Everyone’s Favorite String Band:
The Red Clay Ramblers

By V. F. Nadsady
Folkscene, July August 1980, volume 8, #3,  Los Angeles, CA

(Webgal's note: a lively and appreciative review of the Red Clay Ramblers' first four Flying Fish LPs as well as their live show)

“String band music all sounds the same.”

This seems to be a prevailing attitude among non-string band aficionados (especially bluegrassers, who in turn are countered by folkies insisting with equal vehemence that all bluegrass sounds the same).  It’s an attitude that The Red Clay Ramblers, through their recordings and especially through their live - and lively - performances, are doing their best to dispel.

Where the Newgrass movement has spurred bluegrass bands to try every conceivable trick in arrangement, repertoire and instrumentation in pursuit of change for its own sake, string bands have largely remained revivalists.  Instead of doing old songs in a new way (or new songs in a strange way), they mostly continue to play old songs in an old way.  The Ramblers, though, have evolved from revivalist beginnings to an eclecticism in repertoire and playing style which encompasses early jazz and blues, Western Swing, Irish, gospel and wonderfully witty original songs.   More important, where many string bands (and bluegrass bands) come across as blank-faced individuals who coincidentally happen to be sawing away on the same tune solely for their own personal amusement, the Ramblers are a band. On stage, they give every impression that they like what they’re playing, they like playing it together, and they love playing it for an audience.  For those who haven’t yet had the opportunity to see and hear the Ramblers (they’ll be at the Winnipeg and Vancouver Folk Festivals, among other places, this summer), here follows a little background on the group and a look at their recordings.

The Red Clay Ramblers formed in 1972 in North Carolina around the Hollow Rock String Band’s banjo player, Tommy Thompson; its mandolin/guitar/bass player Jim Watson; and The Fuzzy Mountain String Band’s fiddler, Bill Hicks.  Mike Craver (piano, guitar) joined in 1973 and Jack Herrick (bass, trumpet, pennywhistle) followed in 1976.  After an early album on Folkways and a stint in an off-Broadway musical in 1974, they released Stolen Love (FF 009) on Flying Fish in 1975.

Compared to later efforts, the approach on Stolen Love is relatively parochial.  The repertoire is diverse, certainly (from “Yellow Rose of Texas” to “Golden Vanity” to “Staten Island Hornpipe,” with a Bessie Smith song, a World War I pop ballad, a shape note hymn and other stops along the way), but the songs are presented in a fairly straight string band framework.  Sometimes it works well - after hearing the pop/swing version of “Yellow Rose” for so long, an authentic string band version is refreshing - and sometimes not so well, as in the case of the Child ballads.

Those who’ve never heard the Ramblers might think the inclusion of piano within a string band is incongruous.  (For a discussion of why it isn’t, see Folkscene, Feb. 1978.)  In the able hands of Mike Craver, the piano is not only used for percussion but also for melodic decoration on the more traditional tunes, as some bands might use a hammered dulcimer - in combination with banjo and mandolin it sometimes sounds like a music box; and it’s indispensable in carrying the band’s transition to less traditional material.  If the Ramblers’ music can be compared to rich, substantial homemade spice cake, Craver’s piano is the icing: not too sweet and not too thick…just enough.

In common with their later albums, the band displays a healthy respect for their material.  The temptation to camp up a song like “Keep the Home Fires Burning” might have proved overwhelming for anyone else, but not the Ramblers; Craver’s fragile, angelic tenor preserves the innocence of the era in which it was written.  “Kingdom Coming” is handled with similar conscience.  In all, Stolen Love is a tolerably good “debut,” although its sound (you wouldn’t guess it was recorded live unless you read the credits) is a trifle thin in places, the vocals a bit ragged, and the ambiance lacks the endearing ebullience of later work.

On Twisted Laurel (FF 030) the band performs in full complement as a quintet and displays full possession its collective identity.  Here, they not only play varied material but also loosen the string band framework to best adapt each tune.  There are solid versions of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mississippi Delta Blues” and the Carter Family’s “Will You Miss Me.”  “The Telephone Girl” and “I Was Only Teasing You” are typical of the upbeat, tongue-in-cheek tunes on which the Ramblers really shine.

Best of all, though, is the addition of original material.  Tommy Thompson’s title tune has a flowing melody and graceful lyrics.  Bill Hicks’ “The Hobo’s Last Letter” juxtaposes ‘sentimental’ lyrics against a bright, cheery tempo.  A personal favorite is Thompson and Craver’s comic “The Ace” (“Sittin’ in her parlor drinkin’ Coca-cola/We was spinnin’ wax, she put her hair up in rollers/She was filin’ her nails on the davenport/When I thought she was ready for a little sport/Tripped on the rug, spilled my Coke in her hair/Split the seat of my britches, put my foot through a chair…"), Thompson scores again with “The Corrugated Lady,” a syncopated, wordplay-laden gem with a ‘paper doll to call my own’ theme (“Nothing could be sweeter than my sweetie when I treat her like a dartboard on a wall”);  in fact, “Paper Doll” pops up in megaphone-like counterpoint.

Good as Twisted Laurel is, Merchants Lunch (FF 055) is even better.  The title tune is another mischievously clever Craver/Thompson composition which recounts the harrowing (and hilarious) tale of a hapless trucker who wanders into a sleazy Nashville café and encounters “Broadway Brenda and her derelict court.”  “Beefalo Special” starts out with a mad, cackling group vocal, which leads to a Thompson-penned instrumental.  The other Thompson original is “I’ve Got Plans,” a droll ode to procrastination and pipe dreams, which suits his low, mellow voice to a …well, T.

The non-originals selected all show off the band to its best advantage.  “Daniel Prayed” displays their outstanding a cappella vocal harmony, Charlie Poole’s “Milwaukee Blues,” Uncle Dave Macon’s “Rabbit in the Pea Patch” and The Bently Boys’ “Henhouse Blues” are all given admirable boisterous readings.  There’s also a medley of Irish tunes in which they carry on beautifully.  The jazz/blues influence is even more pervasive than before; “Woman Down in Memphis” features Herrick’s excellent-as-usual trumpet work and a fine group effort all around. Craver’s wistful rendition of “Melancholy” is a show-stopper in concert appearances and an ear-grabber on record.  Fats Waller’s “Sweet and Slow” provides a fitting end to the album, even if the Ramblers more often play fast and furious than sweet and slow; the interplay of instruments and voices (vocally, the Ramblers present an unusual blend of ranges and textures) complement the tune to good effect.  What it comes down to is that Merchants Lunch is a treat from start to finish.

What hasn’t been mentioned yet is how much fun the Ramblers are on stage: trading off on instruments and vocal leads; combining and recombining in two, three, four and occasionally five-part harmony; leaping musical genres in a single bound.  Each member has a distinct personality (Thompson and Watson do most of the talking - the former an articulate leader with a sly wit and the latter a congenial emcee - with asides from the low-keyed Herrick and down-to-earth Hicks, and scarcely a syllable from “Stonewall” Craver; and the band has a group personality in addition.  They can be serious when they choose, as on Si Kahn’s poignant “Aragon Mill,” but most of the time good humor wins out; with songs like “Wahoo, Wahoo, Wahoo” and “Play ‘Rocky Top’ (Or I’ll Punch Your Lights Out)” they could make a funeral director giggle.

All of the above-mentioned songs are on the Ramblers’ most recent album, Chuckin’ the Frizz (FF 089), released last fall.  (I hate to admit how long it took me to figure out that title.)  It’s a live album that sounds it, with spoken intros and crowd noise left in.  Song lyrics are even included.  (How many string bands do that?  Or need to?)  And they come in handy, especially on lickety-split numbers like “Fourth of July at a Country Fair.”  Besides “Wahoo” (the Bill Boyd version), there is Bessie Smith’s “Tilly Take Your Time,” the old “Paddy Won’t You Drink Some Cider” and another jolly Irish medley.

Nearly half of the album is made of original material.  Bill Hicks is responsible for the aforementioned “Play ‘Rocky Top’” as well as a verse of “Cabin Home” and a fine instrumental, “Three Bells Road.”  Tommy Thompson is represented by two tasty numbers, “Hot Buttered Rum” (a Latin/Caribbean-style tune Jimmy Buffett might have picked up in palmier days) and “Baby Grand,” a lilting tribute to Fats Waller.  Best of the lot is Mike Craver’s “Thoroughly African Man,” as nimble in its rhymes as Craver’s fingers on the keys (“My name is Wayne, I sell records at Zayre’s/I’m just another corny accordion player/I’m gonna buy me a Rand McNally, try to find a way outta Tin Pan Alley/Gonna march to Pretoria, slip down old Sudan/Bungle in the jungle with a funky African band…/My heart’s in Capetown (ridin’ range)/My butt’s in Boston (makin’ change)/My head says, ‘No, you can’t’/But my feet say, ‘Bechuanaland’").

As on Stolen Love, the sound is sometimes uneven but not on the more intimate numbers where it counts.  The album’s major fault is that as a live recording, it doesn’t really transmit the dynamic spirit and infectious energy of the band, although some of that impact is admittedly visual.  Perhaps (as has been said of the best bluegrass bands), that spirit by its very nature defies capture onto vinyl; the most you can do is attempt a rough approximation.  The best bet (impractical as it may be for Westerners) is to run, walk, crawl or stagger to see the Red Clay Ramblers in concert first …then buy the albums.  All of them.

Some of the academics who overpopulate the old-time genre (and the acoustic music circuit in general) might be slicker technicians, but the Ramblers allow the inherent strength and warmth in their material to show through - they have the good sense not to let the playing interfere with the music.  In short, they possess an unpretentious sincerity and a rambunctious vitality not heard since the golden days of Tanner, Puckett and Poole.

Folkscenes articles involving the Red Clay Ramblers
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July 4, 2004