from an article about RCR's first twenty years...
The Red Clay Ramblers' music is hard to define. Critics call it a sprightly hybrid of Cajun and Irish, Tin Pan Alley and Dixieland jazz, with a blend of bluegrass, blues, spirituals and polka. Onstage, they are silly and serious, lively and melancholy, always full of fun and banter as they shift through a dazzling array of instruments.
Perhaps The Washington Post put it best when it dubbed the Ramblers "America's premiere whatzit band." But call them eclectic, eccentric or quirky, this band's elusive quality has taken them far in the past two decades: across the country and around the world, through bars and concert halls, from recording studios to theater sets.
Not bad for a bunch of down-home guys who simply like to play music.
The Red Clay Ramblers originated in 1972 as an Appalachian string band called the Hollow Rock String Band, which played mainly conventional tunes. "We tried to sound exactly like we'd existed in 1930," says banjo player Tommy Thompson. "That was our aim." They have also expanded from a trio to a quintet, though trying to figure out their chronology is about as exasperating as defining their style. Suffice it to say that Thompson is the only remaining original member.
Thompson, a laconic, amiable man who has penned such soulful ballads as "Twisted Laurel" and "Hot Buttered Rum" was a graduate student in philosophy when he formed the initial threesome with Jim Watson and Bill Hicks '65. "I loved the philosophy department at UNC," he recalls. "I really learned a lot." But music gradually seduced him away from a dissertation and finally took over altogether.
In 1973 the trio grew to a quartet with Mike Craver '70, a UNC English graduate, playing piano—a rather odd addition for a string band. Then in 1975 they really got radical, adding Jack Herrick '70 on bass and trumpet, and the peculiar makeup of the Red Clay Ramblers was complete.
Life was quiet for the Ramblers in the early years. They played locally and in 1974 recorded their first album, which still reflected their traditional leanings. But the tide turned in 1975 when the band got involved with the theatrical production Diamond Studs, a musical about Jesse James written by Bland Simpson and fellow UNC. graduate Jim Wann '70.
Diamond Studs premiered at the Ranch House in Chapel Hill in October 1974, with the Ramblers and the Fidelity Choir providing the music. It moved to New York in January 1975 for a seven-month run off-Broadway and received rave reviews. "It was a very exciting time for all of us," Craver recalls, "being the toast of the town and having a hit show." It was during this time that Herrick arrived on the scene, first as an actor in the production and then as the fifth member of thc band.
Diamond Studs marked the band's foray into theater, in which they have remained active through the years. More important, it crystallized their shift from revivalist music to a more original, contemporary and creative sound—the eclectic music—which was to become their trademark. It was also the moment of truth as the Ramblers took the plunge and quit their jobs— Thompson from the faculty of North Carolina State University, Hicks from Duke University Press and Watson from a Raleigh library, while Craver dropped to part time at UNC.
The Ramblers struggled like any young group, hitting the road for gigs, playing for a pittance and spending more time up North than in their own territory. "It was really frustrating," Thompson recalls. "We had a hard time getting people to take us seriously." They were, after all, just another homespun band in the heyday of folk music, though they did manage regular stints at the old Cat's Cradle (now the Skylight Exchange), while appearances at the Winnipeg Folk Festival in Canada also helped broaden their exposure.
With the release of six albums over the next few years, the band's reputation grew, as did the whimsical sound they were refining as their own.
Then one day Sam Shepard heard a Ramblers tune on the radio as he was driving around in his pickup truck in Iowa during the filming of Country. Thompson was astounded to come home one afternoon and find a phone message from the playwright and director. "It was love at first sound," Thompson says. "He just liked our music because it was so American." That serendipitous encounter led to the Ramblers composing and performing for Shepard's off-Broadway production of A Lie of the Mind in 1985-86.
In 1984 Thompson wrote a
one-man play about a fictitious 19th-century minstrel man, The Last
Song of John Proffit. Thompson's Merry Wives had a production
in UNC's Forest Theatre. In 1986 he and fellow Rambler Herrick composed
the music for Earrings, a theatrical adaptation of local author
Lee Smith's novel Oral History, and this year he scored Savages,
a play by John Justice.
|(Webgal's note: Just for the record, the Hollow Rock String Band started in the mid 60s, and the Red Clay Ramblers grew both from it and from the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. Jim Watson left the band by 1986.|
September 23, 2003