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A mainstay of the medicine show circuit until the early 1940s, Clarence Ashley was discovered by a new generation when his early recordings were included on the Folkways album Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. He came out of semi- retirement during the 1960s folk revival, became a popular staple of music festivals and recorded a pair of albums that introduced influential flatpicking guitarist Doc Watson.

Ashley was raised by his maternal grandfather who ran a boarding house-he was inspired by the jokes and songs of the transient guests. Two elderly aunts gave him banjo instruction and he left home to join his first medicine show in 1913, plucking the banjo to lure crowds so the wily snake-oil pitchman could sell elixir. By 1927, Ashley was performing with numerous string bands including the Blue Ridge Entertainers, Byrds Moore and His Hot Shots, and the Carolina Tar Heels. His solo debut came in 1929 when he recorded "The Cuckoo Bird" and "The House Carpenter" for Columbia records. Signed to a solo contract by both Columbia (as Clarence Ashley) and Victor (as Tom Ashley), he recorded for both labels until 1933.

In 1943, Ashley turned in his banjo for a truck and hauled coal, furniture and lumber with his son. His performances were limited to working as a comedian with Charlie Monroe's Kentucky Partners and the Stanley Brothers. While his songs were revived by string band instrumentalists in the 1950s, Ashley had pretty much disappeared from the music scene until the 1960s when he met folklorist Ralph Rinzler who set up the recording session with Doc Watson that brought Ashley back into the spotlight.

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