Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival photos courtesy Tony Williamson
Tony Williamson's musical journey has taken him all over. It’s carried him to stages around the world where he’s played with bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, and Ricky Skaggs. It’s transported him into a hospital room where he was told he’d never play music again, and it’s led him to an Ashram in Taiwan, where he sought reinvention through Eastern philosophy. But before the big successes, crippling accidents, and spiritual awakenings, there was his family’s home in rural Randolph county and that’s where it all began. It was there where he first picked a guitar, plucked a banjo, and strummed the strings of a mandolin - an instrument he was destined to meet
In this special 50 for 50 podcast, meet Tony Williamson a 2018 North Carolina Heritage Recipient and mandolin virtuoso.
“I know my family never saw music as a vocation...as a way to make money. For them music was fun, was joyous, was relaxation, was like playing ball.”
Tony Williamson grew up immersed in the sounds and culture of North Carolina’s Piedmont. His grandfather - who built his own instruments - and his father were both mill-workers. He and his brother Gary learned to play by listening to the music their father made with friends from the mill every Friday night. Like so many mandolin-players, Tony’s life changed forever when he saw Bill Monroe Play.
“My cousin took me to hear Bill Monroe when I was nine years old," says Tony. "I was already playing the mandolin with my family, you know just kind of fooling around. But when I heard Bill Monroe....he had such a commanding presence in his singing and in the way he ran his show and in the energy...and then he would take a mandolin break and we’d all just lose our minds.”
After that Tony doubled down on the mandolin. He learned to play every Bill Monroe song he could get his hands on. By 1969, he was racking up mandolin prizes from fiddle conventions across the Piedmont and he and his brother’s band The Bluegrass Gentleman were a regional sensation. Then in 1970, he was selected to go to Governor's School, a residential summer program for academically gifted high school students.
“It was like a whole new world opened up for me," says Tony. "There [was] this incredible library of all this stuff, and there are other kinds of music, and art and literature. And so I start[ed] writing some pretty cool things. I expanded the harmonic range so that I can include more than just a song, more than just a story...but an actual multi-dimensional feeling.”
After getting a degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, Tony moved to Kentucky and play music professionally. Over the next few years his reputation as a mandolinist grew, and he played with the likes of Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Bobby Hicks. Despite the singular experiences he had on the road and living in Kentucky, Tony couldn’t escape the harsh realities of the music business.
“I kind of hit a brick wall. I really wasn’t all that successful financially. We just couldn’t get anywhere in the business. In retrospect it’s because we really didn’t understand the business of music which is a completely different aspect than being a musician.
So in the early 1980s Tony moved back to North Carolina where he bought a farm and built a log cabin with his father. At some point he thought he’d never play music again.
“I remember one of my students came up here to see me because I wasn’t out there playing," says Tony. "He said, 'You told me one time you’ve never swing a hammer because you care about your hands.' And I said 'Well I finally figured out that nobody gave a damn about my music.' I said that to him. I think that’s when the cosmic forces decided we need to slap this boy down. So I had a series of accidents, and I was told by an orthopedic guy in Chapel Hill that I would never play music again…and I entered into a dismal, dismal part of my life.”
During that dark period, Tony opened Mandolin Central where he started trading and selling antique mandolins. In the years that followed the accidents, he sought relief through acupuncture and a retreat at an Ashram in Tawain. Today Mandolin Central has grown into an internationally known business and mandolin archive that’s drawn mandolin enthusiasts from around the world, and Tony is back on the mandolin playing pain free.
When he’s not on the road, you’re more than likely to find Tony spending time with his wife and dogs at his farm in Pittsboro, N.C. Over the years musicians he’s mentored - like Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange and Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers - have visited him there to play and to learn. A true renaissance man, Tony’s approach to mentoring and to creating mirrors his philosophy of being.
“I definitely model the behavior I want. I think that’s completely silly not to. You can’t do that. It’s absolutely important to create a kind of vibration in yourself and attract people who want to be a part of that vibration, and part of my role as a mentor is to show them how to stay on course.”