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Thomsen’s party and album

Tommy Thomsen is holding a birthday party for himself on Jan. 29 at Rossi’s 1906, 401 Grove St., in Sonoma and will perform with a backup band that includes pedal steel guitar player Bobby Black, an Asleep at the Wheel alumnus who also played with Barbara Mandrell. Watch for more details online at rossis1906.com.

Find out more about Thomsen and his new CD, “Crazy ’bout Her Gravy,” at tommythomsen.com.

Tommy Thomsen walks through the swinging doors of the bar at the Swiss Hotel and goes straight for the photographs on the wall.

“My family’s been in town 100 years,” he says, pointing to his uncles and his grandfather, a beer distributor of Danish descent. Their professional quality, black-and-white portraits, circa 1940, still hang in the corner along with other Sonoma merchants.

The bar, the plaza, the buildings around it, the greater Sonoma Valley. They all drip with stories linked to Thomsen, a Western swing authority and band frontman who helps keep the sub-genre of country music alive.

His roots run deep in his native Sonoma, where he began playing guitar as a freshman in high school and became a favorite on the nightclub circuit, playing rock, blues and bluegrass before settling into country swing. He has recorded five albums and played clubs all over the world while working as a merchant marine, from Japan to Italy, Denmark and France.

In recent years Thomsen has stayed closer to home. While recovering from the second of two life-threatening illnesses, his appearances have been limited to festivals in the Sonoma and Healdsburg plazas and a few pub dates.

Now 67 and with liver cancer that is in remission, he has ambitious plans for the next phase that include more gigs and a tribute album.

Rooted in music

With his cowboy hat and boots, pleasant banter and stage demeanor, it would be easy to place the 6-foot 4-inch Thomsen as a picker from the Lone Star State. But he was born in a house his family owned off the Sonoma Plaza. By 7, he was taking piano lessons, studying the classics and working his way up to a recital of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody.”

His mother, with whom he now lives in Sonoma, was a piano player from the musical side of the family that included a milkman uncle who sang opera. Her collection of Big Band 78 rpm records stoked his interest in popular music, and she taught him some “mean boogie-woogie.”

In ninth grade at Sonoma Valley High School, Thomsen bought his first guitar with money he saved working at Benedetti turkey ranch, an electric one from Ruggles music store.

“I paid $70 for a $35 guitar,” he recalled with a laugh, “but I shoplifted enough music over the years that it was even now.”

Playing without an amp, he practiced in his bedroom late into the night, emulating the blues style of Freddy King, “The Texas Cannonball,” whose playing influenced a string of musicians from Eric Clapton to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

The mother of a friend arranged for his fledgling band, The Headsmen, to use a deli on the Sonoma Plaza (Vella’s Cheese, now Burgers and Vines). They turned it into a music club every Tuesday night for four years. Thomsen honed his blues and rock ‘n’ roll chops there and at school dances, parties and shows at the Sonoma Veterans building.

“We were pimply-faced white kids,” said Thomsen, except for their lead singer, a black youth who got them into shape with rehearsals, harmonies, matching outfits, “ascots and steps.”

Thomsen also absorbed the country influence of cowboys who stopped in Sonoma, still rural at the time, to relax between dates on the rodeo circuit.

After graduating from high school in 1966, Thomsen migrated to San Francisco and spent a few years jamming and playing clubs in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

He hung out with members of Big Brother and the Holding Co., dropping LSD a few hundred times by his own estimate and sharing methamphetamines for a year with an outlaw biker he initially looked up to. By 1967, Thomsen had joined the San Francisco-based Sailor’s Union of the Pacific.

Periodically over the next 35 years, he worked on ships that docked in exotic ports, using his ever-present guitar as a calling card to play for locals, or to pick up a band.

Thomsen took a hiatus from the sea in early 1969, when he refused to be drafted for military service because of his Vietnam-era “pacifist, conscientious objector” views. He was convicted of draft resistance and was sent to the federal penitentiary at Lompoc.

Thomsen served 18 months before he was pardoned by President Gerald Ford, but those months weren’t exactly hard time. He acquired his first acoustic guitar in prison and recalls daily jam sessions during which he learned jazz licks from fellow inmates.

After his release, he hooked up with the late harmonica virtuoso and showman Norton Buffalo in a band called Sonoma County Line and later joined or jammed with musicians that ranged from “red rocker” Sammy Haggar to Commander Cody, Billy C. Farlow and the Moonlighters.

But years of partying and hard living eventually caught up with Thomsen. He remembers his last cocktail — on Oct. 28, 1988, at the Swiss Hotel — as the night he hit bottom.

“I was buying rounds for the house, and I was running down to the corner to smoke pot in between,” he said. “I totaled my car going back to the ship. I made a new gate into the Unocal refinery.” He pauses to laugh.

“As luck would have it, the first car coming by was the police, and I ended up in the Martinez jail.”

A rehab would follow.

Although Thomsen punctuates many of his stories with humor, he adds that “my life wasn’t funny by the time I quit. I needed to. It was quit or die.”

His liver was beginning to fail, a problem he links to Hepatitis C and his brief period of teen-aged methamphetamine use.

“We all used the same needles and sharpened ’em on matchbook covers,” Thomsen recalls. “We didn’t know anything about hygiene.”

‘More of a stylist’

All the while, he was developing his own style of blues- and jazz-tinged Western swing music. He can move easily from pounding boogie-woogie on the piano to silky crooning, with a voice that would have made role models Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys take notice.

Thomsen inhabits Wills’ songs like “San Antonio Rose,” conjuring that moonlit path by the Alamo, somewhere between dream and memory, regret and longing for those “lips so sweet and tender, like petals fallin’ apart.”

It was a landscape of railroad boxcars and honky tonks, of roads paved with heartaches and tears, but still pining for “The Waltz You Saved for Me.” Thomsen embraced it full-heartedly almost 40 years ago, after seeing The Texas Playboys perform.

“It was a culmination of all the things I played,” he said. “It’s like a gumbo of American styles.”

Thomsen describes himself as “more of a stylist” of old, unique, even semi-lost songs, and even veered into recording an album of Hawaiian slack key music. He has written some catchy originals, too, some of which fall into a category called “Western Jazz.”

“I’d rather be high in the saddle than biting this dust on the ground,” he sings in one of his original numbers. “But when you’re busted in half, you still gotta laugh, like some crazy rodeo clown.”

Playing solo, as a duo or with a line-up of well-seasoned back-up musicians on pedal-steel guitar, fiddle, bass, drums or maybe saxophone, Thomsen conjures up the 1930s and 1940s heyday of Western swing, with its danceable, jaunty beat and infectious melodies and harmonies. The genre had its bright, shining moment on the West Coast around World War II, according to Steve Hathaway, a Western Swing expert who has had a classic country radio show in Cupertino for more than 40 years. Defense workers migrated from the Midwest, bringing their appetite for swing to dance halls and other venues.

“Tommy is a real pro,” Hathaway said. “He’s got a good demeanor with audiences. He’s one of those guys keeping the tradition alive.”

Adds Ken Brown, three-time Sonoma mayor, “Tommy’s the real deal. He’s a very interesting guy, a fabulous musician. People love the personality.”

Twenty years ago, in a ceremony attended by former Texas Playboys and other musical stalwarts, Thomsen was inducted into the Western Swing Society Hall of Fame in Sacramento and subsequently received awards from similar organizations in Tulsa and Seattle.

Overseas, audiences also appreciate his slice of Americana and still book him, but one of his greatest thrills, he said, has been playing in Oklahoma and Texas and “having people go ‘Holy S---. Who are you? Where you from? How do you know these songs?”

Thomsen spins seemingly endless stories about the joints he has played between Reno and San Francisco, and of Sonoma Valley clubs that been lost to fire or changing times, including Mama’s Royal Café, The Rustic Inn and Paul’s.

“I never looked at music for making money,” he said. “As an artist, you always sell yourself short unless you’re Chuck Berry. I want to make my name, my brand a little stronger. I just need people to know who I am and the quality I bring.”

Thomsen still plays occasional sets at HopMonk or Murphy’s Irish Pub in Sonoma, and on Jan. 29 has scheduled a birthday bash for himself at Rossi’s 1906, also in Sonoma.

Struggles with sickness

In 1997, Norton Buffalo played a Sonoma charity benefit that drew 500 people to help with Thomsen’s medical expenses while he waited for a new liver. “He’s got that kind of personality that brings people together when he gets up onstage,” Buffalo said at the time.

The liver arrived in 1998, and before Buffalo’s death from lung cancer in 2009, the two collaborated and recorded together many times. Buffalo produced CDs that included Thomsen’s renditions of old country standards like “Red River Valley,” “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” and “Back in the Saddle.”

Cancer developed in Thomsen’s new liver, and he was sidelined for a period during treatment. Although he said he hasn’t had a drink in 27 years, he admits to daily medical marijuana use, “like Willie (Nelson),” something he knows recovery groups may frown upon.

“It helps me to maintain my attitude and allows me not to take other drugs,” he said.

These days, with the cancer in remission, Thomsen said he feels like he’s back in the saddle. He has a new CD on Red Newt Records titled “Crazy ‘bout Her Gravy,” named for an original composition, which was recorded in Portland with Gregg Williams, a sound engineer and drummer for Sheryl Crow.

Thomsen also is excited about projects he’s got in the works, including an album that draws on music played at the Dream Bowl, a historic Napa-Vallejo area Quonset hut where many stars of country music came to play in the 1940s and 1950s. San Francisco bands like the Grateful Dead discovered it in the late 1960s.

Thomsen’s girlfriend of one year, an attorney who plans to retire in a few months, shares his passion for music. And his two children from a previous marriage live in the area: a 25-year-old daughter who is a teaching assistant for autistic children and a 22-year-old son who just graduated from UC Davis with honors in international studies and history.

Thomsen considers himself fortunate to have survived his health problems “and all the different challenges – lucky enough to get through all of that and still be up and running.”

“I feel like I’ve turned a corner, and the window is still open to me to do things,” he said. “I’m sounding good, feeling good, getting ready to book the new year.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@clarkmas.

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