On the southern slope of Fisher’s Peak near the Round Peak community of Surry County, North Carolina, Thomas Jefferson “Tommy” Jarrell absorbed much of the music that later brought him national recognition. The son of Benjamin Franklin Jarrell and Susan Letisha Amburn, he grew up in a musically rich community and in a home known for good music, good stories, and good brandy. The sounds of his father, uncle, and older neighbors playing fiddles and banjos instructed him thoroughly in the instrumental styles and repertories that thrived in his region before 1925.
By the age of 16, he was playing for dances in Round Peak. According to Cece Conway’s citation for Jarrell’s 1981 Brown-Hudson award from the North Carolina Folklore Society, Tommy and his Uncle Charlie played in one room, his daddy and another fellow played in another room, and people danced in both rooms. Conway also reports Jarrell’s account of his marriage proposal to Nina Lowe in 1923, in which he advised her that, “‘You know I make whiskey, I drink whiskey, and I play cards and I gamble a little once in a while. I play the fiddle and I go to dances, and I ain’t never figuring on quitting doing that. But now if you think we can get along all right, we’ll get married.’ She said, ‘I believe we can get along all right.’ So we did.” And the music continued.
On his retirement after 41 years working for the North Carolina Highway Department, Tommy Jarrell returned to playing the music he had learned in his youth. He came to the attention of young revivalist old-time musicians, many of whom he hosted at his house. “Going to see Tommy” became something of a pilgrimage and rite of passage for this younger generation of musicians, and Jarrell’s hospitality remains legendary.
Above all, though, he is remembered for his remarkable music. Jarrell’s expressive fiddling style was known for complex rhythms and use of ornamentation by sliding on the fingerboard. His playing, on both fiddle and banjo, is still profoundly influential among younger old-time musicians. Jarrell received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship in 1982, and his banjo is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. His life and music are documented in two films, Sprout Wings and Fly (1983), and My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge (1986), and on numerous recordings.