Chatham County’s bluegrass legend Tommy Edwards dies at 75

Pittsboro, NC – Thomas Shelton “Tommy” Edwards, 75, of Pittsboro, died in Pittsboro on May 22, following a short and hard battle against pancreatic cancer.

On May 21, Gov. Roy Cooper awarded Edwards the Order of the Longleaf Pine for exemplary service to the State of North Carolina and to his community.

In North Carolina’s central Piedmont, and throughout NC, Edwards was a bluegrass music legend. A founding member of The Bluegrass Experience, Edwards was a prolific songwriter and lightning-fast guitarist whose vigorous downstrokes imbued his songs with power and tone, earning him World Champion Guitarist trophies at the 1970 and 1971 Union Grove Fiddlers Convention.

Edwards originally joined The Green Valley Ramblers with brothers Paul and Donald “Earl” Beane and Jerry Stuart. In 1971, Edwards and the Beanes enlisted Thomas “Snuffy” Smith, Charles Lee Conard and “Fiddlin’” Al McCanless to form The Bluegrass Experience, the award-winning combo celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. 

Success came early and though the band toured extensively and won the World Champion Bluegrass Band award in 1972 at the Union Grove festival, they won their most ardent followers closer to home during their nine-year Thursday night engagement at Chapel Hill’s Cat’s Cradle from 1972 through ’81.

A 1970 graduate of East Carolina University, Edwards worked in the Chatham County school district for more than 30 years. He taught N.C. history, health and physical education, and served several years as assistant principal. He loved coaching middle school football and basketball, and he enjoyed playing local pickup games for many years.

Tommy blended his love of history and music into his songwriting, contributing his original songs to his band and solo CDs, including 2011’s “North Carolina: History, Mystery, Lore and More.” Tommy’s solo albums feature such bluegrass luminaries as Bobby Hicks, Russell Johnson, Jim Mills, Matt Hooper, Jerry Stuart and Dewey Brown. In addition to playing with The Bluegrass Experience, Tommy played professionally with numerous friends and local musicians and enjoyed a late-in-life solo performance schedule at many venues, including the Roost at Fearrington Village. 

He also shared his passion with listeners on “Bluegrass Saturday Night,” the weekly broadcast he hosted for 16 years on WLHC-FM in Sanford. Tommy’s dedication to promoting and preserving North Carolina’s heritage was recognized by his induction into the prestigious North Caroliniana Society.

In 1981, Tommy and his wife, Cindy opened Edwards Antiques and Collectibles in downtown Pittsboro, where it continues today. Almost any afternoon, Tommy could be found behind the counter of the antiques store. Often as not, Tommy would be picking out a tune or holding an impromptu jam session with a friend or musician passing through town.

To younger musicians, including Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin, Chatham Rabbits’ Sarah McCombie, and Joseph Terrell of Mipso, Tommy was mentor, friend and musical partner. He was generous and patient, offering encouragement and complementing the musical savvy of his youthful friends. 

Affable, charming and sincere, with quick wit and grace,Tommy was a rare soul who never met a stranger. He was a small-town guy who loved and was loved by his community. In addition to donating his musical talent to organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, the Chatham Arts Council and the Southport Songwriter Festival, Tommy also devoted his time and ideas to local boards, serving Central Carolina Community College, Chatham Trades and Chatham Arts Council.

Tommy is predeceased by his parents, Roy A. and Lucy S. Edwards of Siler City. He is survived by his wife, Cindy; cousins Charlotte Wainwright, Stella Shelton, and Bill Shelton; and current Bluegrass Experience bandmates, Stan Brown, Mike Aldridge, Keith Thomas and Snuffy Smith.

Truly original, Tommy leaves a legacy of friends, music and memories North Carolina is not likely to experience again. Plans for a celebration of Tommy’s life are pending.

In lieu of flowers, please make donations in Tommy’s memory to Pinecone, Chatham Arts Council, or Southern Folklife Collection, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.