Mickey Harris tunes his mandolin in September 2012 at Louise Tomberlain's 80th birthday party at the Farmer's Restaurant in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/D. Whittle)
At age 9, a real bass electric model had Mickey Harris faithfully playing music each Thursday night for aging and ailing veterans at York VA Medical Center and the little Leanna Opry in the old Leanna School building.
At age 10, Middle Tennessee native Harris touched musical history, to wit, by playing backup to legendary uncle Dave Macon with deep Cannon and Rutherford county musical roots.
At 36, the locally grown minstrel strums and strolls all over the world with internationally acclaimed Rhonda Vincent and her Rage band.
In reference to that first electric bass guitar, he said, “my grandfather Jack Tomberlain bought it for my birthday. His band needed a bass player, so that’s what got me started.”
“Because my father, Eddie (Harris), worked in health care at York VA hospital, they permitted me, at under age 9, to come into Dad’s ward and make music for the veterans with my family, headed up at that time by my grandfather," Harris said. "We did that several years for the veterans.”
When Harris was 10 years old, his family's band was asked to back Uncle Dave in a performance.
"I sheepishly warned the legendary Uncle Dave, I didn’t know any of his songs," he said. "I’ll never forget his words: ‘My songs are simple, you’ll be OK.’ With uncle Dave’s confidence, I must have done fine.”
And into the new 21st century, the music plays on.
Last month, he and a group of family and friend musicians picked, harmonized and honored his grandmother Louise Tomberlain at Murfreesboro’s Farmer’s Restaurant for her 80th birthday.
Middle Tennessee music royalty was there, including 84-year-old legend Billy Yearwood, who dates back to the 1940s picking with Mickey’s extensive music-making family that includes the Tomberlains, Tiptons and the Leonards.
On the wall at Murfreesboro’s WGNS Radio, hangs a historic picture of Yearwood, who can be heard each Saturday morning making music at historic Readyville Mill Restaurant.
That 1947-era picture shows his uncle Carl Tipton, with Floyd Leonard, a present-day Murfreesboro resident, stroking the strings of a big bass fiddle, and Yearwood making his steel guitar cry out, blanketing radio land in parts of five Middle Tennessee counties.
While on tour this week in North Carolina and Arkansas with Rhonda Vincent, whom Harris has performed with the last 11 years, he described some of his music family roots.
“It’s born in us, this music stuff, no reunion goes without music," he said over a pile of hash browns and scrambled eggs at an Annapolis, N.C., eatery. "It runs in the family from generation to generation. That was evidenced the recent night we honored Grandmother with a surprise dinner and picking session.”
Those invited guests grew emotional when Louise and her sister, 77-year-old Sophie Tipton, after encouragement from picking session leader Harris, jarred down on soulful notes of an old Baptist hymnal song.
“My 4-year-old son, Jackson, named for my grandfather, walked up that night we honored her, and asked fiddle player Tom Brantley if he’d teach him how to play the fiddle,” Harris said. “Jackson is already interested in music.”
The family’s generational music tradition looks safe going into the future.
“My daughter, Mikayla, already loves to sing and loves music, so yes, the generational thing looks promising,” Harris proudly about the 6-year-old.
Mickey recalled his boyhood days of music, dating back to the regionally famous “Carl Tipton Show” that aired multiple decades on area radio and TV stations.
“Even when I had a toy guitar, sometimes they’d have us youngens come out on stage to maybe help introduce a special guest or to pretend we were making music along with the adult musicians,” Harris said. “My grandmother and aunt Sophie were lead singers with uncle Carl in that era, and we played a lot at the old Leanna Opry on Saturday nights.”
Today, Harris is recognized in the industry as accomplished on multiple instruments, including the dobro, mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass.
He describes area music heritage.
“Rutherford and Cannon counties are rich in talent and have greatly impacted the Nashville and world music scene, starting of course, with first super star uncle Dave Macon,” Harris said. “Uncle Dave put Murfreesboro and Cannon County on the map.”
“I recall Billy Yearwood going back to the 1940s, with him appearing with legends such as Kitty Wells and her husband in 1946,” Harris. “He later played with us when I was a boy at York VA Medical Center. And today, at age 84, his music plays on. … We have a great music tradition here.”