by Edd Hurt
Born on Sept. 3, 1933, in Spalding, Neb., Thomas Paul Glaser was the oldest the three singing Glaser brothers, though the Glaser family included five brothers and a sister. The Glasers grew up on a 1,200-acre corn and cattle farm, and the family endured tough times during the Depression years, with such calamities as drought, fire and tornadoes testing their resolve and, perhaps, strengthening their desire to become successful musicians.
Always ambitious and ready to step in front of a crowd, Glaser convinced his brothers to accompany him on guitar and vocals. As Jim Glaser told director Mike VanBuren in this year's documentary film From Nebraska Ranchers to Nashville Rebels: The Story of the Glaser Brothers, “Tompall just had this fire in him to play music. I’ve never really known anyone quite like that, that had that much fire. I don’t even know if I’d be in the music business had it not been for that drive of his.”
A born entertainer, Tompall was the leader of the group, and they got their break in 1957 when country star Marty Robbins made an appearance in Grand Island, Neb. Robbins took the young performers under his wing, and the Glasers came to Nashville that year to record for the newly created Robbins Records label. The Glasers wrote songs for Robbins, and contributed background vocals to many of his recordings during this period.
With Tompall usually singing lead, the Glasers recorded a series of fascinating full-lengths with producer Jack Clement in the ‘60s. Their roots in folk music showed on such albums as Tompall and the Glaser Brothers and Through the Eyes of Love, which featured some hits. With Clement’s idiosyncratic but smooth production providing strings and other uptown accouterments to their basic sound, the Glasers hit with 1969’s “California Girl (And the Tennessee Square)” and a version of Clement’s “Gone, On the Other Hand.” The Glasers also recorded “The Streets of Baltimore,” a song written by Tompall and Harlan Howard, though Bobby Bare’s version was the more popular.
In later years, Tompall embarked on a solo career. Somewhat overshadowed by Jennings and Nelson, he nonetheless proved himself an innovative, compelling singer. The Glasers also became businessmen, publishing John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” and operating the famed Hillbilly Central recording studio on 19th Avenue South in Nashville. The studio became a proving ground for the new generation of country-music artists. Tompall was one of the Nashville artists featured on the groundbreaking 1976 collection, Wanted! The Outlaws, which became country’s first platinum-selling album.
Suffering from ill health for several years before his death, Tompall was known as much for his outsized personality as his first-rate voice and business acumen. As Jim Glaser told VanBuren, “Tompall had a very shy side to him. I guess I always felt that was the bravado Tompall, the face he put on when he didn’t want to be the shy Tompall any more. It was just the name he gave himself. It was ‘The Great Tompall.’”