Clarence Ashley


from Tom Clarence Ashley: An Appalachian Folk Musician (Masters Thesis: East Tennessee State University)
by Minnie M. Miller, August 1973

When there was not enough demand for music to make a living in Johnson County, Ashley set out on a career of ‘busting’ (commonly called ‘busking’ in the British Isles), singing in the streets, on the edge of carnivals, outside of the main building of mines on pay days, etc.” During that time, he played a great deal with Banman Grayson, an accomplished fiddler from Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee. Also, he played with the Cook Sisters from Boone, North Carolina, and with the Greer Sisters. In these trios, Ashley played guitar while the sisters played mandolin and fiddle. Ashley formed a band with Dwight and Dewey Bell known as “The West Virginia Hotfoots.”

It was with the band known as “The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers”, however, that Tom did his first recordings. This band consisted of Tom Ashley, guitar; Clarence Green, fiddle; Gwen Foster, harmonica; Will Abernathy, autoharp and harmonica; and Walter David, lead guitar. Ashley did not record any solo records until he was a member of a group called “Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots.” This group consisted of Byrd Moore, finger style banjo or lead guitar; Clarence Greene, fiddle or guitar; and Clarence T. Ashley, guitar or banjo.

In October, 1929, after the group had finished a recording session with Columbia, Ashley volunteered some “lassy-makin’ tunes,” one of which was “The Coo-Coo Bird.” The recording company was most impressed with Tom and later wired him to come to New York to make further recordings. They offered him a contract but his friends were not included. Ashley rejected the offer because he felt that they should take all of them or none of them. Tom’s son J.D. thinks that his dad might have become a famous recording star if he had accepted the offer of that contract.

In 1925, Ashley met Dock Walsh at a fiddlers’ contest in Boone, North Carolina; and shortly after that, “The Carolina Tar Heels” was formed. The group consisted of Tom Ashley, guitar and usually vocal lead; Dock Walsh, banjo and occasionally vocal lead; and Gwen or Garley Foster, second guitar and harmonica. The entire group recorded eighteen records with Victor in the late twenties and early thirties. In the early thirties, Ashley and Gwen Foster recorded for Vocalion. Gwen Foster was a musical genius in those days; however, he drank too heavily at times. Tom would laugh and tell about sobering him up on cider and moonshine before they went to play.

After 1933, Ashley did not record again until 1960. There are two possible explanations for the abrupt ending of his recording career in the thirties. One explanation is that Ashley was the kind of man who would not take orders from anyone. He did not like the idea of having to follow the orders of the recording companies, therefore he quit. Another possible explanation is the great depression of the thirties. Recording companies, like many other businesses, were operating under grave financial circumstances. Many artists had to turn to other means of making a living.


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