February 3, 2004
When compiling a list of the most influential living banjo players, acoustic music godfather Earl Scruggs would top the list. Younger banjo enthusiasts likely would mention melodic banjo jazzmaster Bela Fleck.
Both banjo geniuses would put Bobby Thompson high on that list. But the man who virtually invented the ''melodic'' playing style adopted by Fleck is largely forgotten, due to illness and his own self-deprecating demeanor. Pickers and grinners from throughout the bluegrass community are coming together Thursday in Gallatin to help Thompson with medical bills as well as to remind the public of his importance.
''It's awfully nice of them,'' says Thompson of the 11th annual McReynolds Memorial Bluegrass Music Spectacular.
He'll be there. But only to listen from his wheelchair. ''I haven't been able to play the banjo in 15 years,'' he says. ''My hands won't let me . . . I miss it, but I'm used to it now.'' Multiple sclerosis forced him into retirement near Franklin.
Choosing Thompson as beneficiary of Thursday's event wasn't a stretch for Jesse McReynolds. With his late brother Jim — Grand Ole Opry legends Jim & Jesse — McReynolds began having this annual benefit to help with the medical bills of his son, Keith, who died in 2000 from M.S.
Scruggs will be in Los Angeles for Grammy-related activities, but he has plenty of good things to say about his old friend.
''I think he has done a lot for the banjo. He was the first one to play that (melodic) style of banjo that I ever heard. And there has never been anyone to top him.''
Thompson's banjo style was incorporated into the Hee Haw theme and show as well as into groundbreaking group Area Code 615's music. As a session ace, Thompson played with such diverse artists as Elvis, The Monkees, Neil Young, Perry Como, Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe.
Fleck, who chased Thompson's melodic style into its jazziest grooves, wouldn't miss Thursday's gathering.
''Bobby sort of set the stage for modern banjo in a lot of ways. He is one of two people (along with Bill Keith) credited with inventing the melodic style.
''. . . He made a huge contribution to the moving forward of the banjo as a musical instrument.''
Thompson developed the style that gives banjo the fluidity of piano or fiddle while a young man in Spartanburg, S.C.
He brought that style with him when he joined Jim & Jesse's outfit
in the early 1960s, and McReynolds recalls Thompson's banjo dancing nicely
with Vassar Clements' dancing fiddle.
Copyright © 2004, The Tennessean