"I guess I’m a late bloomer,” Tomi Lunsford says. “I feel like I need to do five records at once because I’m behind and need to catch up. I had a lot of outlets for expression over the years — singing with other people, writing with other people, and my life is very full with family and friends. It just took me some time to focus.”
Lunsford is discussing her recent album, Come on Blue. It’s tempting to refer to the record as an impressive debut, even though Lunsford has been singing in Nashville studios for over four decades, and it isn’t her first album. Despite those details, Come on Blue is a riveting example of an artist coming into her own, combining years of experience with deep and sturdy musical roots.
A native of Asheville, N.C., Lunsford was born into a family with deep musical traditions. Her great-uncle Bascom Lamar Lunsford was a musician, singer, and folklorist who first recorded traditional mountain music in 1922. Her father, Jim Lunsford, was a singer, songwriter, and fiddle player who backed Roy Acuff and Reno & Smiley on the road, before relocating to Nashville with his wife and children in the mid-1960s to focus on songwriting.
“We moved to Nashville when I was in the sixth grade,” Lunsford says. “My parents never had the normal concept of making a living, and they didn’t hand that down to their children. I got paid a dollar for singing when I was in the second grade, and I never considered being anything other than a singer.”
Lunsford’s career as a singer found an outlet before she finished high school, singing on demo recordings of her father’s songs, and as a member of the folk/country/vocal harmony group The Lunsfords, comprised of her father and sisters Nancy and Teresa. “We were ahead of our time,” Lunsford says. “We were what people now call Americana. We really didn’t fit into one category.”
After her father’s death in 1978, Lunsford continued singing, frequently as a backup singer, appearing on countless recordings. In 1997, she made her belated solo debut with the album High Ground, released on the German Veracity label. Although the album’s 10 songs were all originals written with her sister Nancy or her husband, Warren Denney, the music hewed closely to her Appalachian roots. When she finally returned to the studio as a solo artist after almost two decades, she was determined to emphasize the musical vines and brambles sprinting from those roots.
“I’ve been around folk music all my life,” Lunsford says. “Even though that’s my heritage, I had never recorded anything really representative of my bigger musical picture. I felt like Robin Eaton was a good choice to help me go beyond what I’d done in the past. He gave me a pitch on how he thought I needed to be recorded, and it sounded just like what I had pictured in my mind.”
That bigger picture is evident across the 12 tracks of Come On Blue. Working with Eaton and a group of top Nashville session players, Lunsford fuses jazz and blues vocal stylings to eclectic musical arrangements that sometimes border on Tom Waits-ian oddity. This musical high strangeness is perhaps best represented by her cover of a traditional folk tune first recorded by her great-uncle Bascom in 1928. “I Wish I was a Mole in the Ground” cross-pollinates the song’s “Old Weird America” lyrical sensibilities with modern musical eclecticism, producing a strangely sweet fruit. This charming and off-kilter musical vision is also evident on the album’s 11 originals such as the heartache lament “Rain,” the infectious modern folk ballad “Jesus Was a Union Man,” and the honkytonk shuffle “Go To People.”
As for the future, Lunsford is at work on her next album. “I’m looking to do more of the same, but different,” Lunsford says. “I just love getting into the studio and singing. It’s amazing how many more songs there are to be written and sung. I’m here now, finally, and I’m ready to keep rolling.”