Ron Thomason: A National Treasure
The Dry Branch Fire Squad is celebrating its 40 anniversary on the road this year, and has played an important and illuminating role in bluegrass music for many years. The group’s frontman, Ron Thomason, combines his usually gentle satirical humor with a song selection that relies heavily on old-time gospel music and classic bluegrass songs, reminds listeners where the music they love comes from, and pointedly discusses the hypocritical anomalies in today’s politics and social structure.
Early in his career, Thomason joined Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, with whom he spent seven years touring. But his performances are far from simply primitive bluegrass and mountain music. Thomason’s songs often grow from a story that makes a point while gently skewering pompous hypocrisy and providing insight into human nature.
Even at the merchandise table, he makes a comment on the state of the world. His two favorite sales items, beyond the many CDs the band has recorded over its long history, are the famous “Thought Repellant” hat and the Dry Branch Fire Squad Security System. Proudly worn by many fans, the Thought Repellent hat contains “ignor-guard with stupe stop,” which guarantees to keep people from having ignorant or, in men, salacious thoughts. The security system, useful for the knife fighters — prominent in the bluegrass audience — will protect those who carry it in any fearful situation. It’s a three-inch multi-bladed pen knife. I wear a Thought Repellent hat and haven’t had a useful or dangerous thought in years, and I have not lost a single knife fight since I started carrying the security system.
Thomason has accomplished so much during his life that he defies narrow categories or glib characterization. Growing up in near poverty in eastern Kentucky, he taught high school English and math in Ohio for many years. He has said he’s proudest of having been twice chosen as Teacher of the Year in his district.
“I literally wept when I had to leave teaching,” he says, referring to his decision to work on the growing horse business he participated in with his wife. As a trainer, he trained show horses which his then-wife rode in shows. He bemoans the fact that he could rarely see them perform because he usually had his own performance with his band on weekends during show season. Much of his patter at shows — and several songs he sings — revolve around his love for horses. These days, much of his riding takes place on or near his ranch in Colorado.
Thomason declares himself to be deeply conservative, while those offended by his commentary — and there actually are some — would call him a dangerous liberal. Ron clings hard and true to traditional music and values: hard work, farming, support of American veterans, and puncturing political pretensions are surely conservative values which Thomason holds and proclaims gently, but persistently. He also speaks out against bigotry, discussing the town he grew up in in southern Virginia while telling the story of his childhood friend Bobby Low, who taught him to hambone. Low told him that white people couldn’t possibly become skilled at hamboning.
As an athlete, teacher, horse trainer, school administrator, social commentator, historian, and student of American culture, Ron Thomason has much to say about all those things, and more. He has steadfastly supported and campaigned tirelessly in order to get singer-songwriter/screenwriter/social activist Hazel Dickens, whom he refers to as “the finest and strongest person I ever met,” elected to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. He champions the plight of the American coal miner while recognizing the danger of coal as a fuel.
Since the day his son dropped out of Cornell University, on September 12, 2001, to volunteer for the US Army and join the fight against terrorism, Thomason has sung, at every performance, an old song dating back to the Spanish American War: “He’s Coming to Us Dead.”
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in the Workshop Tent at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival where Thomason was giving a talk on classical versus Keynesian economics. (At a bluegrass festival? Of course.) The discussion was erudite, clear, and tumbled conventional wisdom on its head, because Thomason comes at a problem from thought, logic, and consideration rather than knee-jerk adherence to a particular point of view.
Is he political? Yes. Is he partisan? Never. Is he a rare national treasure? Absolutely.
At several festivals, Dry Branch Fire Squad is the host band, and Thomason is sometimes the promoter. He has been a partner, along with Mary Daub, in the hugely successful Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York since its founding, while presenting his own festival, High Mountain Hay Fever, in Westcliffe, Colorado, to benefit the local medical center.
At Gettysburg and at the Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival in Connecticut, Dry Branch Fire Squad has been a featured band since the beginning, over 30 years ago. On the Sunday mornings of those festivals, each year, after performing a couple of sets on Saturday, Thomason conducts a gospel music show at which he gives what he now calls a sermon. He doesn’t usually invoke the name of God, but, crucially, presents strong spiritual and ethical concepts that stretch across all religious barriers. While being seriously humorous and earnestly serious, Thomason demonstrates a quality of Americanism that seems to be more and more rare these days. He’s an informed, thoughtful social analyst who can still look sideways at our world and find something worthy of comment, humor, and song.