Suzanne Thomas – Branching out on her own
A commanding singer with a broad, expressive range, a deep knowledge of country idioms and some 30 years of experience in the music business, Suzanne Thomas remains largely unknown. In large part this is because she’s spent the past decade as part of the Dry Branch Fire Squad, a bluegrass outfit whose frontman, Ron Thomason, can upstage just about anyone with his convoluted, comical hillbilly raps. Now, though, with the release of her first solo album, Dear Friends And Gentle Hearts (Rounder), those who don’t know her can find out what Southern Ohioans have known for years: Suzanne is the real deal.
When I first moved to Cincinnati, back in the late 1970s, Thomas’ band, the Hotmud Family, was — well, the hottest thing around. Though known as old-time performers, the Hotmuds were, nevertheless, supremely eclectic; “That band,” she says, “would play anything.”
Such eclecticism informs her album in surprising and pleasing ways. Sure, there are numbers here from Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family and DaCosta Waltz’s Southern Broadcasters, but there are also songs from Robin & Linda Williams and Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty, as well as John Hutchison, whom Jon Hartley Fox’s notes describe as “Ohio’s poet laureate of hillbilly despair.” Fully half the cuts find Thomas accompanied by some of the leading lights of contemporary bluegrass, starting with the Seldom Scene, with whom she recorded a moving version of “Faded Coat Of Blue” that shaped the direction of the project.
“We did ‘Faded Coat Of Blue’ at the first session; it’s a song I had recorded 17 years ago — in the same key, I might add — and [the late] John Duffey would get up and sing it with us every time we did a gig with [the Scene], so I thought that would just be kind of a nice tribute to him to do it with them.
“My co-producer, Bill Evans, got to listening to this cut and said, ‘This just sounds so cool.’ He went to Rounder and asked, ‘Couldn’t we have a little more money to do this album, so we could get these other people?’ Then he asked me, ‘Who would you have if you could have anybody you wanted on these cuts?’ and I said, ‘Oh, well, if I could have anybody I wanted, this is who I’d want.'”
The list turned out to include friends such as modern bluegrass icons IIIrd Tyme Out and the Lonesome River Band, as well as John Hartford, Glen Duncan, Laurie Lewis, Jim Hurst, Missy Raines, and Thomas’ bandmates in the Dry Branch Fire Squad.
The Squad backs her on the album’s title cut, a lament for Stephen Foster written by Chris Stuart from a phrase on a scrap of paper found in Foster’s pocket after his death. “Chris and I were sitting in a hotel suite at Wintergrass just visiting, and he said, ‘I’ve finished that song about Stephen Foster.’ He played it for me, and I’m crying, of course, and I said, ‘Oh, can I do that?’ and he said yes.
“I thought, ‘All right, I’m going to get off my butt and make this album. I want that to be the title song, and these are the other songs I want to record, because these will go with that.’ That was sort of the centerpiece.”
Simple enough, you’d think, but the whole thing turns out to have taken close to a year — or 30 years, depending on how you look at it. “It’s one of those things that people had been telling me for years — ‘Why don’t you put out your own album’ — and I’d say ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna do that just as soon as I get time,'” Thomas laughs. “I’m very lazy, I have no ambition whatsoever, except about the work itself. I’m very ambitious when it comes to what I want to do, and how I want it to sound, and how much care I take with doing it, and thinking about it and presenting it, but I’m not ambitious about my ‘career.’ I had chances to go to Nashville and be a product, and I never wanted to be a product. Clever of me to wait until I’m way too old, you know, to do an album like that.”