Knoxville-based (sort-of) singer/songwriter Ian Thomas currently fronts two bands in two cities, in two geographically distinct areas of the country. For most artists, that arrangement would surely be a recipe for madness—or at least a few prematurely gray hairs.
But for Thomas, a Connecticut-born troubadour afflicted with a chronically restless soul, his present condition is par for the course. “It’s typical of my life,” says Thomas, speaking on the phone from a bar somewhere in the Midwest. “I’m always moving around a lot. Which does make it hard to get anything done in a consistent and focused way.”
In fact, it’s hard to fathom anyone who seems as plainly comfortable with confusion and random mutability as Thomas. But hearing his story, you have to believe it’s an elemental trait, encoded in his DNA.
“I have no recollection of ever having not wanted to play music,” Thomas says. “There’s no defining moment. As far back as I can remember, it’s been a passion of mine, but in a totally unfocused way.” Thomas says he started learning to play music, after a fashion, in grade school; his father worked in flea markets, and a young Ian would rummage through merchandise tables and acquire battered old instruments on the cheap. “I’d get them for little money—guitar, drums, mandolin, an autoharp, and I didn’t know how to play them,” he says.
“They were kind of shitty, and I’d maybe get some old Mel Bay books, but I never really learned to play—I couldn’t even tune them. It wasn’t until I was 18 or 19 that I could really play anything.”
Having acquired at least rudimentary skills on guitar and drums, Thomas was afflicted with his first bout of serious wanderlust in his late teens, when he set out on the meandering journey that has come to define his adult life. “I was young; and I just started hitchhiking around the country, working odd jobs and playing music in the streets,” he says.
He describes his earliest efforts as a musician as “sort of a one-man-band folk/ragtime with a kazoo,” informed by the ‘60s and ‘70s folk music he learned from his parents’ record collection back home, flavored by bits of Chicago blues, which he says was “the first music I discovered on my own.”
But as he roamed—to Colorado, California and Oregon, Canada, back east to New Orleans (“the biggest music lesson I ever got”) and then north to NYC—his horizons broadened, as he absorbed regional styles and other influences: Western swing standard-bearer Bob Wills; country pioneer Jimmie Rodgers; southern honky-tonk and Cajun zydeco and swing…
“I got tired of lyricism, I suppose,” Thomas says. “I got disgusted with the pretension and self-importance that went with that particular folk-music scene. I got into using simpler words, and more rhythm.”
He also discovered a city where he felt more at home than any other in the course of his travels. “I met people like Jon Whitlock and Matt Morelock,” Thomas says of his earliest trips to Knoxville. “I had a really good feeling about the town. I liked the energy; I liked the spirit; I liked the people; I liked the parties.
“I’d come into town to play a solo show at Preservation Pub, and I’d run into people I’d met. And they were all like, ‘I’ve got a mandolin in my car,’ or whatever, so my solo shows were almost never solo. I’d never seen a town where everyone was so welcoming and cooperative, so musically open. I was like, ‘F@#$ yeah, I’m ready for this.’”
Thomas moved to Knoxville in 2008. His Knoxville regulars are known as Band of Drifters—the aforementioned Jon Whitlock on drums, plus pedal-steel ace Brock Henderson and bassist Chris Zuhr—and they’ve released one album since getting together, 2011’s Live at Preservation Pub. Theirs is a winsome brand of Americana that sounds at once comfortable and familiar, yet maintains a potent, singular character.
But Thomas has a whole other musical family—also with a couple live releases to their name—stashed away in the wilds of Montana. The Bus Driver Tour began as a sort of side project, when a booking agent introduced him to fellow songwriter Danny Freund. “She kind of gave him a bad build-up,” Thomas laughs. “But then when I met him, here was this guy who really had his shit together, just a solid gold dude. We’ve been like best friends ever since.”
But for all his travels and all of his projects, Thomas “only” has three proper studio releases to his name, a fact he attributes to “a lack of money and organization.” It’s a fact that he rues, acknowledging that his current circumstance—with two bands in two states—tends to diffuse his attentions further, rather than focusing them.
He also suggests he may have no other choice. “Things are pretty confusing for me right now,” Thomas says. “Ideally, I’d like to write my songs and then tour the world playing them. But meanwhile, I’m doing things the way I know how to do them.”
Ian Thomas and Band of Drifters will play Preservation Pub Monday, Sept. 29 at 10 p.m.