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Steeling the Show The spirited drumming of Tracy Thornton


ike any 20-year-old on the cusp of adulthood, Tracy Thornton was looking for his life path. He found it while watching a segment of Bill Moyers Journal on iconic mythologist Joseph Campbell. Thornton’s take away from the segment was that if you follow your bliss, doors will open that you never even knew existed. The next day Thornton quit his job as a courier for a brokerage firm and began pursuing a career as a percussionist full time. That was twenty-six years ago, and he hasn’t had a day job since. Already a drummer for a popular local rock band, Toxic Popsicle, Thornton soon got interested in African drums and from there it was a hop, skip and jump to steelpan, the chromatically-pitched drums indigenous to the Caribbean island of Trinidad and Tobago. Today he is one of the most respected and in-demand steelpan players on the planet. “I got what the natives call ‘pan jumbie,’” he says. “’Jumbie’ means ‘spirit,’ and I got taken over by the spirit of the pan.” By 1994 he released his first CD, Tracy Thornton’s Steeling Christmas, and the following year made his first foray to Trinidad and Tobago to play in the annual Panorama, the island-wide festival that is a competition among dozens of mega bands. “That was a life-changing and very humbling experience,” he says. “You think you’re hot stuff, and this 12-year-old kid beside you is hotter than you’ll ever be.” He returned and formed his first band, Been Caught Steeling, and another, Sons of Steel, before deciding to go solo in 2002. That’s when his career started to skyrocket. In 2006 he turned the upstairs of his and wife Lisa’s comfortable home in Jamestown into a state-of-the-art studio and began recording himself as well as other local bands. After his cover of Ramones songs landed him some exposure in SPIN magazine and on, he launched his own record label, Steel Pandemic, and his Pan Rocks series of classic rock and metal covers. Meanwhile, in 2008 he began doing teaching residencies at colleges, high schools, middle schools and conservatories around the globe — mentoring musicians who wanted to start community bands. Last year he was among thirty invitees (from 600 applicants) who participated in the Percussive Arts Society’s international conference in San Antonio. Long-term, the soft-spoken musician’s plan is to take the Pan Rocks series (he has already done two concerts) on the road, in the manner of a “STOMP!” or Mannheim Steamroller–type show, complete with costumes, lasers and special effects. “I’ve already got the players, template and business model on paper,” he says. “All I need is someone who believes in the concept to get behind it.” That’s where talent, hard work and following your bliss can take you. — Ogi Overman The Art & Soul of Greensboro

February 2016

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O.Henry February 2016  

The Art & Soul of Greensboro