West Ashley musician Ernest Thompson plays 13 instruments on his debut album The Words I Heard, including a vintage violin | Photo by Rūta Smith

Charleston singer-songwriter Ernest Thompson’s new album, The Words I Heard, is something of a tour-de-force. Thompson played everything but the drums on the album’s nine tracks, mixing acoustic guitar with violin, organ, dobro, banjo and pedal steel. 

Thompson’s debut also displays a broad stylistic range. Kicking off with a bouncing 12-bar blues number, “West Ashley Blues,” one might expect him to continue in that vein. But Thompson moves all over the place, going from vintage acoustic folk on the song “Desiree” and gentle rock for the album’s title track, to old-school country on “Foothills.” There’s even a sturdy bluegrass number called “I’ll Fly Away (Tomorrow).”

Some of that musical mix comes from Thompson’s background, learning folk and old-time music from his parents.

“I grew up with banjos and fiddles and mandolins in the house,” Thompson said. “So I was always interested in that kind of stuff, and I always loved the language of the banjo and the pedal steel and those kinds of instruments that are very much country/Americana instruments.”

He spent years playing multiple instruments in different bands, but The Words I Heard marks him stepping out on his own. And his reasons for doing it are more practical than artistic — the North Carolina native was looking to launch his musical career when he moved to Charleston a few years back. Being a solo singer-songwriter seemed to be the quickest way to do that.

“If you’re looking to get booked for gigs and you’re looking to build a network and make things happen on your own, it’s a lot easier to be a front person,” he said. “If I want to get booked somewhere, I’ll sing the songs. I’ll play the guitar. I’ll do everything myself.”

Thompson started off busking on the streets of Charleston, learning what worked and what didn’t. He moved up to open mics and bar and restaurant gigs all while building a catalog of his own songs. Eventually, he had enough tunes to record an album, which he did over the span of 10 months at Southern Harmony Recording Studio in Florence, South Carolina.

As for the decision to play all those instruments himself, Thompson said it was the best way to express himself and stay within a tight recording budget.

“It partially comes back to the issue of necessity,” he said. “I didn’t have a huge budget to hire out a bunch of studio musicians. But I’m pretty comfortable on all those instruments. This is my first album — I’m putting myself out there to the world. There are definitely some imperfections, but I think it gives it character to say, ‘Hey, this is me. What you’re hearing is me.’ ”

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