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He was born in Surry County, North Carolina, United States. Although he made his living from road construction (operating a motor grader for the North Carolina Highway Department until his retirement in 1966), Jarrell was an influential musician, eventually attracting attention from Washington D.C. when he received the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship in 1982. That year's fellowships were the first bestowed by the NEA, and are considered the United States government's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts.
Jarrell's style was notable for its expressive use of syncopation and sliding ornamentation, and he was adept at singing while playing. His formidable technique and rough timbre continue to influence modern aficionados of Appalachian old-time music and in particular the Round Peak style of clawhammer banjo.
Tommy Jarrell died in January 1985 from a heart attack in his home, at the age of 83.
He was the subject of two documentaries produced by Les Blank: Sprout Wings and Fly and My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge. He also featured in the 2002 DVD Legends of Old Time Music.
An annual festival, established in 2002 as the Tommy Jarrell Celebration, is held in Mount Airy, North Carolina.
- Colin Larkin, ed. (1993). The Guinness Who's Who of Country Music (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. p. 201. ISBN 0-85112-726-6.
- Marty McGee (2000). Traditional Musicians of the Central Blue Ridge. Contributions to Southern Appalachians Studies. McFarland & Company. pp. 93–97. ISBN 0-7864-0876-6.
- "NEA National Heritage Fellowships 1982". Arts.gov. National Endowment for the Arts. Archived from the original on September 29, 2020. Retrieved November 14, 2019.
- "TOMMY JARRELL". Nytimes.com. January 29, 1985. Retrieved August 7, 2021.
- Sprout Wings and Fly. Flower Films. 1983. OCLC 10403063.
- My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge. Flower Films. 1994. ISBN 9780933621619.
- Legends of Old Time Music (DVD). Rounder Records. 2002. ISBN 9781579409500.
- "Tommy Jarrell Celebration". The Surry Arts Council. Retrieved March 15, 2015.
- Jarrell commemorated in the Old Time Fiddler's Hall of Fame. Includes sound file.
- Donny Mussel's Tommy Jarrell page
- Field Recorders Collective "To find a superb collection of CDs of American traditional styles; including Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, music from private collections now made available to the public"
- Been Riding with Old Mosby album details at Smithsonian Folkways
- Appalachian Journey: PBS film with a segment on Jarrell
- Tribute by David Holt to Jarrell as a mentor