It's pretty much a truism that session musicians and sidemen don't get the respect they deserve, but it's especially true in the case of Bobby Thompson, who died last month at the age of 67. A brilliant, innovative banjo player and rhythm guitarist, Thompson was a quiet craftsman and revolutionary whose work is enjoyed by millions, yet whose name is known only to the most dedicated and perceptive among them.

Born in Converse, S.C., in 1937, Thompson was barely past 20 when he participated in the epochal late 1950s Starday recordings of Jim & Jesse—epochal in part because they included, especially on the instrumentals "Border Ride" and ""Dixie Hoedown," the first recorded glimmerings of what would become an alternative to the foundational bluegrass banjo style of Earl Scruggs. Where Scruggs' approach more than occasionally demanded the sacrifice of melodic detail in favor of rhythmic drive, Thompson took a different line, modifying the standard three-finger "roll" of the right hand to catch more melody notes. It might sound like a modest accomplishment, but it wasn't. Rather, it opened a door—at first to a more precise rendering of fiddle tunes, and eventually to more intricate, far-reaching playing that would be seized upon by banjoists from Vic Jordan to Bela Fleck, who not only created their own music, but adorned a surprising number of country music recordings, too.

Yet, in part because Thompson was drafted into military service in the early 1960s, and in part because Bill Keith had arrived at a similar method around the same time and wound up taking a high-profile job with Bill Monroe, this powerful new approach was dubbed "Keith style" by many who were unaware of Thompson's role.

Banjo players, on the other hand—especially those around Nashville—knew the score. "I think [Thompson] has done a lot for the banjo," Scruggs told The Tennessean last year. "He was the first one to play that style of banjo that I ever heard. And there has never been anyone to top him." Fleck, interviewed for the same piece, concurred. "He made a huge contribution to the moving forward of the banjo as a musical instrument."

The occasion for the piece was a benefit concert for Thompson, organized by Jesse McReynolds; at the time, the musician had been sidelined by multiple sclerosis for more than a decade and a half. By the time he was diagnosed, though, he'd not only won the respect of those who paid attention to the arcane world of banjo pioneers, he'd gone on to a second career as one of Music City's busiest and most valued session musicians. Beginning in the late '60s, after retiring from a second stint with Jim & Jesse, Thompson had added acoustic guitar to his arsenal, contributing a subtle new component to the era's characteristic sounds. Working on as many as 15 sessions a week on both instruments, he also joined the staff band of Hee Haw, where his quiet demeanor was belied by his sophisticated banjo work. And in the early 1970s, he joined with fellow session players like Charlie McCoy and Weldon Myrick to create Area Code 615, recording two startling albums that meshed country, rock, bluegrass and more in ways that have yet to be fully appreciated.

Sidemen, especially those as modest as Thompson, know their legacies might well be unacknowledged once they've passed. Still, there needs to be a place where the contributions of Bobby Thompson to banjo playing, to bluegrass, to country music—to American music as a whole—are highlighted and honored. Until it arrives, his memory will be cherished by those who already know just how big those contributions were.

—Jon Weisberger

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!