Tommy Neal passes

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Well-respected banjo picker Thomas W. ‘Tommy’ Neal passed away on January 11, 2022, after a very brief spell of hospice care. Born in York, Pennsylvania, he was 73 years of age. He had been known as ‘Tommy’ since the late 1960s. 

About 25 years ago he was nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’ by Jon Glik following one of Neal’s particularly inspiring banjo breaks.

He was 13 or 14 years old when Neal first began to take an interest in music, initially studying Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, and playing electric guitar in a Baltimore high school rock ‘n roll band called The Khedives. However, before he had left high school he switched to bluegrass. His first paying gig was with Oddie Jones and the Foggy Hollow Boys when he was only 16 years old.

By the following year he was playing bass on Del McCoury’s first solo album.

During the early years he practiced and played banjo with Walter Hensley, did fill-in – playing mandolin and banjo – with his Dukes of Bluegrass; and deputised for Don Reno with the Tennessee Cut-Ups also.

Recorded at the Lincoln Theatre in Marion, Virginia, for the Song of the Mountains program, Neal (with Bluestone) plays Don Reno’s Sockeye ….

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Much as he wanted to make a living playing music, Neal knew that wasn’t a realistic opinion as he was married with two children, and opted for the security of work as a heavy-equipment operator and mechanic, complimenting his 40-hour a week job with music at weekends. 

Nevertheless, during the early 1970s he found time to do some recordings, firstly with Pickin’ Around the Cookstove, and in the spring of 1973 he did three sessions with Cliff Waldron, while doing a five-month stint as a member of The New Shades of Grass. 

Neal’s version of John Hardy, in A-minor, from the Pickin’ Around the Cookstove LP was re-issued on the CD Son of Rounder Banjo. 

After his time with Waldron, he played with some bands in Baltimore — Grass on The Rocks (a group that was active into the 1980s) and Country Grass.

Around 1977 Neal played banjo on Baltimore-based Frank Campbell’s extremely rare eponymous album, Frank Campbell & The Country Blues.  

During the very early 1990s he worked with Jeff Presley’s South Central Bluegrass before, in the summer of 1993 Neal, Dick Laird, and Carroll Swam all moved on from that disbanding group to form Keystone (later the name was changed to Bluestone). 

The band worked at various events throughout the states of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, making personal appearances at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival; the DC Bluegrass Festival; the National Apple Harvest Festival, South Mountain Fairgrounds south central Pennsylvania; The Old Schoolhouse, Lucketts, Virginia; and the Patterson Park Theatre, Baltimore.  

Also, Bluestone featured on award-winning public television series Song of the Mountain, recorded at the Lincoln Theatre, Marion, Virginia.

About a decade ago he recorded a highly acclaimed solo album, Banjoland, with Neal praised for his precision, effortless transition from one style of picking to another, artistic subtlety, verve, and flair. 

Producer Mike Munford, writing the sleeve notes for that album, said … 

The first time I heard Tommy Neal play was at a jam session in Baltimore in 1976, and I became a lifelong fan. The ’70s was a decade of wide-open experimentation in bluegrass and in particular the banjo. The melodic style was in full force and outside musical influences were clearly evident.

Meanwhile Tommy’s firmly traditional background guided his playing toward a strong Scruggs/Crowe approach. However, his keen musical ear was open to any and all banjo styles past and present. If there was an intriguing element in any great player’s music, Tommy would capture it with remarkable accuracy. What struck me right between the ears about Tom’s playing was his beautiful sense of phrasing and blending of the major banjo styles—Scruggs, Reno, Crowe, Keith, Munde, etc. All of those key ingredients are here for us to enjoy.

Recorded in three distinctly different sessions, we get to hear Tommy’s wide-ranging style.

You’ll notice throughout the album how he brings both traditional and contemporary touches to the music. Within these sessions we hear traditional Scruggs style, melodic fiddle tunes, Reno style, Gospel, ballads, tasteful breaks, supportive backup, and some especially fine original tunes. A real feast for the ears, this collection by Tommy Neal will leave us hungry for more. I’m already waiting for the next serving.

In 2016 Neal suffered a heart attack and had stents fitted, and after 25 years and five recording projects, he had to leave Bluestone in 2018 because of continued health issues. 

Neal’s banjo style embraced that of all the great banjo pickers, particularly Don Reno (his first influence), Earl Scruggs, Alan Munde, and Bill Keith. A skilled and inventive banjo player, he had the ability to play all styles well and with ease.  

Among his original material are the tunes Moonshine Run, Lincoln Highway, Tyler’s Tune, and the song Calvary. 

Tyler’s Tune is based on ideas from Randy Stewart ….. 

R.I.P. Tom Neal 

Graveside services will be held on Thursday, January 20, 2022, at 3:00 p.m. at St. Paul’s Church in Millers, Maryland. 

In lieu of flowers contributions may be made to Autism Speaks. 

A Discography 

Tommy Neal

  • Banjoland (Patuxent CD 245, released on June 17, 2013)

Del McCoury

  • Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass (Arhoolie F 5006, 1968)

Cliff Waldron And the New Shades Of Grass

  • Bluegrass Time (Rebel SLP-1524, 1973)  

Pickin’ Around the Cookstove

  • Pickin’ Around the Cookstove (Rounder 0040, 1975) 

Frank Campbell

  • Frank Campbell & The Country Blues (Campbell, no number, 1977) 

Bluestone

  • Bluestone (No label, no number, 1993)
  • Twelve O’Nine (No label 499-02, 1999) 
  • Solitaire (No label, no number, 2009)  
  • Leaving Home (Lost City, no number, 2010)  
  • What Goes On (Patuxent CD 272, March 18, 2015) 

Various Artists

  • John HardySon of Rounder Banjo (Rounder CD 11558, 1992) 
  • BanjolandThe Patuxent Banjo Project ((Patuxent CD 250, July 21, 2014)
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