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Real Music - August 2015 Ambassador of Americana


Real Music - August 2015
Ambassador of Americana

by Robert Feuer

Tommy Thomsen, a 1995 inductee into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame, considers the irony of his life. “People think I’m a redneck. I’m a hippie who fell in love with this kind of music,” he says, smiling from below his cowboy hat as we talk in the Sonoma Plaza, the town noisily circling us.

Born and raised in Sonoma, Thomsen’s family roots there run deep. His mother, nicknamed Big Red, was “a house party boogie woogie piano player,” he says. He got his first piano lesson at age seven, bought his first guitar at 14, and two years later formed the Headsman, a high school blues band. Later, he hung out with people like George Hunter of the Charlatans in Virginia City, Nevada, and Sammy Hagar, with whom he did some housepainting, in Haight-Ashbury. In 1967, at age 19, he joined the merchant marine for 35 years, taking his music with him, gigging in places like Bombay and Hong Kong. 

Thomsen sings in a smooth, classic country voice, while playing guitar and piano, using others on steel guitar, fiddle, bass and drums. Sometimes, he adds “some hot rod guitar player,” he says, “depending on what the gig requires.”

“I want to be the shittiest guy, the weakest link, in my band. I surround myself with strength, musicians who love to play, who elevate your game. It’s a matter of creating something more than yourself. Real musicians shut their mouth, open their ears, and play their ass off,” he says, with a grin suggesting many shows and too much fun.

“I’m the Ambassador of Americana,” Thomsen continues, which includes, for him, bluegrass, blues, hard country, Cajun, zydeco, and more. “In the ‘70s, I became obsessed with Western Swing,” a style popularized by Bob Wills in the ‘30s, consisting of “big band stuff added to a fiddle breakdown, and a 2/4 beat, and it all works. It’s completely different than country music, more related to jazz.” Thomsen’s fascination with Wills’ sound – he calls him “as unique as Louis Armstrong” - motivated him to meet and form relationships with people who’d played in Wills’ band, the Texas Playboys. Thomsen used some of these musicians on an album.

“When I get on stage,” he says, “I sing the authentic stuff the way it’s supposed to be sung.” He encourages improvisation in his band, as Wills did. There are no set lists or rehearsals. “Every second on that stage belongs to you, and you’d better take advantage of it. La musica es la vida.” 

Thomsen plays Aug. 21 at the third annual Funky Fridays concert series at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. It’s a non-profit fundraiser for the park, which had been closed by state budget cuts.

The opener will be piano charmer, Wendy DeWitt, with drummer Kirk Harwood. Thomsen, a friend of DeWitt’s father’s, taught his mother’s piano style to the then ten-year-old when she lived in Glen Ellen.

Funky Fridays continues weekly through Sept. 4.
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