Clarence Ashley Biography


From the time of Tom Clarence Ashley's birth, he was surrounded by the old-time music and the ballads that had traveled the Atlantic along with America's early settlers. The Ashley family came to America from Ireland before the turn of the eighteenth century and settled in eastern Virginia. They later moved west to Ashe County, North Carolina. Shortly after the Civil War, Joe Ashley's son Enoch married Tas Robinson's daughter Martha (Mat). Enoch and "Mat" were a musical pair, both singing the old ballads which they had learned from family and friends. This marriage was blessed with three daughters who, like their parents, developed a love for music. Ary and Daisy played the banjo and sang, and Rosie-Belle sang with a beautifully clear voice.

In 1894, Rosie-Belle, the youngest daughter, married George McCurry, an accomplished fiddler. After Rosie-Belle and George had been married about a year, Enoch Ashley acquired information that George was married to at least one other young lady. George was run out of town and Rosie-Belle returned to her father's home. Later, it was suspected that George had given his name in marriage to at least four or five women. On September 29, 1895, shortly after Rosie-Belle returned to her father's home in Bristol, Tennessee, she gave birth to a son, Clarence Earle McCurry. After moving from Bristol back to Ashe County, North Carolina, Enoch Ashley's family finally settled in Mountain City, Tennessee, in 1899. Enoch found work in the local lumberyard and started a boarding house.

Although Rosie-Belle named her son Clarence Earl McCurry, no one knew him by that name. Young Clarence was full of energy and mischief, and his grandfather nicknamed him "Tommy Tiddy Waddy." As Clarence grew older, the "Tiddy Waddy" was dropped, but the "Tommy" stuck. Since Tom was raised by his grandfather and his mother, the Ashley name seemed the natural one to use. By the time he was grown, he had completely dropped the Earle from his name and was known as Thomas Clarence Ashley. When social security cards were printed, his was made out to Thomas C. Ashley McCurry and was later changed to Tom McCurry Ashley. He signed his name as Thomas C. Ashley or Tom C. Ashley. Because of the changing of his name and the fact that he later used some pseudonyms for recording, Tom Ashley and Clarence Ashley were often thought to be different people. The people of Johnson County knew him as Tom Ashley. Very few people in his home county even knew that his name was actually Clarence.

It was not until 1934, when Tom Ashley was 39 years old, that he saw his father for the first time. For many years, he had wondered what his father was like and where his father was. He had hoped that someday he would be able to meet George McCurry. While playing with a medicine show in Greenville, Tennessee, Ashley had his chance. McCurry's half-sister invited Ashley and the Doc out to her home for dinner. They accepted the invitation, and when they arrived at her house, McCurry was there. The first words that McCurry ever spoke to his son were, "My God, how can a man get that ugly in thirty-nine years?" Although there had been harsh feelings toward McCurry in the Ashley family, Ashley and his father became friends after this meeting.

When Ashley was a boy, he was ambitious and quick-witted. He dropped out of school in the fifth grade, but he appeared to be a smart boy and learned things exceptionally fast. The year that Ashley dropped out of school, his mother, Rosie-Belle, married a man by the name of Walsh. Times were hard in those days, and Ashley soon learned the value of money. The following is an amusing story that his stepfather, Tom Walsh, loved to tell about Ashley's boyhood.

Back when my dad was about ten, maybe twelve, his step-father told that he was pretty aggressive and 
ambitious, always doin' something.  He'd work for people a-choppin' wood and a-hoein' corn, and several 
things, for about ten cents a day, but he'd saved his money.  And, he had about, oh, in the neighborhood of 
maybe fifteen or twenty one-dollar bills.  And he had three or four little checks some of them twenty-five 
cents.  A few people even back then used checks, didn't amount to much.  But his stepfather said he came in 
one night and they was sittin' by the fireplace, and it was kinda cold, and after supper.  He said my dad 
got down in the floor, started pullin' his money out of his pocket.  He had it all wadded up down in his 
overall pocket.  He took those one-dollar bills one at a time and just spread'em out and got the wrinkles 
out of 'em and kept pressin' 'em and pressin' 'em 'til he got 'em real smooth.  And, said he just laid the 
checks over in a pile, they's two or three of 'em, and left them still wadded up, but he pressed that money 
out and turned it over and got it all pressed and all turned a certain way.  And, Old Man Tom Walsh said 
that he was sittin' there in a rockin' chair, and, of course, my dad was down in the floor.  He said he 
looked up at him and said, [Tom called his step-father Timmy] "Timmy, do you know what I'm goin' do with 
this?"
He said, "No, Tom, I don't, don't have no idea."
"Well" he said "this paper over here, [checks] it ain't no good.  I'm goin' to put it in the fireplace there 
and burn it."
"Well, what are you goin' do with that green stuff?"
He said, "I'm a-gonna make me a book out of it." 
So, he played around a while with the money and after while, he'd chew tobacker, he looked up at him and 
said, "Timmy, give me a chew of tobacker."
He said, "Tear a leaf out of your book, son, and go down to the store and get ye some."

Ashley not only learned the value of money, but he learned to play musical instruments. His first musical instrument was a "peanut banjo" which his grandfather gave him when Ashley was about eight years old. Aunt Ary and Aunt Daisy taught him to play a little banjo; and at the age of twelve, he learned to play the guitar. Ashley learned many of the songs that he knew when he was quite young. The Ashley's often had people in to sing and play the old songs, and it was seldom that work in the neighborhood was not accompanied with singing and picking.

In those days, the people around Mountain City and Shouns shared their work and their fun. The women often gathered for quilting parties, bean stringings, and apple butter makings, while the men gathered for barn raisings, house buildings, and harvesting various crops. The entire community was often involved in events such as a "lassy-makin." All of these events were usually accompanied by music; and when there was music to be played or a song to be sung, Ashley was right in the middle of it. Ashley jokingly referred to his oldest songs as "lassy-makin' tunes". He tuned his banjo to what he called "saw-mill key" or "lassy-makin'" tuning: DCGDG (starting with the first string and ending with the shorter fifth string).

When Ashley was sixteen, a medicine show came to Mountain City, and before the show left town, Ashley had joined the show as a banjo picker and singer. He first traveled with Doc White Cloud, supposedly a full-blooded Indian. The medicine show had a great deal of influence on Ashley. It was there where he first performed professionally and from that time on he made his living mainly with his music. The medicine show was a seasonal occupation operating during the summer months. It toured small towns in the rural areas, stopping at each place for about one to two weeks. The length of time was determined by how long the people continued to buy medicine. Some of the towns included on the circuit were Hampton, Mountain City, and Greenville, all in Tennessee, and Abingdon, Virginia. If there was a fair going on, the medicine show usually set up outside the fair to sell the medicine. The medicine show started with the entertainers, usually two, on stage doing songs, jokes, and comedy routines. It was with the medicine show that Ashley learned his black-faced comedy act, Rastus. People began to gather as the entertainment got underway on the stage, a platform attached to a wagon. Since there were no seats for people, everyone stood to watch the show. There were usually two entertainers and a Doc. The Doc was always the head of the show. It was his secret formula that prepared the cure-all medicine.

The medicine was nothing more than colored water; however, some people were convinced that it cured their pains. People were "suckered in" to buying this medicine by the sales pitch of the Doc. The medicine cost one dollar a bottle and was guaranteed to cure everything from headaches to gout. Along with the medicine, small boxes of candy were sold for ten cents a box.

After the entertainers gathered a crowd, the Doc took over the show. He told "tear-jerking" stories about how they had found a little baby near death. Its parents had been killed, and it had gone for days without milk or food. When they found the baby, it was barely alive. After a few days on the Doc's medicine, it became a healthy, bouncing baby again. Another pitch was about a little girl whose entire body had become consumed with worms, and the medicine cured her within days.

Prior to coming out on stage, the Doc rubbed something on his hands that would cause the eyes to burn and water. As he told his stories, he would rub his eyes, and the tears flowed profusely. By the time the Doc finished two or three stories, all of the women in the audience were crying. Anyone who wanted a bottle of medicine held up his hand. The entertainers went out into the audience, and distributed the medicine, and the candy, and collected the money. The Doc continued to tell sad stories, rub his eyes and cry. At the end of the show, the Doc and the entertainers met in the wagon and counted the "take" for the night.

It might have seemed that these people were completely ignorant to be taken in by such a hoax, but there were reasons for their vulnerability. There were few, if any, medical facilities in the towns which the medicine shows visited. The people had known sickness and pain that nothing would cure. There were mothers who had worried about their sick children to the point of being desperate for any sort of cure. Perhaps, some bought the medicine because everyone else was buying, or they felt that the entertainment was worth the price of a bottle of medicine.

Ashley traveled in the summers with the same medicine show from 1911 to 1943. The ownership of the show changed several times, but the only two Docs that the people of Johnson County can remember were Doc Whitecloud and Doc Hauer. Ashley was never the owner of the show; he was one of the entertainers. Apparently, some class distinction existed in the group because the Doc traveled in a smart horse-drawn carriage, while Ashley and the other entertainer rode in a prairie-schooner covered wagon along with the platform, lanterns, and rigging for the stage. In addition to Ashley's duties as singer, comedian, banjoist, and guitarist, he was responsible for hauling water and feeding the horses.

The medicine shows did not afford the opportunity to become wealthy, but Ashley managed to make a living during the summers by traveling with the shows. During the remainder of the year, Ashley would organize a local band and play wherever they could make a few dollars. When Ashley was in his early teens, he and some other Johnson Countians organized a brass band. They gave shows to earn enough money to pay their instructor to come to Shouns School to teach them. They earned enough money from these shows to pay for their uniforms, instruments, and lessons, with a few dollars left over occasionally.

When Ashley could not earn enough money playing music, he took a job at anything he could find. He was working for the J. Walter Wright Lumber Company at Shouns, Tennessee, when he became friends with a man named Osborne from Ashe County, North Carolina. It was through Osborne that he met his future wife, Hettie. Hettie was Osborne's sister, and about a year after Ashley met her, he married her. Ashley was seventeen, and Hettie was fourteen. They bought a small tract of land from Denver Miller at Shouns and settled there. Ashley continued to make their living by traveling with the medicine shows in the summers and playing with local bands. Hettie stayed home and raised a garden. They had plenty of fresh vegetables in the summer, and she canned and preserved food for the winter. They kept a cow for milk, and they kept chickens for eggs and meat. They responsibility of caring for the garden, milking the cow, gathering the eggs, and killing a chicken now and then usually fell to Hettie since Ashley was "on the road" much of the time. When there was not enough demand for music to make a living in Johnson County, Ashley set out on a career of 'busting' (commonly called 'busking' in the British Isles), singing in the streets, on the edge of carnivals, outside of the main building of mines on pay days, etc." During that time, he played a great deal with Banman Grayson, an accomplished fiddler from Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee. Also, he played with the Cook Sisters from Boone, North Carolina, and with the Greer Sisters. In these trios, Ashley played guitar while the sisters played mandolin and fiddle. Ashley formed a band with Dwight and Dewey Bell known as "The West Virginia Hotfoots." It was with the band known as "The Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers", however, that Tom did his first recordings. This band consisted of Tom Ashley, guitar; Clarence Green, fiddle; Gwen Foster, harmonica; Will Abernathy, autoharp and harmonica; and Walter David, lead guitar. Ashley did not record any solo records until he was a member of a group called "Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots." This group consisted of Byrd Moore, finger style banjo or lead guitar; Clarence Greene, fiddle or guitar; and Clarence T. Ashley, guitar or banjo. In October, 1929, after the group had finished a recording session with Columbia, Ashley volunteered some "lassy-makin' tunes," one of which was "The Coo-Coo Bird." The recording company was most impressed with Tom and later wired him to come to New York to make further recordings. They offered him a contract but his friends were not included. Ashley rejected the offer because he felt that they should take all of them or none of them. Tom's son J.D. thinks that his dad might have become a famous recording star if he had accepted the offer of that contract.

In 1925, Ashley met Dock Walsh at a fiddlers' contest in Boone, North Carolina; and shortly after that, "The Carolina Tar Heels" was formed. The group consisted of Tom Ashley, guitar and usually vocal lead; Dock Walsh, banjo and occasionally vocal lead; and Gwen or Garley Foster, second guitar and harmonica. The entire group recorded eighteen records with Victor in the late twenties and early thirties. In the early thirties, Ashley and Gwen Foster recorded for Vocalion. Gwen Foster was a musical genius in those days; however, he drank too heavily at times. Tom would laugh and tell about sobering him up on cider and moonshine before they went to play.

After 1933, Ashley did not record again until 1960. There are two possible explanations for the abrupt ending of his recording career in the thirties. One explanation is that Ashley was the kind of man who would not take orders from anyone. He did not like the idea of having to follow the orders of the recording companies, therefore he quit. Another possible explanation is the great depression of the thirties. Recording companies, like many other businesses, were operating under grave financial circumstances. Many artists had to turn to other means of making a living.

It is difficult to realize what the depression years were like without having lived them. Those years were hard years for everyone including the Ashleys. People were barely able to provide food for their families, and almost no one had money to spend on entertainment. Ashley's main income source no longer existed. He went to West Virginia and started working in the mines, which was the only work he could find. When he saved enough money to send for Hettie, she closed up the house at Shouns, Tennessee, and went to West Virginia to join him. Ashley rented a small place and they planned to "Shack" there until times were better. Three days after Hettie arrived, the mine closed, and Ashley was out of a job. The only food of any amount that they had was what Hettie had preserved at home. The food was in Tennessee, and they were in West Virginia without enough money to get home. They stayed in West Virginia for eight months before Ashley could save enough money to bring his family home. During that time, he earned the money that kept them from starving and the money that eventually brought them home by playing for occasional dances. Once they returned home, Hettie's buried potatoes and canned food sustained them.

It was after these hard years that Ashley, a strong republican, voted for a democrat for the first time. He and his wife felt that Roosevelt offered a little hope for the country, and they voted for him. Ashley had a truck and was able to get a job hauling commodities furnished by the federal government. These commodities were hauled by truck from Johnson City, Tennessee to Mountain City and distributed to the people in Johnson County.

In the early forties, times were better, and musicians began to return to their professions. Charlie Monroe hired Ashley as a black-faced comedian for the group known as "The Kentucky Pardners." It was with this group that Ashley met Tex Isley with whom he played again in the 1960's.

Although music was Ashley's life, he had many other occupations. He raised tobacco, raise cattle, hauled furniture, coal, and beans, and worked at sawmills. He was one of the best at ricking lumber for air-drying. The degree of perfection with which he ricked lumber often earned him a job when twenty others were waiting in line ahead of him.

In the late forties, Ashley injured the index finger of his right hand, and the finger became stiff. Thinking he could no longer play, he laid up his banjo and guitar. He started teaching his songs to Clint Howard, who played guitar, and Fred Price, who played fiddle. He continued to attend fiddlers' conventions where he could once again see his "old cronies" and talk about music. Had it not been for a chance meeting with Ralph Rinzler at The Old Time Fiddlers' Convention at Union Grove, North Carolina, in 1960, perhaps thousands of people, who later thrilled to his banjo picking, singing and witticisms, would not have had that opportunity. Rinzler, a man devoted to traditional folk music, struck up a conversation with Ashley. Learning only that Tom was an Ashley, Rinzler asked if he knew a Clarence Ashley. Ashley said that he thought he had heard of him but was not quite sure. Rinzler talked about how much he liked the early recording of "The Coo-Coo Bird." He told about writing letters and sending telegrams to Clarence Ashley at Mountain City only to have them returned saying there was no such person. Ashley admitted his true identity, but he would not play an instrument at all and would sing only one song, "Put My Little Shoes Away." After writing to Ashley and calling him many times, Rinzler and Eugene Earle came to Shouns in September of that year to record him. Ashley would not play, but he sang many songs, which were released on Folkways Records. Rinzler was able to convince Ashley of a sincere interest by the people in the cities in his kind of music. Ashley picked up his banjo once more, and a very active career followed in the next few years. Ashley and his friends appeared before large audiences in cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and they recorded two albums for Folkways. The group that performed in the sixties included now world-famous Doc Watson of Deep Gap, North Carolina. Ashley's arrangement of "The Coo-Coo Bird," with Doc Watson on guitar and Ashley on the banjo, often left huge audiences completely hushed. In May of 1966, the highlights of Ashley's career came when he and Tex Isley, a talented guitarist from Reidsville, North Carolina, made a musical tour through England with eighteen engagements on the itinerary.

Ashley had been invited to go back to England the following summer and was planning to go, but he became sick and found that he had cancer. On June 2, 1967, four days before he was to go to England for the second tour, Ashley died. The life and career of one of the best traditional musicians was part of the past.

At the present in 1973, Hettie Ashley lives on the farm at Shouns, which holds many memories of her life with Tom Ashley. She is a gracious and charming lady, and many professional people and friends who visited Ashley remember her for her friendliness and hospitality. J.D. Ashley, Tom's son, lives with his wife Hazel next door to his mother and has been a successful businessman in Johnson County for a number of years. Their son Joe graduated from the University of Tennessee and is an auditor for the federal government in Atlanta, Georgia. Eva Ashley Moore, Tom's daughter, lives in Saltville, Virginia. She is marred to a retired railroad engineer. Their son Tommy, named for his grandfather, is a computer program editor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Ashley was buried on his little hillside near his home, the place he requested to be buried and the subject of a song he wrote entitled "Little Hillside."

- Tom Clarence Ashley: An Appalachian Folk Musician (Masters Thesis: East Tennessee State University)
- Written by Minnie M. Miller, August 1973

Update: January, 2007.

Hettie Ashley passed away in September of 1975.
J.D. Ashley passed away in 1979.
Eva Ashley Moore passed away in April of 2003.
Her husband Robert Moore passed away in February of 1998.
Tommy Moore still resides in Oak Ridge, Tennessee as a computer systems specialist.
I am his son Scott "Tom" Moore, maintainer of this website, and live in Atlanta, GA
with my wife, Emily, working as a Computer Programmer for IBM Internet Security Systems.