Folk Life Interview with Tommy Thompson
Part One

Folk Life editor and publisher John McLaughlin interviewed Tommy Thompson for the April, 1978 issue.  He says:
Ever since we first heard them in performance down at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem—see our March ’77 issue—we’ve followed the progress of the Red Clay Ramblers with real pleasure and even something like pride in our ability to spot a winner, as they’ve been recognized by audiences all over the USA—and in Europe too—as “the finest old time string band now playing anywhere,” to quote our own summation of that still-vividly-recalled show.

 The only thing better than an old Red Clay Ramblers show is a new one, though.  As soon as we heard they’d be on the bill at the 3rd Annual Philadelphia Old Time and Bluegrass Festival at Montgomery County Community College, we knew we were going to be there.  We almost didn’t make it at that, with a Friday blizzard that stopped us cold even if it didn’t faze J.D. Crowe and the New South; but we did manage to corner Tommy Thompson with a tape recorder in a break between workshops on Saturday afternoon, and here is the result:

T: Well, John, where do we start? 

J: You used to teach before you got into music as a profession?

T: Yeah.  I started playing music just before I went to graduate school, back in ’61 or ’62.  I started graduate school in ’63.  And music was a hobby that gradually took over.  I ended up teaching for four and a half years, at two different colleges.  But then finally I found out we could do this full time, and I gave it up.

J: We’ve just been listening to your new album, Merchant’s Lunch.  It just came yesterday, and I don’t think it’s been off the turntable since then.

T: We recorded it last fall.

J:  I remember when we talked at the Philly Folk Festival you thought then it might be out by Christmas.

T: Well, yeah, we had hopes.

J: It’s really fine—off in another direction, but still a Red Clay Ramblers album, unmistakably.

T: It’s a lot of fun, every time you do an album.  And by the time it gets out, you’ve thought more about your stuff and worked more on it, and you wish you could go back and do it all over again.  Because you hear all the things that you think you could improve, for instance.  But I guess that’s the name of the game.  It’ll always be like that.

J: How much of the writing on this one is yours?

T: The title song is a collaboration between Mike Craver and I, and there’s another song on there that I basically wrote, but I had a friend in Chapel Hill help me some on that one, I guess.  And then there’s an instrumental on there that I wrote.  Two and a half songs on it.

J: The rest are from Irish and American traditions.

T: That’s right.

J: As I said, it’s clearly a Red Clay Ramblers record—you can tell them at once.  How come you decided to go the way you did?

T: Well, I’ve always had the attitude, in this band and in the others before that, that given a certain level of musical ability, the most important thing in a band is that a band is a social entity, and the important thing is to find people you can communicate with on a variety of different levels, that the people in it you respond to, that it makes your life more interesting to have them in it.  And when Mike joined the band, it sounded good to have a piano, even though we had no conception then of what a piano might lead to in our band.  We did know that the things we just jammed on were exciting, to us and to the other people who heard it.  And we liked Mike, and he liked us, and so it was only after that we began to know him better, and he us, and began to hear more about what his musical background was, and what his tastes were, and began to feel what that would mean.  Actually, that began before that, when Jim Watson and I first got together.  I had been mostly involved in some fiddle tune bands, and we wanted a singing band.  And Bill Hicks was a friend of ours, who’d been in the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, which was a fiddle tune band.  And he was a good fiddler, and he was getting better.  He had that Tommy Jarrell bite in his fiddling, and we liked that.  So we brought him in to see if that kind of fiddle style would go with what we envisioned as a very different kind of band than Jim and I had been in.  So that was an experiment, too.  Where that took us had more to do with the instruments we played and how we played, more than any preconceived idea of what the music should be like.  So it’s been a matter, from the very beginning, of finding what’s in the individual members, and then feeding that in.

J: Serendipity?

T: Right! Yeah.

J: It just seems to me, from the changes through each record, or from hearing you in concert, that you are always stretching in different ways.

T: I think we’re in a stage now where we’re looking for our limits.  The kinds of things we can do effectively, the kinds of things we can’t do.  But we’re still in a kind of phase.  We’d like to be able somehow to be fairly eclectic and have a wide variety of things we can do; but I don’t think we’ve yet achieved, somehow, something that I know I want—that is a really new sound that is our sound.

J: You don’t think you’ve got that now?

T: Relative to what the other string bands are doing, we have.  Our records are identifiable.

J: Definitely!

T: But I don’t think it has crystallized yet the way it’s in my mind somehow it ought to go.  But I think we’re on the way.  I think when you’re using original material, and there are no precedents, how you use it is wide open.  So I think somehow this new, crystallized Red Clay Ramblers sound is going to form at least in part around this new material.

J: Rather than the traditional music?

T: I think so.  I mean, there is there is no way we can ever deny our musical past.  So it will always have a very strong flavor of where we come from.  Much stronger than any “pop” band that’s traditionally oriented.  Like Asleep at the Wheel, or the New Riders, or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  They’re country-oriented, too, yet rock music is the heart of what they do, and what they do is flavor it with country.  I think we’re more strongly steeped in the country, traditional sounds than they are, and we’ll never lose that.  Occasionally I’ll hear one of our pieces on the radio, on a commercial station, along with whatever else is being played on that day.  And it’s then that I hear how traditional, how mountain-oriented, we really are.  We come to a folk festival, or to a bluegrass and old-timey festival like this one, and we get the feeling of being very “far out,” of tryin’ to be uptown or somthin’, and I like that feeling, too.  It’s exciting to be singled out that way.  And yet you hear it in another context, it’s very string-band sounding!

J: Yeah.  I think especially the shape-note hymn singing you do—

T: We’ll never lose that.

J: Where does it come from:

T: Well, for instance, “Long Time Travelling” is one of those that’s in more than one of the old shape-note books.  I think we got it from “The Christian Harmony,” where it is called “White,” after its composer, B. F. White, one of the composers of many songs like that.

J. The one on the new album—not the concert you just did—is “Daniel Prayed.”

T: We didn’t get that one out of one of the shape-note hymn books—not one of the canonical books.  This is from an old Baptist hymnbook, and I can’t remember the name of it offhand.  The first time I ever heard it, it was Doc Watson, Clint Howard and Clarence Ashley recorded it on one of those old albums they did.  We heard it later, and then a friend of mine discovered it in an old hymnbook.  It was almost the identical arrangement, and we got that from the hymnbook, plus whatever influence those guys had on us.  Our conception of harmony singing has always been different from that of bluegrassers.  In bluegrass, the ideal has always been to find people whose voices are as similar as possible.  When you get that really beautiful clean blend—that’s why brother bands always worked as well in bluegrass.  Just physiologically, the voices, even if one were higher than the other, they’ll still have the same timbre—

J. Genetically, being brought up in the same family?

T: Right.  What we have are five people with completely different voices, so when we put together a harmony part, what we’re –it’s more like –take somebody orchestrating a classical piece; you have your woodwinds, you’ve got your strings, you have your brass over here.  And they all have different voices.  The idea is to see how you blend those all together so that you get a unified sound.  Whereas in a bluegrass band, it’s as if they’re all brass, or strings, or all woodwinds.  So our harmony is different.  In a way, it’s rougher, it doesn’t have that pure blend.  We like it because you have more variety.  Even when you sing the same parts, you can take any three guys out of the five, say, and sing the same parts, and it comes out different.  And we’re able to choose which three will make the right sound for that one song.

J: You’ve used the term, “eclectic,” to refer to yourselves.  Could you describe the particular backgrounds upon which you all can draw?

T: Sure.  Mike Craver, the piano player, was trained in classical music.  He’s from a musical family, and his parents’ tastes are the sentimental songs—hymns and parlor songs say from the turn of the century up until the 20’s or 30’s—

J. The Ivor Novello song, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” that you did on the Stolen Love album?

T: Right!  And Stephen Foster songs, things like that.  Then when he went away to college he got involved with rock bands, so he knows rock from beginning to end—loves rock music.  And you’ll hear in his piano playing rhythms that are not from mountain music at all, they’re really influenced by blues and by rock.  And Jack Herrick, who plays bass and trumpet, was also classically trained.  He grew up in Boston, in the heyday of the Kweskin Jug Band—they were heroes of his, so he was strongly influenced by them, by his classical training.  In more recent years he’s played guitar with a Western Swing band, out West, and then in the past two years, with us, he’s made friends with a lot of bebop, fifties-type jazz musicians, and that’s affected him, opened up a lot of harmonic and rhythm things and raised the level of his trumpet playing a lot—and also his bass playing, incidentally, which is influenced a lot by jazz bass players.  Jim Watson got involved in music when there was an old-time music scene going on, around where we lived.  He picked up the mandolin, and learned to play fiddle tunes on it.  His greatest asset is a strong, sharp sense of rhythm.  His bass playing is not as fancy as Jack’s but he lays down a beat that is dynamite solid.  And it’s the same in his mandolin playing and his guitar playing.  He also likes country and western music, and that affects his singing.

J: His vocal style.

T: Right.  Bill Hicks, now: our musical backgrounds are hymns and old-time mountain instrumental things.  He is from Raleigh, North Carolina, a very rural background, but his father was very well educated, and taught in what was at that time the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the state university in Raleigh.  So Bill has both a rural background and a somewhat citified or at least educated background.  He has the feel for the country, and also the sort of sophistication that goes along with that educated background, too.

J: Janet Bregman-Taney of the Juggernaut String Band was telling me that she was down at a fiddle convention in North Carolina a couple of years ago, and everybody was trying to play like Bill Hicks—it was a monolithic “Bill Hicks Sound” thing.  And now Bill has gone and changed on them.  There’s a lot more jazz fiddling on the new album.

T: Yeah, I think you can hear that quite clearly on “Woman Down in Memphis” or on “Sweet and Slow.”  But though he plays a lot of jazzy notes, his bowing, the way his bow bites the string, is not like the classic jazz fiddlers, let’s say Stephan Grappeli.  You can still hear Tommy Jarrell in it.  A lot of people say, “he'll never be a jazz fiddler, because he's too countrified.”  Well, I say he sure is.  Why should Bill be another—why should he sound like all jazz fiddlers?  Why can’t he have the chance to play something new, which is jazz fiddle with the old country bite?  He may not achieve great things—but he ought to have the opportunity to try.  Why should he change his style to do what has already been done?

J: Were his family fiddlers? 

T: His grandfather was one.  When I first met Bill, he’d been playing guitar, sort of Sixties folk music, and he’d been doing political songs as well as some country.  But he’d just gotten interested in getting out his granddaddy's fiddle and messing around some.  He could only play in A then, and if we did a song in G, he'd just tune the fiddle down.  And he didn’t seem interested in going much beyond that.  This would be around ’66.  Then he took a trip to Canada, and heard some Nova Scotian fiddlers.

J: Cape Breton?

T: Yeah.  And he bought some records—flipped him out!  And he came home and got real serious about it then.  He worked them out, and of course the more he did that, the more he began to hear the values and quality in the mountain fiddling around.  And that was about the time Tommy Jarrell began to get stirred up again.

J: Tommy had been active years before, hadn’t he?

T: Oh yeah.  And the Fuzzy Mountain guys made friends with Tommy, and there’s something about Tommy’s fiddling.  I don’t know how to describe it, a sort of humming along, like a bumblebee, that really turned Bill on.  And I think that’s what made Bill a fiddler.

J: Do you think Bill would regard himself as a band fiddler, or…?

T: More of a band fiddler, I think.  All of us regard ourselves more as ensemble players.  Of any of us, Mike probably has the tendency to feel most at home as a solo player.  Though that’s not a bone of contention—he likes ensemble playing a lot, too.  But I don’t think—unless maybe it’s Mike—that any of the rest of us has whatever it takes to want to be a soloist.  Oh, we can each do—I can do six or eight banjo pieces that do sound good by themselves, Bill can do a lot of fiddling, and Watson’s got a lot of songs that he does on the guitar by himself.  But none of the three of us would dare go on and do a show all by ourselves.  Craver probably could if he put his mind to it—though I don’t know that he particularly wants to.  What makes a band work, though is that you have to have that ensemble instinct.  It’s that team thing, what makes some people basketball players as opposed to swimmers.  It’s just in your head to be a soloist, or a band member.

J: So how long were you guys together before you knew it was going to go, that it was going to catch on?

T: Jim and Bill and I had been together about a year when Mike joined us.  And there were the four of us, and then we got into that play, Diamond Studs, the musical about the life of Jesse James, that played off-Broadway in New York.  And that was what forced the issue of giving up our jobs.  We were on leaves of absence and we had to decide if we would leave the show or let our jobs go.   And we let the jobs go.  I spent most of the eight or nine months we were in New York on the phone, trying to line up bookings for the fall, when the show would end.  I knew we couldn’t stand to stay there any longer!  So we started working as a full time band, and that was in 1975.

J: And you played on Debby McClatchy’s Innisfree album after that?

T: Yeah, she replaced somebody in the show.  I really had hopes she might show up here this weekend.  She’s one of my favorite people.

J: I like her a whole lot too.  She does a really good stage show.  So, in ’75 you knew you were a band, you’d stick together.

T: Well, our idea was that we would find a circuit close to home, that would maybe take us as far away as Charleston, Winston-Salem, Washingon, DC, Greensboro—everything within four or five hours from home.  And then we could make a living as a band.  We had no idea of doing anything other than being another band that was making a living.  But that never worked out, exactly.  For a start, we began to get invitations to places further afield.

J:  Do you think the records helped?

T:  The records helped a lot.  Just being able to send them out.  For the first couple of years I spent all my non-playing time just writing to people, sending records, just phoning and so on.  And then it turned out that a circuit like that didn’t exist for playing in those areas like we’d imagined it would, anyway.  So we were forced to go further from home.  Now I spend just as much time on the phone, but we don’t have to push for it.  Most of it is by invitation now.

(Note: The interview was continued the next month and John McLaughlin recently sent us Part 2!)
See also:
John's review of the Red Clay Ramblers at Godfrey Daniels
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs' ongoing wonderful online Digital Folk Life

Home Part 2
January 7, 2000
updated July 17, 2002