From Songwriter to Sideman to Poco guitarist
As an artist and musician, Tom Hampton’s journey has taken him across a multitude of landscapes over the course of his career - from fledgling drummer to taking up guitar to explore the craft of songwriting and recording, later finding his own niche as an in-demand session player and sideman - to his current day role as a member of the pioneering country-rock band Poco.
A native of Savannah, Tennessee, Tom’s first musical memories emanated from the AM radio in his grandfather’s truck and the occasional performance on TV - the radio became a window to the world at large during his teen years, later working as a disc jockey at his hometown radio station and enjoying a stint as a drummer in several local bands before eloping to the Navy after high school (“I could save up money and pay for college, or I could join the Navy and they could pay me,” he remembers. “At seventeen, that seemed like the better choice.”)
After the military, he landed in the Philadelphia area - initially seeking out a band, but opting instead to play as a solo acoustic act...and began touring the Northeast on a full-time basis, ultimately self-releasing a debut recording in 1991 and then signing with Longview Records in 1996 for the release of Our Mutual Angels (which featured a cover of Poco’s Made of Stone). The record received multiple positive reviews, including a Top 12 pick in Performing Songwriter magazine. Tom played the lion’s share of stringed instruments on the record, including mandolin, dobro, lap steel and a variety of guitars - and his versatility soon made him an in demand sideman and session player. His admiration for players like Rusty Young, David Lindley and Buddy Miller inspired him to experiment with various instruments, and his sonic approach earned him the respect of notable producers and engineers like T-Bone Wolk, Grammy winners and nominees Andy Kravitz, Phil Nicolo and Craig White of Philadelphia International Records (home of TSOP architects Gamble and Huff).
His adeptness at backing singer/songwriters in a live environment, likely borne out of his origins as a singer/songwriter himself, quickly caught the attention of artists like Nashville songwriters Craig Bickhardt, Michael Johnson, Thom Schuyler and others, as well as Philadelphia mainstay Robert Hazard and Hooters guitarist John Lilley, Americana songsmith JD Malone, Dan May, country crooner Daryle Singletary, folksingers like Eric Andersen and Tracy Grammer, rocker John Eddie and many others.
Tom also began a collaborative project with Bickhardt and Poco bassist Jack Sundrud called Idlewheel. Bickhardt and Sundrud had completed the first Idlewheel album before Bickhardt had moved back to Philadelphia, and they soon recruited Hampton to fill out the band, which continues as a touring and recording unit to this day.
Tom also collaborated heavily on an album with Philadelphia radio legend and Broadcast Pioneers Hall of Fame member Michael Tearson. “He is one of those rare talents - he's a guy who's able to illuminate a song from the inside out," says Tearson. "He's always focused on the song...and ironically, he shines as a player by staying out of the way of the song."
In 2012, after a chance encounter while sharing the same stage, Marshall Tucker Band vocalist and founding member Doug Gray invited Hampton to sit in with the band during a New Jersey concert appearance - and ended up playing almost sixty shows with the Marshall Tucker Band over a two year period as a “semi-permanent special guest”, as Hampton calls it. "Tom is just one of those guys that fits our band," Gray remembered. "A lot of guys just sit and wait for their turn to solo, but Tom plays to the band."
Tom has also been a frequent onstage guest of Pure Prairie League and vocalist Craig Fuller, and has backed Poco guitarist Paul Cotton on multiple instruments as well.
At the end of his MTB run, Tom relocated to Nashville, where he took occasional work with songwriters like Rob Snyder, Channing Wilson and Erik Dylan - choosing to work with artists who appealed to him on a musical level rather than hunting down a paycheck. “I’m too old to fake it,” he said in a podcast interview in 2014. “I can’t play stuff that doesn’t inspire me anymore. It might not be obvious to the listener, but if it doesn’t move me on some level, then I’m not going to do my best work. It’s a crippling affliction from a gigging standpoint, but I’m one hundred percent at peace with it.”
In 2019, Hampton received a call from Sundrud inviting him to fill in on guitar for Poco for a handful of 2020 dates, and Hampton jumped at the chance. “They’ve been one of my favorite bands for as long as I can remember. I’ve recorded cover versions of their songs on my records, I’ve opened for them quite a few times, and Rusty, Paul and Jack have eclipsed hero status and have become friends over the years, so they’re part of my DNA. So of course, I was happy to do it.”
The temporary role blossomed into an offer to join the band as a permanent full time member in 2020, and Hampton talks about his new role in almost reverent tones. “I wouldn’t be who I am today, as a musician, if it weren’t for this band, so yeah - I take this very seriously. I try to play these songs the way I’d want to hear them played if I were in the audience. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d want to be, from a musical standpoint, than where I am right now. And how many people can say that?”
Touring came to a halt with the onslaught of COVID, and founding member Rusty Young passed away suddenly in April of 2021, just as the band was making preparations to return to the road that summer - bringing the bands' 53 year career to its closing chapter. Compounding matters, longtime guitarist Paul Cotton passed away just a few months later. Both men were friends, mentors and heroes over a period that spanned three decades. While talks are underway for a followup project involving surviving members of the band, Tom has begun writing and recording material for multiple projects, including his first full length album of original material since 1997's "Our Mutual Angels" (which may get a 25th anniversary re-release in 2022).