Red Clay Ramblers’ style is eclectic
By Guinn Batten,
It’s hard to reconcile the sentiments of the old timey fiddle tunes Bill Hicks plays with the topic of his master’s thesis: metaphysics and the philosophy of science.
But the 34 year-old Raleigh native makes diversity the backbone of his lifestyle and his music.
“We’re living in a real eclectic time,”
the fiddler said, sitting before a fire in his farmhouse near Apex. He
cracked another walnut.
Popular taste is still catching up with the music Hicks and the other Red Clay Ramblers began picking out on the fiddle, banjo and mandolin in the mid-1960’s. Now the musicians can get bookings across the country and even in Europe. But back then, Hicks and banjo player Tommy Thompson played mainly at music gatherings sponsored by other philosophy students at UNC-Chapel Hill.
They soon met Jim Watson, a bluegrass mandolin player who adapted easily to the old timey style Hicks and Thompson were developing. When pianist Mike Craver joined, the Ramblers added a new dimension to their picking: jazz.
A stint in a locally produced musical, “Diamond Studs,” sent the Ramblers to New York City in 1974. Thanks to the play’s success, the musicians received enough national acclaim through magazines like “new Yorker” and “The Smithsonian” to begin a national concert tour.
Now when the Red Clay Ramblers return home for an engagement they can count on standing-room-only, foot-stomping crowds. The enthusiastic response, however, doesn’t necessarily indicate a full awareness of the unique blend of musical styles the musicians have labeled as their own.
“Sometimes we get labeled as a bluegrass band and booked in places that are just bluegrass, because we don’t know exactly what we are and they don’t either,” Hicks said. “But what we do reaches out years before bluegrass and was invented from old-timey music, and takes it in a different direction using the piano, horns and black music.”
Old timey, or mountain, music is a blend of church music and folk melodies brought into Appalachia by English, Scottish and Irish settlers, Hicks said. There it remained virtually unchanged until Bill Monroe brought it into the flatlands, increased the tempo and added the three-finger banjo picking that still characterizes a good bluegrass band.
The Ramblers prefer the older style, as it’s still played by fiddlers like Mt. Airy native Tommy Jarrell. But they don’t want to simply preserve it.
“We’re making an active contribution to this kind of music, because we’re doing more than reviving it--we’re adding to it,” Hicks said. “Tommy Jarrell has influenced me a lot. I don’t play like him, but he attacks tunes and really plays hard. I like that. But someone like Tommy Jarrell grew up isolated, without records from other regions to form his style. For me, music is available from all over the world. I’ve learned by listening to Irish fiddle tunes, jazz.
Jazz became an even more essential part of the Red Clay Ramblers’ sound when bass and trumpet player Jack Herrick joined them last year.
“To make a living playing music, you have to do something special, something you can’t hire just anyone to do,” Hicks said. “What we play is not clearly distinguished between early country music and jazz because early country music was jazzed-up by old timey music. Tunes like “Wahoo,” which is 1940’s Texas swing or Fats Waller’s “Sweet and Low,” we bring our own style. But we have to take our instruments to everything we do. There’s no steel pedal or electric guitar, for example.”
“I think I’ve grown a lot since the band,” Hicks said, pulling thoughtfully at his long mustache. “Playing full-time is a real good thing, both for my music and for thinking, too. I found music to be by far the most satisfying, pleasurable thing I’d ever done. I feel like the Red Clay Ramblers are making a contribution.
“But you don’t do something that takes
as many hours as this for altruistic reasons. You do it because you