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.
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.