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A local 'folk' on the music scene

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By Josh Moore

Harold Thom of Simpsonville learned his first guitar chords from Hank Williams Sr. when he was 14 years old.

Since then, he has seen and done a lot in his music career, playing with some of the biggest names in folk and country music history with his band The Cumberlands.

And though Thom said the group never had a top-five hit, they came close.

He said they would have been the first band to record “The City of New Orleans,” but their agency didn't think it would be a hit. And they recorded but never released “Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town.” Arlo Guthrie and Kenny Rogers, respectively, had No. 1 hits with those songs.

“Those songs could have made us,” he said. “But that's the way the music business works.”

The original members were Thom, his wife, Betty, and banjo player Jim Smoak, but several others have been a part of the group.

And now many of them, including the three originals, are reuniting for a good cause.

They’ll be performing at 8 p.m. on July 18 in Comstock Hall at the University of Louisville to benefit Kosair Children's Hospital.

Thom said it has been a long climb to where they are now, but they're weren't in it to be stars.

“To us it was something that we wanted to do and something that we enjoyed doing,” he said.

Thom said he's proud of all the group's accomplishments.

They were the opening act for the Kingston Trio for 17 years.

The group also performed with the likes of B.J. Thomas, Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Daniels, among others.

They’ve made 13 albums since they got started in 1963 and have performed all over the country, including at the Grand Ole Opry.

Thom said the band made a little history, too. It was one of the first bluegrass bands to use an amplifier, electric bass and multiple microphones in their performances.

That allowed them to play music that wasn't originally folk music.

“Suddenly it opened up whole new venues for us, like colleges,” he said.

With their own syndicated television series broadcast in several English-speaking countries, The Cumberlands gained fans from all over the world.

Thom said their Web site, www.thecumberlands.net, has allowed fans who've heard the group through the years to rediscover their music. They can buy albums on the site as well as see pictures of the band in its various forms.

Thom first worked as a producer and director for television stations in his home state of Louisiana. He met Smoak in 1963 while directing a country music show.

That’s where it all started.

“When I invited Jim over to the house for a cookout, I pulled my guitar out of the closet,” Thom said. “We sat down, and we played together.”

The three decided to start a folk group.

“At that time folk music was extremely popular,” Thom said.

He said the trio mainly played Appalachian folk music at first — thus the groups name, The Cumberlands, after the gap, mountain and river of the same name.

The group remained part-time for three years while Thom continued to work at the TV station.

But when The Cumberlands were offered a recording contract, he had a choice to make: Would he stay with his television career or go into the music business full time.

“I chose music because I always wanted to do it, and I didn’t want to become an old man and say I wish I had tried that,” he said.

After a few years of playing in clubs and at college concerts in Louisiana, the group decided they needed to move so they could travel the country to perform their music.

That’s how, in 1969, The Cumberlands landed in Louisville.

They’d tried Nashville, but found there wasn’t much of a live music scene for them in the city.

But Thom said the Louisville scene was “absolutely alive with bands.”

“The decision to move here was a good one,” he said.

But there was another reason Thom decided to come to Kentucky.

“The secondary reason, which was almost as important as the music, was the fact that this is the home of the American Saddlebred horse,” he said.

Thom said he and his wife have owned Saddlebred horses for 40 years.

They moved to their farm outside Simpsonville 13 years ago.

Tickets for the reunion concert are $25 each and are available by calling 502-629-5437.