participant in the sports of ride-’n-tie and endurance racing and also the leader and banjoist of the Wronglers, a band that includes, at times, Thomason on guitar and Heidi Clare on fiddle. Says Warren, “Ron’s been one of the top horse trainers in the country. He’s very calm and very calming and has a lot of wisdom to impart. His stories are way more than just funny stories; there’s great depth. I will say that one of my life’s dreams is to open for Dry Branch in a band called the the Damp Twig Arsonists.”
There have been many high points for Dry Branch since 1976. The band’s all-gospel release Golgotha was chosen by the Library of Congress for its select list of significant recordings of American music. But the band seems to exist outside the usual measures of musical success. Thomason and his bandmates, both current and past, take the stage knowing who they are and what they have to offer. It’s a confidence in the material that, if given a chance, moves listeners to laughter and tears.
It has not come, though, without some people taking exception to Thomason’s humor, particularly when it strikes a political tone. Thomason says, “I don’t mind apologizing to such folks, but that’s where it ends. If they insist on arguing and not accepting my apology, I try to point out to them the nature of humor and even bring up the great T.S. Eliot aphorism, ‘You have to bring knowledge to the poem.’ If they respond with, ‘What poem?,’ I can be satisfied that the concept of metaphor is beyond them and try to get away as quickly as possible.”
Thomason knows that he is on stage to entertain, but he gives the audience full credit as thinking beings, even when political views conflict. He says, “I have no patience for someone who thinks that they’re more intelligent or perceptive than the conglomerate of the audience. I take umbrage. The long and the short of the issue is that I let Hazel Dickens be my guide: ‘Just playing bluegrass music is political.’”
He has also not been shy about commenting on Nashville as the assumed center of bluegrass. “I personally don’t think that Nashville ever did anything for bluegrass music, and I don’t think it ever will—except to continue to hold it back. I think that if Big Mon had not seen himself as a ‘country’ singer and gone to Nashville, no one else would ever connect the city to the music. Of course, if he hadn’t, maybe he would have never had the impact that he did. However, others made great contributions to the music without being there. I believe his genius would have ‘outed’ wherever he decided to play. My own opinion is that Nashville is bad for bluegrass music. I don’t believe that something as indigenously American needs a ‘center.’ Further, I believe that if bluegrass music were associated with any other city, I would have way less need for quotation marks.”
An audience member may or may not agree with these views, but Thomason always serves them with humor, wit, and self-deprecation. Unlike bands who rely on hackneyed patter and impressive, but sometimes shallow, musicianship, Dry Branch takes the audience on a journey, pointing out along the way those things that should be appreciated and those things that make us all human. Ron and his music are inseparable, but he’s proven that he could have been successful in almost anything. Lucky for us, he picked up a mandolin.