Born Clarence Earl McCurry in Bristol, Tennessee, Tom Ashley, as he came to be called, had a lifetime of performing and recording that made him an influential musician in Western North Carolina and across the country.
Ashley learned to play banjo and guitar as a young boy, and he joined his first medicine show, with Doc White Cloud, as a teenager in Mountain City. He continued to play in medicine shows into the 1940s, meeting many other musicians along the way, including Roy Acuff. Ashley made his living playing music for spare change wherever he could, playing with numerous musicians such as G. B. Grayson, the Cook Sisters, the Greer Sisters, and the West Virginia Hotfoots. He made professional recordings with several groups as well, including the Blue Ridge Mountain Entertainers, Haywood County Ramblers, Byrd Moore and his Hot Shots, and the Carolina Tar Heels.
One of Ashley’s solo recordings, “Coo Coo Bird,” appeared on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music in the 1950s. This collection helped spur an interest in recordings of the 1920s and ’30s among young college students, like Ralph Rinzler, who sought out Ashley on a trip to the area in 1960. This connection opened up many performing opportunities to Ashley. It also brought about the relationship between Rinzler and Doc Watson, which helped launch Watson’s national career.
Ashley continued to perform throughout the 1960s, until his death in 1967. In addition to performing, Ashley made several recordings in the 1960s, most notably two volumes on Folkways titled Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s.