Last Call: Remembering a Giant, Thom Bresh

John Bohlinger and Thom Bresh backstage filming a Premier Guitar Rig Rundown in 2020.

Here’s a story about the most interesting man in the world.

“The guitar is my first love, my partner in life. We grew up together and we’ll most likely die together.” —Thom Bresh

One of the best benefits of being a musician is that musicians know musicians, and musicians are the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. Albert Einstein, Charles Dickens, Georgia O’Keeffe, the Marx Brothers, Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Juliette Lewis, Jack Black, and Zooey Deschanel are or were musicians, albeit not full-time.

Maybe interesting people are interesting because they’re interested. If you live a life driven by curiosity, it’s going to be a wild ride. Musicians are driven by curiosity. Pretty much everybody likes music, but musicians aren’t satisfied just passively listening. They need to figure out how to do it themselves. That curiosity goes way beyond music, turning life into one big art/science project. Of the many musicians I’ve know, there’s nobody more interesting than Thom Bresh. His life was that project.

I met Thom Bresh at Johnny Hiland’s Birthday Jam at Nashville’s 3rd & Lindsley about five years ago. I had the worst imaginable performance slot for a guitarist: following Bresh, preceding Brent Mason. I stood side stage watching Thom play impossibly complex guitar, hearing his engaging stories, laughing at his hilarious jokes, and dreading my set. Bresh was so calm onstage, you forgot he was onstage. It was like the entire audience were his best friends and they were sitting in his living room, hanging on every word.

After my set, I went backstage to find Bresh in the green room with this Martin/Bigsby, singing a song to my girl.

I watched to the end, then sheepishly walked onstage to play. After my set, I went backstage to find Bresh in the green room with this Martin/Bigsby, singing a song to my girl. Bresh had the charm turned up to 10 and was regaling her with stories and songs, while shamelessly flirting … through my entire set. Years later when I gave him shit about trying to seduce my girl, Thom laughed and said, “I’m like a dog chasing a car tire. I wouldn’t know what to do with it if I ever caught it.” His smile was inscrutable.

Bresh’s life felt like a movie. He was born out of wedlock in L.A. in 1948, the biological son of musician Merle Travis and his mother, Ruth Johnson, who later married renowned Hollywood photographer Bud Bresh. Bud and Ruth raised Thom as their son in Southern California. As a young man, Thom learned that Travis was his biological father, but he vowed out of respect to not speak of it until after Bud Bresh’s death (in 1987). On the surface, Merle Travis was a family friend who taught Thom guitar, but the connection went a lot deeper. That had to be tough on a kid, particularly in the conservative ’50s and ’60s. But where it really gets difficult is to be the son of a legend working in the same field you’re trying to break into. But like every superhero, that weird origin story may have motivated him to excel in so many things.

The Breshman was a Grammy-nominated recording artist. He was also a performer, actor, comedian, and the world’s youngest stuntman, working regularly from age 3 to 17 at the Corriganville Movie Ranch (referenced in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). Bresh was a comedian, TV show host, top-tier impersonator, an engineer, music and film producer, photographer, and songwriter. As a singer, Bresh had a Top 10 hit, “Home Made Love,” that garnered a nomination for the Academy of Country Music’s Top New Male Vocalist. He was also nominated for an Academy Award. On top of all that, Thom was the only person given the honor of “Wine Lord” by the Bordeaux World Wine Counsel and the Mediterranean Wine Growers. In addition to everything else, Bresh had an incredibly developed palate that allowed him to identify tastes and smells out of reach by us mere mortals.

In addition to everything else, Bresh had an incredibly developed palate that allowed him to identify tastes and smells out of reach by us mere mortals.

Thom was surrounded by greatness. He grew up watching Roy Lanham, Speedy West, Thumbs Carllile, Jimmy Bryant, Joe Maphis, Les Paul, and, of course, Merle Travis play guitar in living rooms. When you see your dad and his friends do remarkable things every day, remarkable things seem normal, or at least within reach. Bresh was fearless.

The last time I talked to Bresh, he said, “I can’t believe it, but I can’t get booked.” He was as shocked as I was. It bummed me out, but looking at it now, it seems like the right ending for this movie. Bresh was so talented that he never knew the struggle of a normal musician. At age 15, he replaced Roy Clark in Hank Penny’s band, then went on to tick every box a guitarist could hope for. The only thing he’d never done during his 27,000-ish days on this planet was not be able to get booked. By the end, he truly had experienced everything.

Thom Bresh was buried June 2, 2022, in Muhlenburg County, Kentucky, next to Travis.

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