All Thomas Gnoza ever wanted to do was play music and sing.
His mother, Mary Lou, could never convince him to come up with a backup plan. “He’d say, ‘Mom, this is my career,’ ” she said.
And it was a fruitful one. Gnoza, 49, of Richland, a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, became a luminary of the Tri-City music community — earning fans with his powerful songs and admirers for his willingness to encourage and support younger musicians.
The music community is reeling from his death. Gnoza died unexpectedly in his sleep Wednesday night.
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A memorial service is planned April 4 in Richland. An open mic night and pub crawl also are planned April 1 in Gnoza’s honor.
On Friday, friends and family paid tribute to Gnoza’s musical chops, but also to his sense of humor and the tender side beneath a sometimes-prickly exterior.
“He was so kind,” said Dara Quinn, a musician and owner of The Emerald of Siam in Richland. “A legend in his own time.”
Jimmy McCabe, a fellow musician and longtime friend, said Gnoza “was always there for people. He really did love people.”
McCabe and Gnoza grew up near each other in Richland, and both ended up in Los Angeles and Portland as young men.
In a Facebook remembrance, McCabe wrote about reconnecting with Gnoza in the Tri-Cities in the mid-1990s. “My musical life was somewhat off the rails. The music I had loved turned so commercial I could barely stand it, and the long list of songs I would play had gotten shorter and shorter,” McCabe wrote.
But Gnoza’s music “blew my mind. He had been in Seattle playing the (stuff) I was looking for. A punk-ass-country-billy-Bob Dylan-swapped-underwear-with-Tom Waits and gave his Jesus sandals to The Pogues … I was hooked. Tom’s voice was powerful. Belting out Tom Waits’ Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard like a freight train.”
Gnoza played with a number of bands over the years, from Thin Men and Uncle Dirt Nap to The Millionaires Club.
And he was an engaging solo act, friends and family said.
Brian Paxton, a fellow musician and close friend, praised Gnoza’s songwriting skills.
“His claim to fame was lyrics. He loved a story, and no one told a story better in this music scene than Tom did,” the friend said.
Paxton and others described Gnoza as a a pillar of the Tri-City music scene — one who would take younger artists under his wing.
“He was very nurturing to the younger musicians. He would coach them and give them a really good start,” Quinn said.
Mary Lou Gnoza and her son had a special bond. She’s also a well-known Tri-City musician, and “with me doing the same thing, playing the same clubs, we had so much to share, so much in common,” she said. They both loved being on stage and felt like they were their truest selves there, she said.
Although Tom Gnoza played just about every venue in the Tri-Cities, friends and family said his favorite gig was an annual party for children with autism.
In the past few days, tributes have been pouring in on Facebook. Mary Lou said they’ve been heartening to read, although she wishes they weren’t necessary.
“I wish he were here instead,” she said.
“He really loved people,” Mary Lou Gnoza said. “I was so lucky to have him for 49 years.”
The memorial service is from 3 to 6 p.m. April 4 at Einan’s event center in Richland. Friends are welcome.
The open mic night is April 1 at The Emerald of Siam, and a pub crawl is planned at Siam, Lee’s Tahitian, Ray’s Golden Lion, Wook’s Craft & Cork and The Lunch-box. Organizers are collecting prizes for a drawing; they can be dropped off at Siam, Wook’s Craft & Cork and The Lunch-box.