‘New-timey music’ a Rambler calls it

By John Wirt
Special Correspondent
Richmond Times Dispatch

(Mike Craver saved this preview article for a concert in Richmond, Virginia, November,1984.  Mike says "the article is interesting because it gave Tommy a chance to talk about his  feelings, inspirations and motivations about the music he played. I think what he says is very heartfelt and revealing and very refreshing.")

The Red Clay Ramblers have been called “America’s premier ‘whatzit’ band.”  Tommy Thompson, who plays banjo and guitar with the band, admits their material is hard to categorize.  He suggests a label of “new-timey music.”

“We like to make a big noise,” Thompson said.  “We’re entertainers, not preachers or poets.  We get people hoping, laughing and feeling good.”

Formed in 1972 in Chapel Hill, NC, the group has sold about 100,000 albums.  It records for Flying Fish records.  Besides Thompson, band members are Jim Watson, Jack Herrick, Mike Craver and Clay Buckner.

The band’s new/traditional music will be presented at 8 tonight at the Universe Planetarium/Space Theater of the Science Museum of Virginia.  The performance will be the last concert in the acoustic music series presented this fall by the museum and the Friends of Music.

The Red Clay Ramblers were originally intended as an old-time string band. The group played pieces they’d learned from old 78-recordings of bands like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, the Georgia Yellow Hammers, and Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers.

“We tried to re-create that music,” Thompson said in a telephone interview last week.  “But doing that wasn’t sufficient after a while; we were just repeating ourselves.  Then we decided to take this music and extend the tradition.  We felt we had a hold of something good and didn’t want to drop it.  We also wanted to play for a wider audience than just old-timey music buffs.  Now I say we play new-timey music; it’s a bridge that connects the past and present.”

By combining old-time string band music with other musical traditions -- blues, folk, early jazz, Western swing, bluegrass, Irish and gospel -- the Red Clay Ramblers synthesize various styles into something fresh, contemporary and accessible.

This works especially well with the band’s original compositions, Thompson said.  “There’s no precedent for the arrangement or instrumentation.  You’re free to start from scratch.  Much of our creative arranging centers around our original songs.”

The Red Clay Ramblers’ unusual instrumentation helps them accomplish their musical synthesis.  Along with the typical guitar, mandolin, bass, and fiddle, the band uses piano, trumpet, harmonica, bouzooki and penny whistle.

Although Thompson said “there’s not a snowball’s chance in you-know-where” new/traditional and acoustic music will achieve mainstream popularity, he believes “people are looking for something fresh.”

“When you take your bare thumb and make a sound by striking a metal string stretched over wood, a link is created between you and the natural world.  It’s like taking a walk in the woods.

“People have a need to stay in contact with nature.   Moms don’t have much opportunity for it.  But we grow houseplants, have pets and, if we can afford it, prefer to live in a house with grass and trees around it.  I feel acoustic music is part of that spectrum of need.

“There’s something about that sound  -- it’s like suddenly realizing that a bird call is not just background noise, but a distinctive, natural sound.  When that happens, you’ve made contact with where you came from.”

Back Home

November 24, 2002