RIP Thom Bresh

May 24, 2022

I’m very sorry to report that Thom Bresh passed away yesterday. Thom was the biological son of legendary guitarist and entertainer Merle Travis (only confirmed in recent years via a 23&Me DNA test, but…everybody knew). Born into a show-business environment in 1948, Thom was a young prodigy, a whiz kid on multiple musical instruments, and also worked as “the world’s youngest stuntman” at Corriganville Movie Ranch outside Los Angeles. In his teen years he played guitar in a surf band called Chiyo and the Crescents, who had a regional hit with their song “Pink Dominoes,” and quit high school to go work the Reno-Tahoe-Vegas lounge circuit with veteran country performer Hank Penny.

As he grew into an adult, he launched his solo career in 1971 with a 45 rpm record about the mysterious plane hijacker D.B. Cooper, and eventually got signed to ABC and MGM Records, where he achieved a degree of fame in the country music world. Although he never had huge hits or achieved household name recognition, Thom worked a lot and had his own television show in Canada. In the last few decades, he worked guitar-centric shows with partners like Buster B. Jones, Nokie Edwards, and Brian Lonbeck, dazzling audiences with his command of the Merle Travis style of thumb-picking.

I saw Thom perform live a number of times, and I can honestly say he was one of the best entertainers I’ve ever seen. Funny, confident, and talented, he would dazzle audiences with complex guitar showcases, sing heartfelt ballads, then crack everybody up with gimmicks like a guitar synthesizer that played the sound of dogs barking or whistling noises instead of guitar musical notes. He was a natural. I had him perform with Brian Lonbeck at a few of my Guitar Geek Festivals, and it was uncanny how Thom and Brian could tap into the Merle Travis and Joe Maphis style. It was effortless, and audiences were gobsmacked at what they were seeing.

I spent three days with Thom in 2018 interviewing him for my Merle Travis book. At the time, he still hadn’t taken the DNA test, and there was a lingering question of whether or not he really WAS the son of Merle Travis. Eventually, he did take the test and it was confirmed by matching Merlene Travis-Maggini’s DNA (as well as cousin Dave Travis) that he was indeed the biological son of Merle.

The times that I spent around Thom, he seemed like a guy who had never quite found peace. He enjoyed music, he was “one” with the guitar, he loved home-style food, and he loved being a dirty old man around the ladies. But there was still an unresolved air of inner turmoil that seeped from his pores. He never seemed at peace when I was around him. I attributed It to a life of being referred to as an “illegitimate son” (and kudos to Merle’s daughters Merlene and Cindy for instructing me to use the term “out-of-wedlock son” or “biological son” in the book, which I appreciated—these are just kinder words) and I imagine that none of us can understand this stigma unless we’ve lived it. I certainly hope that he is finally at peace.

I think Thom is a tragically underrated guitarist. Do yourself a favor and go watch some Thom Bresh clips on YouTube today. He’ll blow you away with the breadth of his talent.

I am saddened by the fact that Thom didn’t live long enough to see the Merle Travis book published. On the other hand, I am grateful I got to spend three days with him and interview him extensively, for hours and hours. I’ll always remember him pausing, picking up a guitar and playing the bounciest, swinging-est version of Travis’s “Saturday Night Shuffle” to illustrate the proper “heaviness” of the right-hand thumb. I sat three feet away from him and marveled at what I was hearing.

In recent times, Thom fought cancer, and I thought he was recovering. He passed away yesterday at the age of seventy-four. Safe travels, my friend. Hope you and Travis are already busy picking out a two-man version of “Cannonball Rag” up there.