John Bohlinger remembers famous guitarist Thom Bresh
“The guitar is my first love, my partner in life. We grew up together and we will probably die together. —Thom Brech
One of the best things about being a musician is that musicians know musicians, and musicians are the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. Albert Einstein, Charles Dickens, Georgia O’Keeffe, the Marx Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Juliette Lewis, Jack Black and Zooey Deschanel are or were musicians, but not full time.
Maybe interesting people are interesting because they are interested. If you live a life driven by curiosity, it’s going to be a wild ride. Musicians are driven by curiosity. Almost everyone loves music, but musicians don’t just listen passively. They have to figure out how to do it themselves. This curiosity goes far beyond music, transforming life into a great art/science project. Among the many musicians I have known, there is no one more interesting than Thom Bresh. His life was this project.
I met Thom Bresh at Johnny Hiland’s Birthday Jam at 3rd & Lindsley in Nashville about five years ago. I had the worst performance imaginable for a guitarist: after Bresh, before Brent Mason. I stood at the side of the stage watching Thom play his incredibly intricate guitar, listening to his gripping stories, laughing at his hilarious jokes, and dreading my set. Bresh was so calm on stage, you forgot he was on stage. It was as if the entire audience were his best friends and they sat in his living room hanging on to every word.
After my set, I went backstage to find Bresh in the green room with this Martin/Bigsby, singing a song to my girlfriend.
I watched until the end, then timidly stepped onto the stage to perform. After my set, I went backstage to find Bresh in the green room with this Martin/Bigsby, singing a song to my girlfriend. Bresh had the charm turned up to 10 and regaled her with stories and songs, while flirting shamelessly…throughout my entire set. Years later, when I told him I was trying to seduce my girlfriend, Thom laughed and said, “I’m like a dog chasing a car tire. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I ever caught it. His smile was impenetrable.
Bresh’s life was like a movie. He was born out of wedlock in Los Angeles in 1948, the biological son of musician Merle Travis and his mother, Ruth Johnson, who later married famed Hollywood photographer Bud Bresh. Bud and Ruth raised Thom as their son in Southern California. As a young man, Thom learned that Travis was his biological father, but he swore out of respect not to speak of it until Bud Bresh died (in 1987). On the surface, Merle Travis was a family friend who taught Thom guitar, but the connection ran much deeper. It must have been tough for a kid, especially in the conservative 50s and 60s. But where it gets really tough is being the son of a legend working in the same field you’re trying to break into. But like all superheroes, this weird origin story may have motivated him to excel at so many things.
The Breshman was a Grammy-nominated artist. He was also a performer, actor, comedian and the world’s youngest stuntman, working regularly from age 3 to 17 at the Corriganville Movie Ranch (referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once upon a time in Hollywood). Bresh was a comedian, television show host, prominent impersonator, engineer, music and film producer, photographer, and songwriter. As a singer, Bresh had a Top 10 hit, “Home Made Love,” which earned a nomination for the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist. He was also nominated for an Academy Award. On top of all this, Thom was the only person to be awarded the honor of “Wine Lord” by the World Council of Bordeaux Wines and the Vignerons Méditerranéens. On top of everything else, Bresh had an incredibly developed palate that allowed him to identify tastes and smells beyond the reach of mere mortals.
On top of everything else, Bresh had an incredibly developed palate that allowed him to identify tastes and smells beyond the reach of mere mortals.
Thom was surrounded by grandeur. He grew up watching Roy Lanham, Speedy West, Thumbs Carllile, Jimmy Bryant, Joe Maphis, Les Paul and, of course, Merle Travis play guitar in living rooms. When you see your dad and his friends doing remarkable things every day, remarkable things seem normal, or at least within reach. Bresh was fearless.
The last time I spoke to Bresh, he said, “I can’t believe this, but I can’t be reserved.” He was as shocked as me. It disappointed me, but watching it now, it seems like the right ending for this movie. Bresh was so talented that he never experienced the struggle of a normal musician. At 15, he replaced Roy Clark in Hank Penny’s band, then ticked every box a guitarist could hope for. The one thing he had never done in his 27,000 days on this planet was not being able to be reserved. In the end, he really had been through it all.
Thom Bresh was buried on June 2, 2022 in Muhlenburg County, Kentucky, next to Travis.
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