Legendary Guitarist, Singer, and Entertainer Thom Bresh Dies
There are many things Thom Bresh will be remembered for, because he did so many remarkable things in his life. He was a Grammy-nominated recording artist and performer, a stuntman, an actor, a comedian, a television show host, and an engineer and producer. But perhaps what Thom Bresh is best known for in the musical community is being one of the practitioners of the thumb-style guitar that he picked up from his father, Country Music Hall of Famer Merle Travis, and carried into the future.
Born February 23rd, 1948 in Hollywood, California, Thom Bresh was birthed right into showbiz, acting in films at a young age, and he began recording his own music shortly thereafter. One of his first major jobs was working as a stuntman at the Corrigan Movie Ranch. In 1963, he joined the rock and roll band The Crescents, which enjoyed some moderate success.
In the early 70s is when Thom Bresh decided to start following in his famous father’s footsteps, and started performing country music, recording for the labels Kapp and Farr. In 1976 he had a Top 10 hit with the song “Homemade Love,” which earned him a nomination for the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist. Bresh later went on to record a couple of records for ABC with the legendary Jimmy Bowen producing.
But Bresh struggled to get any traction in his music career, though it was through a cover of the novelty song “Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)” written by his father with Tex Williams that he would find his calling in entertainment. In Bresh’s version of the song, he featured 13 different impersonations. This allowed Bresh to transition into the acting/hosting/comedian world.
Thom Bresh became a regular on The Merv Griffin Show and Dinah!, and also appeared on Barbara Mandrell’s variety show. Bresh appeared on his own shows as well, including one called Nashville Swing, and another with Lane Brody called The Thom & Lane Show. His skill in television also allowed him to work on video projects for folks like George Jones, Tanya Tucker, Jerry Reed, Lyle Lovett, and Brooks & Dunn.
But to many in the country music community and beyond, Thom Bresh was always the keeper of the thumb-style method of guitar playing that his father had perfected, and that Thom put his own spin on. That is what allowed him to sit right beside some of the greatest guitarists in country music history such as Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, Tommy Emmanuel, and of course, Merle Travis, and hold his own.
Guitarist Chris Scruggs said at his passing, “He played with such command and authority, yet there was something so extremely relaxed, casual, and almost lazy (I use this word in the most complimentary of ways) about the way he grinned at the crowd and hit those guitar strings. It flowed out of him as naturally as taking a breath, as natural as speaking. But in his calm delivery was so much power. His stage presence filled the stage like a mighty oak tree.”
Later in life, Bresh was well-respected as a guitar teacher, and was also passionate about photography.
Thom Bresh had been diagnosed with late stage esophagus cancer in 2021. He died on May 23rd at the age of 74.
May 24, 2022 @ 9:01 am
I believe most people who play (or attempt to play) country music guitar seriously will acknowledge four pickers whose styles form the foundation of country music guitar picking, and, to virtually the exclusion of anyone else, are emulated by today’s guitarists, whether consciously or not: Mabelle Carter, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Doc Watson.
May 24, 2022 @ 10:33 am
That’s a formidable group. I would maybe throw in a particular Buckaroo Telecaster player.
First heard of Thom on a tribute album to his dad back in the 90’s. His singing voice was as good as his Travis picking.
Daniel Allen Judy
May 24, 2022 @ 12:51 pm
Very sad to read. He was such a great guitar player.
May 24, 2022 @ 6:19 pm
My wife woke me up crying with the news this morning. He was the most interesting person I have ever met. He will be missed. RIP Thom.🙏
May 24, 2022 @ 8:53 pm
Where did the name Bresh come from? Was it a stepfather? Or did he use a middle name or a different name to avoid capitalizing off his famous father’s name?
May 24, 2022 @ 9:50 pm
I’m pretty sure it was his stepfather, who I believe was a photographer or cinematographer. The Breshman was truly a legend. If you want to see something truly inspiring (and sad) he made an incredible documentary about a young guitarist from Ohio named Evan Twitty. Evan was a finger picking prodigy who got to know The Breshman at a young age and they were close friends up until Twitty’s tragic death in a car accident at 18 years old. I found it in March 2020 during the one month I was on Facebook, social media is a cesspool for the most part but boy am I glad I rediscovered The Breshman (he has a song called The Breshman is back in town or something like that). It’s a shame people are taken away from us, but at least we are left with the music in some cases.
May 25, 2022 @ 8:52 am
The archived NYT obituary for Merle Travis lists him as having several children, all girls. It makes no mention of Merle Travis having a son.
May 25, 2022 @ 10:00 am
Interesting. Biographical information on Merle Travis is rather sketchy.
Maybe Merle was never married to Thom Bresh’s mother. It would be unusual for a child not to take his father’s name if the parents were married or in a relationship. Could be a Tim McGraw-Tug McGraw-type situation, where, per Tim’s telling, he only learned that Tug was his father when Tim was around 11 years old. (Though Tim did, finally take Tug’s name.) Apparently Thom Bresh also established a relationship with Merle Travis and learned guitar from him.
May 25, 2022 @ 12:19 pm
Rumor has it that Tug McGraw’s last words were directed to his son, Tim, when he said, “For God’s sake, stop wearing that damned plastic hat!”
May 25, 2022 @ 2:23 pm
For the Merle Travis fans: Deke Dickerson has just written a biography on Merle. It will be available later this year, likely November. I caught Deke playing an event this past weekend in Nashville. Deke researched this book for several years and he interviewed members of the family extensively. I wouldnt doubt that Deke may have interviewed Thom.
May 25, 2022 @ 6:38 pm
I had opportunity to attend C. A. A. S. Several years ago. Was fortunate enough to get a semi private show from Thom. He was an AMAZING entertainer!!! His imitation of Jerry Reed really blew me away. Such a nice guy. But I’ll never ever forget the private show he put on outside of the main showroom that night in 2013. I missed Doyle Dykes, but wouldn’t trade 100 Doyle concerts for that one night with the Breshman!!!
May 25, 2022 @ 8:00 pm
I had the privilege of seeing Thom perform live with Nokie Edwards (of The Ventures) in an unlisted show at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival at Gene Autry’s old Melody Ranch movie studio back in the early 2010’s. Thom was a personal friend of the Valuzat Brothers who owned the property and they invited him to perform but the guy who booked the acts and prepared the show schedule refused to add Thom to the list as Thom could be crude and coarse in his banter and this was a family event. The Main Stage circus tent was next to the food court and I was hanging around after the last scheduled acts were finished for the day when I heard this amazing guitar picking coming from inside the dark tent. I wandered in out of curiosity and there were Thom and Nokie playing together to a handful of curious people like me. I didn’t know who either of them were and had to ask the sound board guy. It was truly a magical experience and it’s a shame it wasn’t videotaped for posterity.
I also got to see Thom perform later at the tiny listening room venue “The Coffee Gallery Backstage” in Alta Dena when he was in town for the NAMM Show in Anaheim. The audience kept requesting Merle Travis songs (Thom just referred to him as Travis) and Thom seemed genuinely surprised by that but performed the songs if he could remember them. Man could that guy pick!
At that show Thom told the story that his birth father Merle Travis had told him about the circumstances surrounding the writing of “Smoke, Smoke. Smoke That Cigarette”. In 1947 Tex Williams, the former lead singer for the Spade Cooley Band, and Merle were friends and Tex came over one afternoon begging Merle (who had a busy day scheduled) to quickly write him a song for a recording session that was scheduled for the next day. Merle was a gifted songwriter of humor/novelty songs and cranked out the song for Tex in a matter of minutes and handed it to him. The rest, as they say, is history. Personally I think the Commander Cody cover is one of the best versions of that song I’ve ever heard.
R.I.P. Thom and thank you for sharing your musical gifts with this world.
May 27, 2022 @ 6:55 pm
Thom was a wonderful man, kind loving giving! We met Thom at a very young age when he was with Lane Brody and continued being raised with him in our family….he is with heavy hearts missed and loved so much, but not suffering anymore…God Rest His Soul 🙏🏼
Our parents were the owners of PettyCoats Promotion which Jerry Jr now runs since our parents passing! Love and miss you Thom
June 1, 2022 @ 10:28 am
I got to see Thom Bresh in Bozeman in a MSU gym about 20 years ago, he had a double necked guitar that he could flip over and make it sound like anything, a piano, accordion, organ or whatever. Never seen anything like it. He was an amazing player and quite an entertainer, lots of funny stories.
August 24, 2022 @ 5:10 pm
I first met Thom Bresh when he appeared in the Casino Cabaret at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks, NV sometime in the ‘80’s. What a performer! His rendition of ‘Steamroller Blues’ absolutely floored me! He was just as handsome as he was musically talented. Every night after working swing shift in downtown Reno, we’d drive over to the Nugget as fast as we could to catch Thom’s last show of the night. He did not disappoint. He will be forever missed but forever remembered.