SPRING LAKE — When Frank Thomas hears the names of musicians and singers such as Tom Petty, Pat Boone and Gloria Estefan, all of whom are to be inducted with him later this month into the Florida Artists Hall Of Fame, it gives him a chuckle.
"At least most folks know who those people are. They're famous," Thomas says in his distinctive Southern drawl. "Me, I'm just a guitar picker from Polk County."
But those who have listened to some of the more than 500 songs that Thomas has penned during his 59 years would agree that he is very much worthy of the prestigious honor.
A seventh-generation Floridian who grew up in Clay County, Thomas is celebrated by many in the state's folk music community as the legitimate musical heir to the legacy of Will McLean, the legendary troubadour for whom this weekend's annual three-day music festival at Sertoma Youth Ranch is named.
As always, Thomas, who sits on the board of the nonprofit Will McLean Foundation, will be there to perform and to cheer on the young and upcoming musicians who have also chosen to champion the state through song.
"Listening to the songs of those young people makes you realize how deep the roots of Will's music go," said Thomas, who is co-chairman of the festival committee that chooses the best new Florida song entry each year. "That to me, that's his true legacy, and one that will never die."
Thomas first met McLean briefly in the late 1960s while he was member of the country group Arkansas Travelers. Later, when Thomas returned to his Polk County residence, McLean invited him to attend the annual Florida Folk Festival with him. After watching and listening to McLean mesmerize the audience with his soulful baritone voice, Thomas became a convert.
"Will convinced me I should quit trying to write love songs and start writing songs about Florida," Thomas recalled. "It was good advice because I never did too well writing love songs anyway."
For more than 20 years, Thomas and his late wife, Ann, were a mainstay at Carl Allen's Historical Cafe in Auburndale, performing original tunes such as My Polk County Home, Spanish Gold and Suwannee River Sunrise. In addition, the couple hosted a long-running radio show, Songs of Florida, on Tampa's WMNF-FM that often featured well-known Florida folk performers such as Gamble Rogers, Jim Ballew, Don Grooms and Bobby Hicks.
Thomas said he appreciates hearing from people who say they've actually learned something meaningful about Florida from one of his songs. Packing history and lore into his verses, he tries to bring listeners a real sense of Florida that they will likely never experience.
"I see it as a way of educating the audience," Thomas said. "So many people have a skewed vision of this state. They forget that Florida was here before developers arrived. I want to share what I know about it with them."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.