Merchants Lunch
Eugene Chadbourne,
All Music Guide:
The first track establishes the ground rules for this record featuring the classic lineup of the Red Clay Ramblers, with both pianist Mike Craver and the superb fiddler Bill Hicks. "Merchant's Lunch" is one of several originals that banjoist and vocalist Tommy Thompson either wrote or co-wrote for the project, and these songs reveal a deepening of the group's repertoire. For old-time music fanatics, this might have been the cause of discomfort, but it certainly can be said that the group created a terrific blend of its different material for this baker's dozen of tracks. Listeners looking for old-time numbers that kick up a rumpus will be able to dig right into "Molly Put the Kettle On" and Uncle Dave Macon's outrageous "Rabbit in the Pea Patch," although in the latter case the Red Clay Ramblers push a good thing by folding in too-cute diggi-diggi-di vocals of the sort Doug Kershaw used to come up with. The album is a luscious studio recording, with the fiddle tune medley on the second side one of the best-sounding tracks of this sort the group has ever recorded.** The blend of mandolin, banjo, fiddle, bass, and piano is as rich as the aroma of a simmering stew that has had the benefit of a gourmet cook sprinkling spices into it. Group vocals are another aspect that shine on this production. "I've Got Plans" is an ambitious Thompson ballad that gets a nicely relaxed treatment, its profound effect on the flow of music providing a good example of the treasury this group had going in terms of repertoire. "Henhouse Blues" begins with exciting clawhammer banjo, followed by expert fiddle and mandolin solos. Many listeners will be up dancing even before the vocal comes in. In other words, a typical moment with the Red Clay Ramblers. Only the final track, a Fats Waller cover, doesn't come off as much more than a perfumed whiff of this master stylist, not much better than the efforts swing revival groups a few decades later. 

**Kildare's Fancy/Ships Are Sailing/High Yellow (not on CD version) 


Cover by Chris Baker

Back photo by Cece Conway

Merchants UK cover "Rushmore Ramblers" based on Cece's photo above.  [larger view]

"Kildare's Fancy" and "High Yellow" from the LP version of Merchants Lunch open and close early editions of Roy Underhill's The Woodwright's Shop televised on PBS stations.

Green Man Review of Twisted Laurel and Merchants Lunch "...a unified masterpiece, not the least through the sheer enthusiasm and top-notch musicianship of the Ramblers themselves."

Merchants Lunch Facts:
  • Recorded in August 1977
  • Engineered by Bill McElroy at Bias Recording Company, Falls Church, Virginia
  • Produced by the Red Clay Ramblers with Bill McElroy
  • All arrangements by the Red Clay Ramblers
  • Cover designed by Chris Baker
  • Photo on back by Cece Conway
  • Flying Fish FF 055 (1977)
  • RCR: Bill Hicks, Jack Herrick, Jim Watson, Mike Craver, Tommy Thompson
Songlist: Merchants Lunch, A Beefalo Special, Woman Down in Memphis, Molly Put the Kettle On, Milwaukee Blues, Melancholy
Rabbit in the Pea Patch, I've Got Plans
Kildare's Fancy/Ships Are Sailing/High Yellow (not on CD version), Daniel Prayed, Forked Deer, Henhouse Blues, Sweet and Slow

Merchants behind the scenes:

The inspiration..."looked like half past midnight in the afternoon."

 
In 2004, the website received a letter and this pic from the current crew at the Merchants Restaurant & Grill still operating at the same location that Tommy Thompson and Mike Craver immortalized in the 70s, the corner of Fourth and Broadway in Nashville, Tennessee.  We're all invited back to experience their promised better dining experience, but be aware -- there's a Brenda working in the kitchen.
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July 3, 2010