One of the things I enjoy most about musical history is how often you can find interesting connections. I ran across one recently while reading a piece about a currently popular folk/country group, Old Crow Medicine Show. It seems that the legendary Doc Watson (who died last year) helped the group get its start. That in turn reminded me that Watson had received an early career boost of his own from an old-time country star, Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley, who’d started his career way back in the early days by performing in — you guessed it — medicine shows.
Born as Clarence Earl McCurry in rural Tennessee before the turn of the century, he picked up the nickname ‘Tom’ as a child, and by adulthood had adopted his mother’s maiden name, Ashley. (His father, who apparently was married several times without bothering to divorce any of his wives, had disappeared years earlier.) He would perform under various combinations of his names through the years, but eventually became mostly known as Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley.
Ashley was in his mid-teens when he first began appearing in traveling medicine shows in the years leading up to World War I, playing banjo or guitar and singing in his country tenor. It was a type of entertainment that had been popular for a long time in rural America, and the experience he gained was invaluable. Athough he eventually married and put down stakes — even working a regular job at times — he continued to pursue a musical career on into the 1920s, still hitting the road shows occasionally and also playing in various string bands. He also made some records with various groups, and late in the decade was able to break out as a solo recording star too.
Although his records did well, things gradually went went downhill and during the 1940s he pretty much retired from the business. But even though he had to make a living outside of music, he still sat in with country bands once in a while, playing and singing and even doing a little country comedy. But he came back strong in 1961 when he joined up with the then-young Doc Watson. Their subsequent performances and the records they made together got Watson’s career off to a rip-roaring start and revitalized Ashley’s final years. By the time he died from cancer in 1967, he’d even performed at Carnegie Hall.