THUMBS CARLILLE'S LAST YEARS
By Dalton Roberts The BridgeWorks Nashville, Tennessee February 2000
Back in my earliest guitar-picking years I read that Thumbs Carlille was the man who put those fabulous twin-guitar licks on Jimmy Dicken's original and unique sound. And I read a quote from Chet Atkins that Thumbs might be the best guitar picker he had ever heard. So when I discovered he was playing in Chattanooga with Al Harvey and the Down Home Edition, I saddled up immediately and went to the Senator's Lounge to swab up his sounds.
There he sat with a guitar lying flat in his lap, pushing down the strings instead of playing in the traditional position. Only thing he changed between songs was a slide capo.
I'm not much on dates and one of these days I will carefully re-construct those last five years he lived here and write it up for something like the Journal of Country Music. But Bill Littleton can use a guest writer until he gets his ticker stabilized and I want to share some memories now of the years I saw and listened to Thumbs several times a week.
How he came to play with Dickens at the age of 17 is a great story within itself. Little Jimmy was playing in Thumbs' hometown in Illinois and someone told him backstage there was a boy named Thumbs Carlille there in town who could do the twin guitar kickoffs that had given Jimmy his trademark sound. Jimmy informed him that any guitar picker knew it was possible for one picker to do twin harmony licks since the finger spread on the neck of the guitar would be impossible. When the guy kept insisting he had heard it, Little Jimmy said, "Well, go get him and let me hear it."
So he did. He brought Thumbs back stage and due to his way of tuning and playing with the guitar laying in his lap, he was able to do all the Dickens kick-offs. Dickens asked him if he wanted a job and Thumbs told him he did. A few months later he sent Thumbs a bus ticket to meet him in North Carolina and they were together for many years.
Later Thumbs went to work for Roger Miller and had completed over a decade of road work with Miller when he wearied of the road and came to Chattanooga with local picker Billy Taylor to play with Down Home. Club owner Charlie Edgeman paid part of Thumbs' salary and all the members of the band took a small cut just to have this giant talent in their group.
Over the next five years, I taped hundreds of hours of Thumbs on stage as well as numerous conversations at my apartment. He was a lover of fine food and my wife made some dishes that would always lure him over for a few hours of road reminisces.
Maybe his funniest Roger Miller story was the time he and Roger had been taking uppers for days without a bite to eat (the things simply take away a person's appetite, as Phen Phen pill poppers have discovered). Flying into Chicago, Roger told Thumbs he was going to hit the best Chinese restaurant in town and wanted Thumbs to join him for an exquisite meal. Thumbs agreed and after Roger showered and dressed up in a fancy all-white suit, they took a cab to Chicago's best.
Roger ordered their large appetizer tray and as soon as it came, he said, "Here, Thumbs. Try some of this." He took a large handful of one of the concoctions and smeared it on Thumbs' jacket. Thumbs closed his eyes and smacked his lips cooing, "Ummmm...delicious! Now you try some of this," and he smeared a fistful of another concoction on Roger's white jacket. Roger smacked his chops, too, and allowed as to how that was the best Chinese food he'd ever had. Thumbs swore they sat there and smeared the entire meal on each other without eating a bite. Roger gave the waiter a fifty dollar tip and said, "Please express my compliments to the chef."
A couple of years into his Chattanooga gig, a doctor discovered cancer in his lower colon and he underwent successful cancer surgery. He'd always been a little chubby but after the surgery and follow up treatments, he was scarecrow gaunt. Still, he returned to his old job for a while but he had always had a deep love for jazz. After four years as a country-rock sideman, he moved to Atlanta, playing with a small jazz combo until a club owner talked him into just playing solo jazz. He became the most talked-about jazz player in Atlanta that year.
Those who have heard the cassette released in California of Thumbs sitting in a studio playing guitar with no accompaniment, can easily imagine the kind of sounds he put out in his last year of solo picking.
He returned regularly to Chattanooga to record with Herby Wallace, one of America's premier steel guitarists. They did two albums (Christmas and western swing) and were still working on a new one at the time of his death. He was staying at Herby's house and one night they went to the Rock and Country Club to hear a picker they liked. Thumbs became ill and Herby wanted to call an ambulance. Thumbs said, "No, it's just indigestion. Let's just go to your place."
By the time they got home, Herby could see it was much more than indigestion and he called 911. By the time the ambulance arrived, Thumbs was dead. I believe he was 56 years old.
I have personally known a half dozen famous guitarists whose CDs grace my collection. I have never seen anyone even close to Thumbs Carlille. He was not of this planet. He came from some place in this Universe where guitars are tuned differently, played differently and completely mastered before the diaper is shucked. He was that unreal.
His discography is quite robust and someday, someone will do a boxed set of
music. My nomination for that project is Charles Underwood, who did several
direct-to-disc masterpieces of this great master. I apologize for not having
dates on his life. That is a project I will set myself to complete before I,
shuck the mortal coil. Anyone wanting to share Thumbs Carlille stories or
information may write me at: