Mr. Authentic

Country-blues guitarist O.C. Thomas excels in near-obscurity

By JOHN FOYSTON -- The Oregonian

Truth is the first casualty of war, but in this time of Pax Corporata, as fake Venices and pyramids rise over Las Vegas, it's authenticity that lies bleeding.

At best, authenticity is a slippery concept these days. That's why it's such a pleasure to sit in O.C. Thomas' Northeast Portland basement and listen to the man play the blues. When he ties into Muddy Waters' "Two Trains Runnin'" and the treble strings of his Wards Truetone guitar echo the swoops of his voice as his right thumb picks out a steady rhythm, questions of authenticity are far away.

Outside is a world where faux-Irish pubs are run by corporations intent on committing synergy, where movies are populated by dinosaurs and alien armies that never existed except as electrons on a computer screen, and convenience-store nachos are slathered with lurid orange petro-chemical goo passed off as "cheese." Never mind: here in the cheerful clutter of the man's basement den, the blues are as real as a broken heart.

Thomas, 75, moved to Oregon from rural Mississippi back in 1944 and bought his guitar in the '60s. But his planned short set at Saturday's Willamette Delta Showcase at the Aladdin Theatre will be the first time most of us will have a chance to hear him; for most of those years he's played strictly for his own pleasure and that of neighbors and passers-by.

"You can get a party started real easy with a guitar," Thomas says. Like many folks, he stretches "guitar" into two words: "git-tar." "I'd be sittin' in my garage playing and people would come up and ask, 'Do you mind if I listen?' and I'd say, 'No, that's fine,' and pretty soon somebody'd start dancing. I never thought that I sounded that good, but a lot of people liked it -- though back when I drank, I'd get about half-looped and start thinking I sounded pretty good."

He's being modest: His brand of country blues is something elemental, beyond good or bad. "He sounds a little like early Muddy Waters," says neighbor Jan Celt, who included Thomas on a recent CD on Celt's Flying Heart Records. "If you ask him, O.C. says he likes his blues down and dirty."

Diabetes put an end to Thomas' drinking days, but he still has a bottle of his favorite hooch on the table, a pint of Monarch Canadian whiskey. It's filled, though, with some wine he made five years ago that went sour. Perhaps it's a reminder of younger days, when he spent 22 years working construction and 10 years before that as a steeplejack, working high up on bridges, smokestacks and towers around the Portland area.

"I liked steeplejacking," he says. "The heights never bothered me and nobody else did, either. Sometimes I'd climb up there with a half-pint tucked in my boot." Not that the odd nip seemed to hinder the job at hand. When Thomas worked construction, he used to manhandle one of those big vibrating tampers and do it one-handed. He remembers when he and another man -- slung in bosun's chairs from each side -- painted a still-hot 125-foot smokestack in less than eight hours. Smaller jobs? "We'd finish them by lunch and go drink beer for the rest of the day."

Failing health has robbed Thomas of the vigor of those days. But he still plays guitar, even though his fingertips are often sore from being pricked twice a day for blood samples. He's lived through worse, such as losing his left thumb when he was 17 while running a big saw at a stave mill. "I'd been out all night drinking and chasing girls, and I was sleepy and that saw put off a pretty good breeze. I jerked away and the guy feeding me wood asked if I'd cut myself -- I didn't feel anything more than a tap, like I'd been hit by a splinter ..."

"I've had some good days and some bad ones," Thomas says, "but after 75 years, I'm still going."

If Saturday is one of his good days, Thomas will play a short set in the second annual Willamette Delta Showcase.

Excerpted from the Oregonian A & E , Friday, March 9th, 2001.