Red Clay Ramblers: Evolution of a String Band
photos by Emily FriedmanThere are many people who would argue that North Carolina’s Red Clay Ramblers are the best string band in the United States. Others will say that they aren’t really a string band—after all, how many old-timey bands have you heard lately that include a piano and a trumpet and whose repertoire includes Bessie Smith blues, Bill Boyd Cowboy Ramblers songs, and original works about such traditional subjects as a creepy luncheonette, a frustrated accordion player, and Fats Waller’s jail days? However, virtually everyone agrees that Tommy Thompson (banjo and guitar), Wild Bill Hicks (fiddle), Jim Watson (bass and mandolin), Jack Herrick (bass, trumpet, and penny whistle), and Mike Craver (piano and guitar) make up one of the most talented and progressive ensembles that ever was. Their music changes and flows so quickly that one is tempted to compare their recording career with that of the Beatles—every album is something new. Starting with the 1974 album The Red Clay Ramblers (Folkways 31039), the band has also produced Stolen Love (Flying Fish 009), Twisted Laurel (Flying Fish 030), Merchants Lunch (Flying Fish 055) and Chuckin’ the Frizz (flying Fish 089). The Ramblers appear on Debby McClatchy with the Red Clay Ramblers (Green Linnet SIF 1003), and Jim, Mike and Tommy recently collaborated on a record of Carter Family songs, Meeting in the Air (Flying Fish 219).
On a most breezy July afternoon during the 1980 Winnipeg Folk Festival, CFTS editor Emily Friedman talked with Jim, Tommy, and Bill about the band’s work, philosophy, past, and future...
EF: So tell me—how did the band get together?
BILL: In the fall of 1972, when Jim and Tommy and I were sitting around and playing, we decided it might be nice to try playing some jobs.
EF: Some of you had worked in bands previously, right?
BILL: Right. Jim and Tommy had been in the Hollow Rock String Band, and I’d been in the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. We were the remnants of those bands. We just wanted to continue playing, and also to do a few different things-—particularly a lot more singing.
We started making the Folkways record real soon after we got together—in the spring of 1973—except for one cut that we did in the spring of 1974, after Mike Craver had joined the band.
EF: How did you meet Mike?
TOMMY: We didn’t know him real well before he joined the band. We had been involved in some amateur theater work around town, and he had played piano for some of the shows that we had been in.
EF: Am I right that during that period, you were a pretty traditional-sounding string band?
EF: Obviously, though, you were thinking of different musical forms, given that Mike joined the band within a year of its formation. The piano isn’t noted as a string-band instrument.
BILL: Mike’s cut on that record is a thing called “I Got the Whiskey,” which is a blues cut; it was the first blues-type song that we had done. When Mike joined the band, it allowed us to go in that direction—blues—in a very natural way.
EF: Were you consciously thinking about expanding into other areas of music?
BILL: I just wanted to be able to continue to play. I don’t know that we had a lot of preconceptions. I’ve always liked a lot of different kinds of music, and I think that’s true of everybody in the band. We just found that we could try things, and we also found that there wasn’t any particular point in steadfastly holding to any one framework.
EF: Was that agreed among all of you?
TOMMY: We didn’t really talk about it much. I don’t think any of us had any clear ideas of what we were headed for. It was sort of piece-meal—“Let’s try this one.” And if everybody was open to trying it, we would, and if it happened to be a Bessie Smith number, that was that. It happened a little bit at a time. When Mike joined the band, we knew that blues numbers would be a lot easier to play. What I first heard him do, which made me think that maybe we should ask him to be in the band, was not a blues or jazz thing. It was Charlie Poole’s “Leaving Home”—Poole’s version of “Frankie and Johnny.” Mike was just playing rhythm behind it, but it sounded great.
EF: Did you get a lot of flak when your more traditionally-oriented fans saw Mike playing with you the first time?
TOMMY: No. It takes a lot of fans to have a lot of flak, and we weren’t a big deal back then.
JIM: Our basic venue for the first few months that Mike was in the band was around home, and we just had local fans—there was not huge folk scene that we had walked into. It was just a regular bar scene. The audience had been exposed to a lot of traditional music, but they didn’t do much categorizing.
TOMMY: in a way, we had helped define their conception of old-timey music, anyhow, so if we had a piano, then it must have been all right!
JIM: We had problems at bluegrass festivals at first, just getting the festival to provide us with a piano. Then, when we did show up with a piano player, there were some people at the festivals who thought it was strange.
EF: Were you ever excluded from bluegrass festivals because of the piano?
Well, we don’t know how many we didn’t get asked to because of it!
We know there were a few that we didn’t get asked back to.
EF: I asked that only because the different segments of acoustic music fans seem to be compelled to categorize musical styles; you aren’t supposed to have electric components, or pianists, or whatever.
JIM: One thing about the folk scene. There are people who categorize that way, but their true impact is small. It’s fine for them to have those values, but it doesn’t have much impact outside of their circle.
EF: In terms of your starting to branch out, was it on a song-by-song basis, as you described? Or was it your focusing on the work of certain musicians? I was thinking particularly of the growing role of Fats Waller in your repertoire.
BILL: I think there are favorite people, but it’s still been piecemeal. I still keep finding things that I like in Bessie Smith’s work. We’ve done two of her songs. We’ve really only done one Fats Waller song—“Sweet and Slow” (on Merchants Lunch)—but there’s a whole lot more of his stuff that we like. For a while, we listened to a lot of Bo Carter songs.
EF: You have retained a great emphasis on vocal work…
BILL: I just think everyone in the band likes to sing. I think we’ve made gigantic improvements in our vocals over the last couple of years. They’re far better now. That’s a continuing thing.
EF: Has that been a lot of work?
BILL: Yes. And also just a lot of jobs, as well as practicing. A lot of it is confidence. One thing I believe in about singing is that you have to believe in your own voice. You can hear fear in a singer’s voice real quick.
EF: It seems to me that strong vocals are not the norm in American male revival string bands, or among younger bluegrass musicians. They don’t seem to understand that bluegrass is heavily a vocal music, as is blues. Maybe it’s easier to learn to play guitar licks than to learn to sing like B. B. King!
TOMMY: I think a lot of that has changed over the last 10 years. In the old-time bands, it was almost a point of honor to sing badly.
EF: The Bog Trotters come to mind as an outstanding example of this practice…
TOMMY: Yeah. But I think that in the younger bands, everyone is trying to come up with some kind of style of singing; it may not be a sweet kind of singing, but I think pretty much everybody these days is aware that the voice is a musical instrument.
EF: One thing I’ve noticed over the past couple of years is that you’ve worked very hard on your harmonies.
TOMMY: What we’ve done is this. A bluegrass band tries to get three or four people whose voices sound exactly alike, and every chorus has this seamless quality to it that is characteristic of the best of bluegrass. But all our voices are different. So we’ve had fun experimenting with different combinations. It’s like arranging for an orchestra and mixing the different sections together.
EF: Do any of you do solo work when you’re at home and the band isn’t working?
JIM: Craver does a solo job or two, now and then. And Jack and I have started to do a little bit. Jack, especially, has been doing a lot of Irish music lately with some other musicians down there. Grey Larsen lives in Chapel Hill, so Jack has done a lot of playing with him. Another good fiddle player lives down there who knows a lot of Irish and old-time tunes, and Jack and I play with him sometimes [Ed. note: Clay Buckner, who joined RCR when Bill Hicks left in Jan. 1981]. Jack and I did a wedding reception with him a few weeks ago. We sat around and ate barbecue, drank beer, and played simpering old-time tunes…It’s fun, because it gives you a different angle on what you’re doing.
EF: I would guess that it also allows you to pursue other musical interest, especially in Jack’s case; the Ramblers’ repertoire is not heavily Irish.
JIM: He’s really gotten interested in playing the pennywhistle. He knows a lot of tunes, and he’ll sit around with a collection and play all the tunes in it; he reads music very well. The solo gigs give him a chance to play those tunes with other people—a lot of those tunes. God, Grey Larsen can sit around for days and not repeat a tune!
EF: That reminds me. When and how did Jack become a member of your band?
TOMMY: He joined the group in 1976. We got to know him in New York City. He was a member of the cast of Diamond Studs, the musical we were all in.
EF: And was there any audience hostility about this trumpet playing?
BILL: No. He had sat in with us on a couple of jobs, including one that seemed at the time to be a really big job—opening for Vassar Clements. And it was so perfect! All the blues stuff we’d been doing was twice as good with him there. And he has since become a really good bass player!
JIM: his entry into the band also really did open things up. It gave us the opportunity to have a bass on every song that we wanted it on; before, I played it some, and Mike played it some, but there were some tunes for which we didn’t have enough people to have bass.
TOMMY: He also has a kind of jazz and pop-music savvy that none of us has. When a song we were doing needed something like a horn section, he knew how to do it. He knew where those shots came in, and he and Bill could sit down and work it out. The first thing that was done that way was “Beale Street Blues” (on Twisted Laurel), which sounds like a 1920s or ‘30s jazz band, with written-out sections in some parts of it. We’d never been able to do anything link that before, that had that little bit of pizzazz.
BILL: Also, the horn and the fiddle are both sustaining instruments, which meant that we could have harmonies on both instruments that would sustain.
EF: Would you consider yourselves to be up to full strength now, or are there more instruments you’d like to have with you? If there weren’t financial limitations, would you have other members?
TOMMY: If we could afford another person, I’d vote for having a sound person.
TOMMY: There are lots of individual songs on which it would be nice to have a this or a that—a saxophone or a percussionist. But I can’t think of any one instrument that we would need and could use effectively, all the time.
JIM: A drummer would be nice on a lot of the songs we do. But what’s he going to do on the fiddle tunes? I have yet to hear a drummer who plays on fiddle tunes properly. There are many people who play along on the beat, but there’s more to it than that.
EF: In terms of songwriting by the band’s members—which as been creeping into your repertoire over the past few years—have all of you always written songs?
BILL: So far, it’s just been Tommy and Mike and myself. I haven’t always written songs, but I’ve been writing poetry since I was a kid.
TOMMY: Mike’s been writing songs for years—he’s the rock-and-roller of the group. I started writing in 1976.
EF: Some of the most adventurous arrangements you’ve done have been for the songs you’ve written, like “Merchants Lunch” and “Thoroughly African Man” (on Chuckin’ the Frizz). But there doesn’t seem to be any one thread running through them—they’re all quite different. It doesn’t seem that you’ve established a Red Clay Ramblers School of Songwriting yet.
BILL: No, except that we do seem to have a much higher word count per song than almost any other band I know of…
JIM: …and the song never get any airplay!
EF: Do you think in terms of the band and its arrangements when you write songs? Or is it more or less an independent process? I can’t imagine “Merchants Lunch” or “Thoroughly African Man” being written for any band other than the Ramblers.
BILL: I think Craver wrote “Thoroughly African Man” for a different group, actually. He had a band called the Nicotones, which could have done the song, although I think we do a good job on it. On “Merchants Lunch,” I think Tommy was thinking of it in terms of the Ramblers.
TOMMY: When I started writing, I was thinking of the band for everything I wrote. I don’t think that way now; I just write them for the fun of writing. If there’s one I think the band might want to do, I just show it to them.
EF: Do you see your original work taking up more space in your performing repertoire?
JIM: I think it should.
BILL: I’d really like to see us performing nothing but original material, eventually. So far, we haven’t managed to produce enough to do that.
TOMMY: Not enough of it is that good.
BILL: I’d like to see us go that way. There are zillions of great traditional songs around that we could do, and I’m sure we will continue to do them, of course.
EF: But your treatment of early blues is important to me…
BILL: I don’t see why we couldn’t write good blues. I think we can write songs in every type of style that we play. I’ve been writing some fiddle tunes, for example. Just theoretically, I think it would be neat to put out a record that covered all of our bases, but was all original material. I’m not saying that it’s going to happen, but I’d like to see it. You can’t make those kinds of demands on creativity; it might happen, and it might not.
EF: Well, from the beginning, it seems to me that the band has expanded on and enriched its traditional base. You sill play excellent fiddle tunes, but you’ve been adding a lot of these other components.
TOMMY: If there’s one thing…
JIM: If there’s one thing I know, it’s two things….
TOMMY: If there’s one thing that everyone in the band agrees on, and there may be only this one thing, it’s that we don’t want to do anything that’s not fresh. We don’t want to be on anybody else’s coattails; we don’t want to follow any trends, we don’t want to be thought of as being part of any trend. We just want to be our own selves. If someone comes up and says, “I hear you guys are doing swing—boy, swing’s really the thing right now, isn’t it?”, that makes me think, “That’s the last swing tune we’re gonna do!”
EF: Listen, if you keep that up, you might end up doing Bessarabian dance music, just to keep ahead of the trends!
TOMMY: That’s one of the reasons I share at least some of the hopes Bill just expressed. It’s easy to keep your compass point in your own direction, if you’re writing at least some, if not all, of your material. And then, when you’re arranging it, it’s the song itself that tells you what the arrangement is, and not anything that anybody else is doing. And that feels great. That’s why the original material—whether it’s mine, or Bill’s, or Mike’s, or something the other guys have written—feels so good. With that, we know that we’re doing what we want to do. Then, if it’s good, it’s good; if it’s not, well, it’s our own fault.
EF: What do you see in the band’s future? Are there directions you see yourselves taking?
JIM: We’ve always just gone on the theory that we’ll go, without planning anything ahead of time. That’s not much of an answer, I guess, but it’s the only one I can think of. We’re not sitting around scratching our heads, wondering whether we should take up Balkan music or not. We do whatever we feel like doing, whatever it is—if we can play it, and if we like the way it comes out.
TOMMY: Our philosophy is sort of “Shoot first, and ask questions later.”
EF: Do you see yourselves staying in the music for a good long time?
JIM: I don’t know how to do anything else!
TOMMY: This is a great life, even if we don’t make much money. For me, it would be crazy to do anything else.
EF: I guess that was my way of asking if it was still fun for you.
TOMMY: It sure is!
Email to the Ramblers will be forwarded
October 8, 1999
Updated November 23, 2002