Frank Thomas writes and performs songs about the history, people, and places of Florida. Songs such as “Old Cracker Cowman,” “The Flatwoods of Home,” and “Spanish Gold” have earned him a loyal following. In 2013, Thomas was inducted into the Florida Artists Hall of Fame.
Thomas’s Florida roots run deep.
“The Thomas side of the family came into Florida in 1820,” says Thomas. “He married a girl who was born in St. Augustine in 18 and 5, and her parents was well established there, they’d been there about 20 years, so I’m thinking it had to be late 1780s or early 1790s.”
Members of the Thomas family experienced a lot of Florida history.
“Longevity seems to run in my family,” says Thomas. “My daddy was born in 18 and 82. Now he grew up in a whole different era. Now think about that. I was born in (19)43. He was 61 when I was born. His daddy died at a fairly early age. A one-eyed mule kicked him in the head. That’s what killed him. My great-granddaddy, who I sing about in the song ‘The Flatwoods of Home,’ fought in the Great War of Northern Aggression and fought in the Seminole Indian Wars.”
Thomas grew up in Middleburg, Florida, in a musical family who played gospel music. His first performing experiences were in church. His early musical influences also included performers on radio broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry, including Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and Webb Pierce.
“Some of the old time country stuff really fascinated me,” says Thomas. “We didn’t have electricity (until the 1950s) but we had a battery operated radio. My momma would listen to these old soap operas in the daytime. My daddy made her save that battery for Saturday nights so we could listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and that’s where I first started getting influenced.”
After serving seven years in the Army in the 1960s, Thomas began touring with nationally known gospel, country, and bluegrass bands as a guitarist and singer. He played with groups including the Taylor Brothers, the Webb Family, and the Arkansas Travelers.
“I made my way back to Florida in the late (19)70s, and I met Will McLean,” says Thomas. “Will was a big inspiration for me. He encouraged me to write songs about Florida. He said ‘You know, you write all these love songs and cheatin’ songs, you don’t do much of that. Write about what you know.’ He used to tell me that it would take all of us doing all we can to tell Florida’s story. There’s so much history in the state of Florida.”
Thomas joined other folk musicians such as Gamble Rogers, Paul Champion, and Bobby Drawdy in their efforts to preserve Florida stories in song.
“A song seems to stay with people,” says Thomas. “It focuses on their mind and they don’t forget it. I think that’s why, with the kids in schools, they need to be teaching more Florida history through music.”
Thomas has gained a reputation for strongly encouraging other performers to write songs about Florida history and culture.
“Sometimes I will give assignments to somebody, ‘go write a song about this or about that’ and the main reason for that was ‘Cousin’ Thelma Boltin,” says Thomas.
Boltin was director of the Florida Folk Festival at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center in White Springs from 1954 to 1965, and continued performing as a storyteller at the annual event until 1986.
“She hemmed me up one time backstage, got to putting her finger in my face,” says Thomas. “She was an old school teacher, retired. She scared me good.”
Boltin told Thomas about the FBI attempt to capture the infamous Barker gang at their Florida hideout in Ocklawaha. The resulting shootout resulted in the deaths of family matriarch Ma Barker and her son Fred.
“She said, ‘now you go write a song about that and you have it for me the next time I see you,’” says Thomas. “She did that to a lot of people. I try to carry that tradition on.”
Thomas performs regularly at the Florida Folk Festival each Memorial Day weekend, and at venues throughout the state.