It is not every day that someone sees a rusty vehicle and calls it art.
But Tommy Ring does.
His pieces of “road art” are constructed from junkyard items, weedy abandoned cars along country roads – all crafted by a man born in Arkansas who moved across the country as a Southern gospel-singing preacher’s kid, who became a self-described hellion, who made it to the top as a musician to the stars and fell to the bottom, only to climb back up to the top once again.
Sounds like a country song.
For Tommy Ring, the rat rod culture is his second calling. The rat rod culture, centered on cars made from parts manufactured prior to 1963, is a unique phenomenon taking the world by storm. At the center of it all sits Tommy Ring, an unexpected expert in the world of custom-built hot rods.
“The thing with the rat rod is this: the frame, the wheels and the motor and transmission can be perfect, but the body has to be patina or black primer,” Tommy described. Rat rods are a style of cars recognizable by their rusty exterior, parts salvaged from cars decades older than their drivers, and often as not, missing a hood to show off the exposed engine.
It is more than a style of car. It’s a popular culture embodying a spirit of ingenuity, independence and creativity, bringing with it a slight counter-culture edge.
Tommy would be the first to tell you that he is not who you’d expect to see at the center of a culture more to do with gangster style, lambchop sideburns and ’50s era pinup girls.
Yet this Arkansas-born preacher’s kid is right in the thick of it. Writing for Rat Rod magazine and providing insight into the hands-on methods of constructing a full build from the ground up, Tommy Ring has become the mentor for an entirely new generation of car enthusiasts.
“This is all young guys, 35 and down. It’s a young, young crowd.” This growing pool of enthusiasts, Tommy says, is “just eating it up.” The rat rod culture is much more accessible for entry-level beginners than others. “A full-blown street rod costs anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000. These are $1500 bucks. So you can see where a young kid working at Kroger’s with a baby on the way, he can’t do forty grand. But he can do $1500.”
Tommy’s enthusiasm for the culture and its young people is infectious. His work has appeared in Rat Rod magazine for three years, after submitting a story of his own that featured his first build – thanks to his good friends Russ Harrington and Ronny Robbins.
Those names probably sound familiar.
Russ Harrington, whose work has graced more album covers than would fill a roadster, is one of Nashville’s most respected photographers. Ronny Robbins, son of country legend and NASCAR driver Marty Robbins, has also been a friend of the Ring family for years.
“That Plymouth right there? That was Marty Robbins’ car. He had hired a guy to fix that car for him in ’76, and the guy butchered it. Marty got mad and threw it in a ravine – in a ditch, in a low place in this field. Weeds grew up, and trees grew up, and you couldn’t see it,” Tommy began.
“His son Ronny has been a good friend to us since we’ve been here,” Tommy continued. “Ronny’s into drag racing. We were at supper and I said, ‘Man, I’d love to get some old thing and get back into that stuff.’ And he said, ‘Well, come get Daddy’s old ’33 Plymouth.’”
“We went back there with a chainsaw and it took all day, but when I got the car out of there – I had the thing up and you know, it’s just a body. I built a frame and got a motor and I had it up and running.”
Tommy continued his tale. “Russ Harrington – we’ve been good friends with them for years, and he came to supper one night. He said, ‘What are you doing out there in that shop?’ I said, ‘Lemme show you!’ When he saw that Plymouth, he went crazy. He said, ‘That car’s gotta be in a magazine!’” Tommy laughs.
“It was that Plymouth that put me in the center of it,” Tommy says, sharing the limelight with his friends who started it all.
Tommy’s friendship with Marty Robbins’ son isn’t the first time he crossed paths with musical legends. Tommy’s compelling story weaves through what is arguably the most famous performance venue in all of country music outside the Grand Ole Opry.
Let’s begin at the beginning.
Born a preacher’s son, Tommy played Southern gospel on the piano as his father began small churches throughout the country, moving his family nearly every year to begin again. “My daddy didn’t have an education at all,” Tommy began. “He couldn’t read or write, but in the war, he was a war hero and spent 19 months on the front lines. But when he came home, there was a government program and they sent him to be a mechanic.”
“He was always a hellion. He was an alcoholic. He got his life straight at 25 – he got straight and thought he was supposed to be a preacher, and he did. He’s still alive at 95,” Tommy said proudly.
It wasn’t just church and piano-playing for Tommy. With his father’s mechanical skills supporting the family while they began churches, Tommy grew up learning from his father’s mechanical know-how.
“He’s so good at mechanics that he would take a piece of broomstick and hold it to his ear and put it to a motor and tell you exactly what was wrong. He never missed,” Tommy recalled. “We’d drive ratty cars you couldn’t keep half runnin’. I had to stop on the side of the road and rebuild a carburetor right there on the side of the road as a 16-year-old,” Tommy laughed.
The frequent moves built a spirit of independence in Tommy but were also difficult. “At gym class, you gotta pick teams. I’d get down to the last kid and they’d say, ‘I don’t want him.’ ‘Well, I don’t want him, either.’ And the teacher would say, ‘Well, one of you guys has to take him.’ Who wants to be that kid? That was the kid I was,” he said honestly.
Tommy, ever the problem-solver, took matters into his own hands. “We were moving yet again, and I was fixing to start high school. I got up and worked my guts out and bought new clothes, which I had never had up til then. I borrowed an annual from a kid down the street, and I memorized faces and names, and when I started high school, I went down the hall, calling people by name,” Tommy said, smiling. “When I started in high school, I was going to be somebody that had friends—that was likeable, that was popular. And that is exactly what happened.”
“When you want to be popular like that, you’ll give in to whoever whistles the loudest. Well, who was whistling loudest were the kids who were drinking and doing drugs,” Tommy related.
Yet it is through his struggles that Tommy’s character and future paths in life were carved.
“I started out playing piano. As one child would grow up, the next child would fill in and be the next piano player for the church. We were only allowed to play Southern gospel, but I snuck off and started playing rock ‘n’ roll,” Tommy laughed.
In his early 20s, Tommy struck out to find fame in California. Coincidence didn’t leave Tommy behind there, either. A friendship struck up over dinner with a couple who befriended him led Tommy to a gig at the world famous Palomino Club.
“Clint had been in all these Gene Autry and Roy Rogers pictures,” Tommy described. Without his new friends’ help, “I probably would’ve floundered around there and never amounted to anything.”
From a chance encounter grew a friendship that Tommy didn’t take for granted. “He took me all around up in Beverly Hills and Bel Air and started introducing me,” Tommy described. One of their stops was the world famous Palomino Club, legendary throughout the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. The epitome of a gritty, authentic place to perform, the Palomino saw such acts as Marty Robbins, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Jerry Lee Lewis and even Elvis Presley.
And Tommy was there.
“It just so happened that the piano player had just left the day before to take a gig in London, so there I was. Clint knew the guy, and the guy said, ‘I’ll tell you what. I’m gonna give you a shot. You play the sets tonight,’ and boy, we did.”
That first night led to a steady gig as the Palomino’s piano player for years. “My first night there was Eddie Rabbitt, Johnny Paycheck and Barbara Fairchild. Every night was like that,” Tommy said without an ounce of the boasting one would expect of someone with such an experience.
After years of success in the rough and gritty LA music scene, Tommy hit hard. “I went through a horrible divorce and everything. Came back to Arkansas and didn’t have a job,” Tommy described. “Alcoholic, strung out on drugs, lost a marriage. Was back in brokedown Arkansas living with my mother and daddy. A big ol’ cow up in their living room. Come on, you’ve not got it together by 30? Your mama’s back washing your clothes?”
Tommy straightened out his life, met and married his wife and started their family together. It wasn’t long before they settled in Nashville. After years of living here and raising a family, it was by chance that the experience of rat rods came across his path.
While his creative and mechanical skills have made him an expert in this field, it is not the actual creations that drive Tommy to continue. “I’ve become an evangelist in a strange, strange kind of way,” he chuckled. “People in the three-piece suits behind the pulpit could never touch these kids. Most of them have never been in a church.”
Tommy describes the impact that his life story has had on these young men. “Young guys are not like adults. They call at midnight and want to talk for an hour? Well, I talk for an hour. They want to talk about how to set up a rear end at midnight? We’re gonna talk about setting up a rear end.”
“A young kid from Milwaukee called me one night. It was late, probably midnight. He had been emailing and then he started calling. He said, ‘I’m building my first hot rod, and I don’t know what to do.’ I’d always walk him through it,” Tommy said earnestly. “He said, ‘My daddy left me when I was 10 years old, and I haven’t seen him since. You’ve been more of a daddy for me.’”
“I knew that I was doing something bigger than me. If I can make a better daddy out of a young guy or a better husband when they get married or if they’re already married, that’s what I’m really about. Hot rods? It’s a side note I use to get in the door,” Tommy said with a smile.
Walking alongside these young men, Tommy puts his difficult experiences to their best use. “Church doesn’t necessarily have walls. When I go to these car shows, that’s church. For me, it’s church. I’m going with the same intent, the same purpose.”
“Anytime you call somebody by name and when you talk to them and put a hand on their shoulder, you’ve made a friend.’