If there was a Jimi Hendrix of country fiddlers, it was Tommy Jackson. And if square dance music had its Eric Clapton, then it was Tommy Jackson. Would-be stars on the country fiddle snapped up his records as fast as he could release them during the late '50s and early '60s. This makes it a special tragedy that Jackson isn't very well remembered today, except by his fellow musicians. In his time, from the end of the 1940s until the beginning of the 1960s, he was the first important session fiddle player in Nashville, and the best and busiest violinist in country music, working on records by Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, and George Jones, among numerous others. One of the sad ironies of his career was that his influence led to Jackson's own forced retirement -- so many younger players followed in his footsteps that he found precious little work during the final decade of his life and died in relative obscurity.
Thomas Lee Jackson was born in Birmingham, AL, but his family moved to Nashville before he was a year old, and he grew up there listening all of the best country music that local radio and the Grand Ole Opry had to offer. Among his favorite groups growing up were George Wilkerson and the Fruit Jar Drinkers and Arthur Smith's Dixieliners. His father was a barber, not a musician, but he encouraged the boy -- by age seven, Tommy was playing fiddle tunes at local bars for nickels and dimes, and at 12 he was going on tour with John Wright and Kitty Wells. He formed a group called the Tennessee Mountaineers and became a regular guest on Nashville's WSIX. By 17, he was playing on the Opry with Curly Williams and His Georgia Peach Pickers. A year later, however, his budding musical career was interrupted when Jackson joined the U.S. Army Air Force -- he spent 1944 and 1945 as a tail gunner in a B-29 flying missions in the Pacific, earning four Bronze Stars and an Air Medal.
When Jackson returned to civilian life, he re-entered the music world immediately, touring with various stars of the Opry. He didn't like life on the road, however, and in 1947 he hooked up with producer Milton Estes, who had a radio show on WSM in Nashville. Jackson became a member of Red Foley's band, the Cumberland Valley Boys, and was regularly featured on his broadcasts.
His fiddle playing was in demand, and with the other members of the Cumberland Valley Boys, he began working recording sessions. Jackson played on Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light" in 1947, providing the distinctive fiddle introduction, and later appeared on such records as "Lovesick Blues." He also played sessions with Red Foley ("Satisfied Mind" was one of the resulting singles). The session work only increased after the group moved to Cincinnati, OH, becoming regular participants on recordings at King Records. Jackson played on records by Grandpa Jones, Cowboy Copas, and Hawkshaw Hawkins, among others. In the early '50s, he made his first records for Mercury, which sold well, and in 1953 he signed to Dot Records.
Over the next ten years, Jackson cut 11 albums and 30 singles, hooking into the burgeoning square dance boom. The recordings all sold well and were swept up eagerly by aspiring fiddle players, for whom Jackson rapidly became a major inspiration. In 1954, he left Foley and began playing sessions with Ray Price and Faron Young, and Jackson virtually invented the standard modern fiddle accompaniment.
During the 1960s, Jackson was one of the busiest fiddle players in country music, appearing on hundreds of recordings apart from his own solo sides. The end of the square dance boom saw a slackening off of his own records' sales and production, but he continued to be one of the Nashville session musicians most heavily in demand.
Jackson became a victim of his own success during the 1970s, as the growing number of session fiddlers -- their career inspired by him -- made it difficult to find work. He'd stopped playing by the middle of the decade, and he was virtually forgotten at the time of his death in 1979, outside of the Nashville music community and the ranks of Opry musicians, among whom he'd once been a star.
Jackson is remembered today primarily by country music scholars. The acquisition of Dot Records by MCA Records has opened the way for reissues of his solo material on compact disc. ~ Bruce Eder