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VOL. 43 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 25, 2019

Goldsmith finds success in career detour

By Catherine Mayhew

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This is a story that plays out many times in Music City: So, this musician moves to Nashville … you know how it goes.

Yes, Thomas Goldsmith started out working at a car wash and then experienced a slight upgrade to restaurant dish washer.

But this guitar player/song writer went on to record, tour and play with respected musicians, take a 180-degree detour into becoming an award-winning music writer and ultimately pen the new book, “Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic.’’

A North Carolina native, Goldsmith attempted college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He lasted six months before dropping out and hitchhiking around the country for a time. Then his good friend and fellow musician, Steve Runkle, had a proposition for him.

“My friend, Steve Runkle, really wanted to move to Nashville,” Goldsmith recalls. “He’d met Jerry Lee Lewis backstage some place and Jerry Lee said, ‘Come on out. You can write songs there.’ We knew it would be tough but we got an old Highway Commission truck and we were very lucky.

“We got an apartment at Lyle and Broad across from JJ’s Market. And it was right in the middle of the business. Kinky Friedman lived there, and people were just constantly wandering in and out. And we were three blocks from Music Row, a few blocks from Vanderbilt and about 10 blocks from downtown.”

Goldsmith and Runkle, performing as the Pritchard Avenue Band, managed to get some gigs. A few Music Row folks soon took notice.

“We got here in September of 1971,” he says. “By December we were recording in one of the really good Music Row studios. We definitely thought we had arrived at that point.”

The two-guitar band came close to landing a couple of recording contracts, but neither panned out. Goldsmith decided to leave Nashville to try his luck in Austin.

“I was immediately able to work,” he adds. “In Nashville, I was a dime a dozen. But down there it was like ‘Oh, he’s from Nashville. He can play.’”

But Nashville beckoned in the form of a new band with Runkle, DesChamps (Champ) Hood and Walter Hyatt. It was called The Contenders.

“As the four convened in Nashville, they found they had all the ingredients of a great rock & roll band: a deep bag of songs, four outstanding voices, two guitar virtuosos in Tommy and Champ, Walter’s rock-solid acoustic rhythm, a knack for original-sounding arrangements, a vocal blend capable of hair-raising harmonies and attitude to spare,” the Mighty Contenders website explains.

The Contenders stayed together for two and a half years and, again, garnered some fruitless interest from the industry. So Goldsmith struck out on his own, playing with Riders in the Sky, Tim Krekel, and David Olney and the X-Rays.

Music historian and Country Music Hall of Fame executive Jay Orr remembers hearing Goldsmith play during this time.

“Tommy was good,” Orr says. “He has a spirit that comes out in his music. He has a winning smile. He’s modest about his abilities.”

And then Goldsmith took stock of his life.

“At this point I was 30 and I thought, you know, I really don’t want to be 40 and doing this,” he says. “There are people they called the ‘young old guys’ because when you saw them across the room they looked like they were maybe 25 but when you got up close they were really 55.

“I didn’t want to keep doing this when I got a lot older and I thought I’d been given a really good chance. I’d played sessions, I’d played gigs with the absolute best people in town. And I didn’t see it happening for me the way I saw it happening for other people at that level.”

And so began the second act in Goldsmith’s life. A logical extension of his musical career would be to write about music. Only one problem. He had no experience as a writer.

He knew some staff members at The Tennessean, and he pitched himself as a writer to one of its editors, Herman Eskew. He was hired, but not to write about music. He started at the lowest of the low spots for a reporter.

“You know how it works. You do everything nobody else wants to do … covering exhumations, taking obits, whatever they needed,” Goldsmith remembers.

Finally, a spot opened for a music writer in the features section. Goldsmith took it.

“It was during a period when Randy Travis, Garth Brooks and all those people were coming along,” he says. “I covered the first Farm Aid concert in Champaign-Urbana. It was a really exciting time to be around the business.”

Goldsmith would go on to rise through the ranks of editors at The Tennessean and then return to his home state to become an editor at the Raleigh News & Observer.

And now, it appears he has come full circle. In promoting “Earl Scruggs and Foggy Mountain Breakdown: The Making of an American Classic,’’ Goldsmith is traveling the country to not only talk about the book but to play with local musicians.

“I don’t think it’s unique that music writers chose one or the other – writing or playing,” Orr says. “There are a lot of music writers who wish they were performers. Tommy clearly took it to another level.”

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