About The Artist
Tommy Faile played rhythm guitar and sang for decades primarily in the Carolinas. A native of Lancaster, South Carolina, Faile got his first guitar while in elementary school, went to work in a textile mill at fifteen, and joined Fisher Hendley's Aristocratic Pigs band at seventeen at WIS in Columbia, South Carolina.
After a year with them he joined Byron Parker's Mountaineers (the Hired Hands from 1948), a position that apparently involved less heavy traveling. He remained with this group for five years.
It should be noted that Byron died from complications of a heart attack on October 6, 1946 in Columbia, SC; he was only 36. The heart attack occurred on Saturday October 2, 1948.
Tommy began to make steps to becoming a known talent. In January 1949, he participated in a Horace Heidt talent show. The audition was part of the "Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Night" to be held in Columbia, SC at 8pm on Monday, January 31 at the Columbia Township Auditorium.
News reports of the results the contest indicated that Tommy Faile, noted as a guitarist and vocalist and member of the 'Hired Hands' on WIS took second place in the third round and received $5.00 as his award.
In March of 1949, Tommy took part in another talent contest. Tex Ritter and other Capitol Records executives took part in a talent hunt at the Armory in Charlotte. Tex emceed the event which took over seven hours. From that effort, Capitol Records signed a half-dozen new recording contracts. The acts that signed contracts were: The Price Brothers (of Charlotte), the Clear Tones (of Raleigh), Tommy Faile and the Hired Hands (of Columbia, SC), Jim Eanes (of Martinsville, VA), Golden Wing Quartet (of Shelby, NC), Thomas L. Mumford (of Durham, NC) and the Johnson Singers (from Sanford, NC). Over 70 acts were recorded at the audition event according to Spencer Rackley, Capitol branch manager. Around 2,000 people saw the tryouts which started at 1:30pm and ending around 8:00pm Sunday.
Capitol Records promotion manager, Dick Linke, said the audition was the first time Capitol had tried it. He stated that since they felt it was so successful, it would be repeated in Greenville, SC on April 15-16 and would be part of a nationwide Mutual network broadcast.
A photo published on March 31, 1949 shows Tommy Faile and Jim Eanes signing their contracts with Capitol Records. Standing behind them were Tex Ritter, Spencer Rackley and Lee Gillette.
The artists that were signed by Capitol after the audition were recorded at the studios of radio station WSOC. Tommy Faile and the Hired Hands from WIS recorded two tunes, "There's A Petal Missing From My Heart" and "Take Me Back Down South." Other artists that did recordings included Mel and Stan, the Kentucky Twins, Jim Eanes, the Johnson Gospel Singers, James and Martha Carson and the Price Brothers Quartet.
When television came into the Carolina Piedmont at WBTV Charlotte in 1951, Tommy joined Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith and his Carolina Crackerjacks, a band that would become the major country music force in that region. News reports indicated that Tommy joined the Smith band at the end of February 1951 and was relocating from Lancaster, SC. That same article mentions that Tommy's wife was the former Frances Stivender.
Arthur Smith and the Cracker Jacks were the featured act at the 28th annual "Singing on the Mountain" on Sunday, June 22, 1952 at Grandfather Mountain, located near Linville, NC. The article indicated that backing up Arthur were Ralph Smith, SOnny Smith and Tommy Faile. The all-day event usually drew about 25,000 attendees and was described as a 'religious singing convention.'
In an article highlighting an appearance before the Charlotte Rotary Club, readers learn that Arthur's MGM recording of "Guitar Boogie" sold over 2,500,000 records. At the time, Don Reno was part of the group as banjo player.
There was another aspect to Smith's group that perhaps displayed a separate identity and spotlighted the group's devotion to playing gospel music. The Crossroads Quartet was comprised of Arthur Smith, Sonny Smith, Ralph Smith and Tommy Faile. But they were also looking for new talent. At one of their personal appearances, they discovered their new tenor and she became the only female member of the group, Carol Honeycutt. She was only a sophomore in high school at the time. After she graduated from high school in 1956, she began singing with the group full time in 1956. In 1957, the group added another new voice and little Wayne Haas of Lenoir, NC joined the 'quartet'. He was still in school and would commute from his home to Charlotte (70 miles) to appear on the weekly television show. But an article indicated that his family moved to Charlotte and he enrolled as a junior at Central High School. Another unique aspect about the "quartet" was that Arthur Smith wrote the tunes they performed and recorded. In 1957, they released an album called "Inspirational Gems" on MGM that included 12 tunes.
Tommy spent eighteen years with Smith and his name became quite well known as a result. Other members of the Crackerjacks included Arthur's brothers, Ralph and Sonny, and at times banjo picker Don Reno, Ray "Duck" Atkins and wife Lois among others.
In early February of 1960, Tommy was a week long guest on the "Arthur Godfrey Time" radio show. The article noted that Tommy was the first of a 'series of talented artists from CBS affiliates' to be featured.
In addition to his musical contributions to Arthur Smith's group, Tommy Faile also had a humorous side as well. He and Ralph Smith were known as "Brother Ralph" and "Cousin Phudd", "Counselors of the Airways." Writer Larry Harding of the Charlotte News teased readers that with the type of humor they would see and hear:
Want to know how to beat the high cost of living? How to get 60 miles to a gallon of gas? How fit a square peg in a round hole? How to determin the ratio of humans to hippotamuses in Outer Mongolia?
Mr. Harding further noted that Brother Ralph got his education from the 'college of hard knocks' and that Cousin Phudd furnished Ralph with most of the knocks. They were part of the 7:00am show "Carolina Calling." Harding further notes that the only thing the two did not do was lend money.
Mr. Harding cited the endorsement of the pair by Arthur Smith: "If folks'll just listen closely to what Brother Ralph and Cousin Phudd say, then go and do the closest thing opposite to what they suggest, they'll be alright. These boys practice what we call — in Crackerjack jargon — negative psychology."
Tommy explained a bit more about this comedic act in a 1968 interview. They would don their academic robes and give 'advice' to the 'weary, the lovelorn and the problem-ridden. Each day, Tommy (as Cousin Phudd) would reads a letter, allegedly written by a viewer, but was really written by Brother Ralph (again, based allegedly on real, true-life experiences). Then the two of them would comment on the author and the letter in purely psychological terms. Tommy said simply, "We just kinda tell it like it is."
Another example of their humor was found in an article after the passing of Ralph Smith in December 1981. They were doing a commercial for Bost Bread. Tommy's line was "If it's fresher than Bost, it's still in the stove." But Brother Ralph quickly steps in and says, "Oven, dummy, OVEN."
Faile had made his six first solo recordings on Capitol in 1949, but he subsequently cut several numbers with the Smith group on MGM, Starday, and perhaps Dot.
In 1961, research indicates that Arthur Smith had built Charlotte's first recording studio and he did it in six months for $30,000. The inspiration behind the effort was that Arthur did not want to transport the group to the nearest facilities - Nashville or New York City. Their heavy schedule also weighed in on the decision. Arthur indicated that the recording studio used 14 microphones (Telefunken) and each mike was three mikes for stereo. The control room had monaural and stereo recorders, two to four track. Pultec equalizers as well as custom built equalizers and condensers. The studio had four echo chambers and the ceiling was built out of hard wood, providing a natural echo chamber.
Dick Banks of the Charlotte Observer noted that the night he visited the studio, the Crackerjacks recorded a song called "Sssh" with Arthur on lead guitar, Tommy Faile doing rhythm guitar work, Wayne Haas on bass, Ralph Smith on the organ, David Reece on piano and Don Richards on drums. Another tune they recorded was "Droopy" in their session that went from 7:30pm to 11:30pm.
In a 1968 interview by an unnamed writer, Tommy revealed some details about his career and life. When he became an adult, he started in a cotton mill. He toiled as a sweeper, cloth inspector, part-time weaver and loom fixer trainee for over a year. It was in 1946 that he joined Fisher Hendley's act, even making $8.00 less a week than the $48.00 he was getting working at the mill. But the work was hard - daily radio shows in Columbia, SC and then a 'grueling itinerary' of one and two room schoolhouses around the state. After a year of that effort, he became one of the Hired Hands at WIS.
Previously, we have learned he and his wife made the choice to begin working with Arthur Smith's group and move to Charlotte. He told readers in those days, their personal appearances could be anywhere in the Southeast and would usually take two private planes. One such trip, it was so foggy they flew only 50 feet above the ground to see the power lines, flying from Birmingham to Columbia. He said his group got off in Columbia and rented a car to make the rest of the trip.
Tommy also indicated that another side to their popularity was being asked to do commercials. For a time, Tommy and other Crackerjacks recorded a series of commercials for Kent cigarettes that were shown on network television.
On the personal side, the 1968 article revealed that Tommy and his wife had two 15 year old twin boys - Gary and Greg as well as a daughter named Lisa, age four and a half.
Tommy once thought his gig with Arthur Smith wouldn't last more than two or three years, but then said, he thought he would hang around for his 20th anniversary and get his watch.
As a songwriter, he authored the ghostly trucker song "Phantom 309" which in 1967 became a top ten hit for Red Sovine. It also inspired Lee Guthrie (cousin of Arlo Guthrie) to open a lounge/bar called Phantom 309 in Nashville, Tennessee in 1997.
Another ghostly number associated with Faile was "The Legend of the Brown Mountain Light" that he recorded back in 1961; it was written by Scott Wiseman. He thought it would be a hit, and it was, but not for Tommy. He had recorded it for a small independent label that really did not have the capacity to handle a large distribution. His recording quickly sold about 5,000 copies in the Carolinas that got the attention of a national label to bid for distribution. But it became apparent Tommy's label was not up to the task. Sonny James recorded the song as did the Kingston Trio. Sonny's version peaked at number 28 on the Cash Box Country Chart in 1962. The sales of Tommy's version trickled off and ultimately sold about 20,000 copies. But Tommy was quoted in a 1968 interview about the experience: "It took me a while to get over that. But I got over it. You can't brood over a thing like that or you might miss the next opportunity."
Dan Huntley wrote that the "mysterious lights that glow at certain times of year in Linville Gorge near Morgantown, NC he had seen as a kid. Tommy told Dan that it took him a couple of tries and he finally saw them. He said it scared him and he had no idea where those lights came from.
In that November 1968 article / interview, he reveals some of his thoughts about his life and career. "I've got everything important to me and I've got something most of the people in Nashville don't have — that's peace and quiet time with my wife and children. ... I still have the desire to make the big record, but my desire isn't as keen as that of a hungrier man."
He spoke of an audition with the Grand Ole Opry that fell through. That opportunity came about in December of 1949 when he and his wife were in Nashville on their honeymoon. The audition was scheduled for late in the day, but Tommy decided not to show up. He explained, "The heater on my car had gone out on me. I wanted to get back across the mountains to North Carolina before nightfall. I was afraid we might freeze. Besides, when you're first married you are pretty well satisfied with things as they are." In another article we learn that the agent that was to meet them at their hotel was basically a no-show. He drove up just as Tommy and his wife were checking out and he informed the agent of his plans. The agent then left and Carl Smith ended up getting the audition.
He was reflective in that interview. He recalled getting a $3.95 Sears-Roebuck guitar as a gift from his father who worked in the mills as a loom fixer. He remembers the lack of confidence he had early on, learning how to deal with nerves and sometimes getting sick on stage. He mentions the days with the Hired Hands, traveling to various schools for dances. The summer travels were as hot as you might expect. The guys would take off their shirts and shoes to try and stay cool and having to share the seats in the car with the bass fiddle. Tommy reflects, "When I look back at what I've done, I think I've done pretty well in this business. Pretty well."
In 1969, Tommy struck out on his own with a TV show on WBTV that he kept for six years. An article at the time indicated that for Tommy, it was a hard decision to leave a situation where it felt like he was with a family after 18 years. The show debuted on September 27, 1969 at 7:00pm on channel 3 (WBTV) in Charlotte. Backing Tommy on the show was jazz pianist Loonis McGlohon and his band. Tommy's show was to feature country and western ballads, hymns and comedy sketches.
When he first started out, Tommy told Emery Wister in a 1969 article that country music was a 'dirty word'. He said, "When I got into the business, people who sang country were looked down on as something low. And it was rough." By the time he got his own show over two decades later, Tommy noted, "Country music has been upgraded so much since then. Today it's country and western, bluegrass and the borderline between country-western and pop. Some people call it country pop."
In his interview with Mr. Wister, he tells readers who was in the band on the show. There was Jim Brown, Paul Collier, Steve Dinnery, Bill Griffin and the previously mentioned Loonis McGlohon.
The show was not done 'live'. It was put together in three days. The solos on the show are taped on Monday with the band working three or four hours in the afternoon. The comedy bits were taped on Tuesdays. Then the editing begins and the final show is wrapped up on the third day. The show ended sometime in 1975, a victim of 'ratings', something many shows had to deal with over the years. A review of television listings shows that August 29, 1975 was the last show to air.
He tells Mr. Wister his approach to his recording. "I try to do my songs with feeling. I listen to lyrics now more than I used to. I listen to myself singing to get myself in the proper mood. Then I record the song."
Another recollection of that first guitar came out. He was ten years old when he got it and he wanted to practice all the time. He would climb into bed and pull the covers over him to try and muffle the sound. But still, the family complained. His dad worked the second shift at the mill and came home around 10:00pm and wanted peace and quiet. His dad would bawl him out but he never told Tommy to quit. His dad taught him how to tune a guitar.
Tommy also had another television show called Saturday Showcase that he did with Ken Linkler. This appears to have run from 1976 to mid-1977 or so. Another show or perhaps special was "Parkin' - The Tommy Faile Way" where Tommy and his group visited various Carolina camp sites.
During this period, promotional ads were touting the appearance of Tommy and his band at auto dealers to headline / spotlight automobile sales.
Later he did deejay work at WLVK with a program called Country Gold. He continued to appear often in the Charlotte area. He took part in the Charlotte Country Music Story two-day program as one of the younger artists on the show that included nearly every living musical pioneer artist except for the still estranged Blue Sky Boys. He also reunited with Arthur Smith a few times before his own death.
One such reunion with Arthur Smith was with the Crossroads Quartet for a Christmas performance at the Calvary Church. The Crossroads Quartet, Wayne Haas, Tommy Faile and Lois Atkins, were to join Smith in a gospel hymn-singing revival of "The Arthur Smith Show", which was a Charlotte tv program that aired from 1951 to 1981.
Tommy appeared in one movie, providing his musical talents along with Arthur Smith's group. It was a movie released in 1980 called "Lady Gray", starring Ginger Alden. It was produced by Earl Owensby, a native of Shelby, NC.
Artists would do benefit shows. Tommy was no exception. He would perform on the holiday shows to benefit the needy. One such appearance inspired a fan to write a letter to the editor. Tommy did a benefit show for a young man who had been mentally handicapped since birth but was then dealing with bone cancer. Tommy appeared at the Country Palace near Bessemer City and gave of his time not only an hour of performing, but spent the entire afternoon. The writer noted he took charge of things so the event turned out beautifully. The writer wrote, "Thank you Tommy, for helping make a good day for many people.
Another example showed up in a letter to the editor telling readers to "Be Proud Of Faile." The reader wanted to recognize Tommy for something other than his musical, comedy and business ability. The writer pointed out that Tommy was devoting his free Saturdays to visiting and entertaining in area nursing homes — no publicity, no fee; just bringing pleasure and joy to some of very deserving and less fortunate senior citizens. The letter writer saw this in person when she visited her mother at one such center and saw "Tommy's wit, playing and singing bring alertness, recognition, conversation and participation from patients wo seldom respond to visits.
In 1981, readers learned that Tommy's sons kind of proved him wrong about their musical tastes being just a hobby. His sons, Gary and Greg, were playing drums and lead guitar, respectively as part of Moe Bandy's backup band, The Rodeo Clowns.
Tommy continued with his songwriting, sometimes of a topic that relates to folks and a larger audience. One such song was about "Charlotte's Killer Ramp." It seems more than several truckers had met an untimely fate navigating the access ramp that joined I-85 North and I-77 North. In 1981, there had been three accidents since it was 'fixed' two years prior. It seemed that from 1975 to when I-77 was opened to 1979, there had been 11 accidents involving trucks overturned. It was legendary talk among the truckers. And it inspired one of Tommy's songwriting efforts. The song was called "Seventy Seven and Eighty Five." An editorial provided a snippet of the lyrics:
"I'd rather pull a mountain run
The editorial tells readers there is no question it was poorly designed and just doesn't work. They went as far as to recommend that the next truck that overturned, the state simply buy the truck and leave it on the ramp. "It wouldn't necessarily contribute to highway beautification, but it would drive home the message better than any sign ever could." The years had passed, he was older, no longer the thin person, the hair had grayed and he was still active, singing and playing his guitar.
In a 1995 article by Joe DePriest, Tommy reveals one of his favorite moments about his songwriting efforts. He was at the Grand Ole Opry in the 1950's and had met Marty Robbins backstage. Tommy said, "I walked up to him, and introduced myself, and he sang one of my songs — "Don't Let Someone Else Take Your Place" — right there. He sang every word. That was one of my biggest thrills."
Over the years, Faile went through a divorce (October 1980), gained about 25 pounds, had a hip joint replacement and a mild stroke. He noted that he didn't know what retirement was and would still do personal appearances. Tommy said in a 1995 interview, "I like to sit on a stool and sing songs and tell stories. People come up and tell me, 'I grew up watching you on TV.' or 'Man, you're the reason I started playing the guitar.' A woman stopped me outside the A&P and said, 'Thanks for the memories.' That makes a tear come to my eye. I'm not poor, but I'm not rich. I've managed to make a fairly good living. I feel like the Lord intended me to be right where I am now. I'm right where I oughta be."
Tommy continued to find work after his television show ended its run. Doing studio work, helping get demo records done or even doing commercials. In May of 1998, he was to be the emcee of the Carolina Legends festival that was to be held at the Andrew Jackson State Park in Lancaster County, SC. He had been helping with the all day festival for about ten years.
But it was to be his last appearance. Tommy passed away on August 3, 1998. Arthur Smith told writer Dan Huntley, "I only had respect for Tommy. ... We loved him and we'll miss him. He's morally one of the best men in the world. If he told you something, you could put that in the bank." Mr. Huntley wrote of the commercials that Brother Ralph and Cousin Phudd would do for Tube Rose snuff and Shelby-based Bost Bread.
While Mr. Huntley's article indicated funeral plans were not yet finalized, Arthur Smith and Doug Mayes would deliver the eulogies at Calvary Church. One detail that was revealed was that Tommy would be cremated and his ashes would be scattered on Brown Mountain in the Pisgah National Forest.
From an article written at the time of Tommy's death it was revealed that perhaps Tommy's last song written was appropriate for the occasion according to Dorothy Morford, who had been a friend of Tommy's in his last years. He wrote a song called "The Shirt"; it came from one of Tommy's "How-ya-doing" greeting to a fan at a fiddler's convention. the old man responded, "Well, I feel like I'm about ready for my last white shirt." That song described the times when a white shirt was worn, when a person discards the beads and denims and then worn again at a funeral, "...to look good for mama and Jesus." His friend Dorothy made sure Tommy was dressed in his last white shirt.
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