Stevie Tombstone’s saga canopies like a rock n’ roll oak, the kind with wild, ever-searching roots that tangle and gnarl above the earth. Career-wise, his boxset would be monstrous, a cornucopia of lost highway narratives hauled from Georgia to Texas to California to New York and all points in between, shredding rockabilly gospel and living the troubadour’s lovely curse one song at a time.
Tombstone’s early childhood was spent in Central Georgia at a point when the vanguard reverberations of Southern Rock began to ring.
“My brother was born in Macon, so I lived there when I was a little kid,” Tombstone reveals during a recent midday phone call. “My dad worked for the Department of Labor, and I believe Phil Walden’s wife worked with my dad. I got exposed to all that stuff when I was a kid. That was the ’60s, and then I was really into the Southern Rock scene in the ’70s and was really goin’ to see a lot of Capricorn acts and buyin’ their records. It made a little mark on me!”
It was a distinction shared by the whole family, as Stevie’s parents were also great admirers of country music.
“They were huge music fans, so I was always around it. They were listenin’ to records at home or takin’ us to see shows,” remembers Tombstone. “I was goin’ to see Charlie Daniels and Elvin Bishop and tryin’ to meet all these people as a young person. It was pretty awesome! And then I discovered heavier music, more underground stuff!
Tombstone’s artistic ambitions emerged at an early age– as legend has it after a chance meeting with Roy Acuff– and he embraced the guitar before he was a teenager, pickin’ bluegrass at church or talent shows before straying into the rockier realms at the edge of Georgia’s emerging scene in the 1980s.
“I didn’t know how good I had it,” Stevie laughs, remembering the era. “I was hangin’ out in Athens, I was hangin’ around the Atlanta scene. I was sleepin’ in storefront windows right outta college! I had to be a musician, so I did whatever it took! But I was goin’ to see all kinds of great music– and I didn’t realize what was goin’ on around me, where you could go see R.E.M or go see the Georgia Satellites and it was just a regular thing! You can’t do that anymore!”
Stevie’s initial run with a band came with the formation of Atlanta’s alt-ish rockabilly outfit (and the source of his nom de plume) The Tombstones, who wreaked fair havoc with their 1988 twangy punk ballad “Nobody”.
“I started [The Tombstones] probably in the mid-80s. It just sorta happened. It was more of a club than a band in the beginning! It was more of a gang of people who like to play music,” laughs Stevie. “We had no inclination of getting a record deal or anything. We were playin’ and I was havin’ a great time! I wanted to be a musician, but it never occurred to me to go make a record. That was my first experience with the record industry and radio and stuff like that.”
In the 1990s, As The Tombstones wound down and Stevie felt the pull of his country music roots, Austin, Texas seemed like a fertile new stomping ground.
“I was doin’ pretty well in the music scene in Atlanta, but I wanted to hone my craft a little more, so I got rid of everything I had and bought a pickup truck and moved out there! I just went out there and I worked three jobs. I used to work at the Hole In The Wall, I had a bunch o’ gigs playin’ sideman for a bunch o’ other people, and I ended up stayin’ out there for almost fifteen years! It was the best experience I’d had in my life!”
In 2003, Stevie released his debut full-length 7:30 AM, a rawhide and righteous alt-country affair marked by tremolo, smooth steel, and striking songs.
“7:30 AM is a collection of songs and demos that I carried around in a suitcase for about ten years,” Tombstone recalls. “Some o’ that stuff was on reel-to-reel tape! I kept workin’ on that record and we finished it up in Austin and my friend Jeff Smith put it out on his label Saustex Media. That was their first release and they’ve probably put about 80 records out since then at the very least.”
7:30 AM (which just got a stellar digital rerelease for its 20th anniversary) set the pace and target going forward with Tombstone whetting his writer’s edge in the halls and on the stages in the Texas capital amidst sojourns to Nashville and Los Angeles. In 2007, Stevie and his family moved to Central New York, and in 2011, the slim and folky Slow Drunken Waltz was released followed in 2012 by the nigh-epic Greenwood and its title track lamenting Tombstone’s trip with friend and aforementioned Georgia Satellite Rick Richards to Mississippi in search of bluesman Robert Johnson’s grave.
“I was playin’ a couple hundred nights a year. I really just wanted to do hand-to-hand combat, and I wanted to work on my craft and work on connectin’ with people. I played where I was wanted and I tried to go off the beaten path where people don’t get a lot o’ entertainment. I wasn’t really concerned about a career trajectory as much as I was about makin’ people happy and makin’ myself happy. I did that ’til I ran myself in the ground! I’m not playin’ quite as much now– more quality, less quantity– but I’m still pretty darn busy!”
Often described as a “best-kept secret”, Tombstone, who now hands his hat in the green mountains of North Carolina, nevertheless carved a supportive and fulfilling path through the wilderness as a solo artist, performing, recording, and releasing music on his own terms– that is until the pandemic laid waste to the plans of mice and musicians.
“I had COVID. It did affect me bein’ out o’ work for about a year and a half,” says Tombstone. “That little circuit that I had done was a pretty fun little network that kinda got wiped out when the pandemic happened, so I had to restructure my business plan–and then I got COVID. And then I had long COVID and I was sick for a long time. I just got out of physical therapy in November. I was down for about 6 or 8 months. I’ve just started giggin’ again this year.”
In 2022, Tombstone’s back catalog has been made available with several compilations filling in the gaps between albums, heralding a fresh creative phase and renewed commitment.
“I’m workin’ on a new project right now. I’ve got some stuff written and I’m doin’ demos and I’ve been workin’ with some folks here in the western North Carolina area– there’s some really good musicians here and great players. I’ve just been workin’ on a project a little bit at a time in between, and lookin’ for some fresh inspiration.”
With a new album on the way, Stevie Tombstone has been back out performing with friends like Charlie Starr and Drivin N Cryin, leading the charge of the truth-wielding lone troubadour still as much in love with the notion as he was four decades ago.
“I really love playin’ in a band and not havin’ the whole load on me, and I don’t know if it’s the mystique as much as I just like the autonomy,” says Tombstone of his solo career. “I can play each show differently if I want to. I can adjust my performance to the audience, and I really like doin’ that. If you saw me three or four times, you may not get the same show every time which I think is kind of important.”