An article from  Frets, The Magazine of Acoustic String Instruments, November, 1980
Red Clay Ramblers 
String Band Music for the 80s
By Mark Greenberg
PIANO AND TRUMPET are not exactly instruments that you would expect to find in an old-time string band. Yet in the case of the Red Clay Ramblers, both instruments fit right in alongside fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, and bass to create music that is both convincingly old-time and strikingly new. 

Formed in 1972 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, by banjoist Tommy Thompson, guitarist/mandolinist Jim Watson, and fiddler Bill Hicks, the Ramblers immediately began moving beyond the largely instrumental country-dance music approach of other traditional fiddle bands. "We wanted to sing some," Thompson recalls, pointing to the example of the New Lost City Ramblers, the pioneering revivalist old-timey band, and an early source of ideas and encouragement. Yet, though they shared the earlier Ramblers' interest in preserving old-time style, the North Carolinians were not particularly concerned with recreating the performances of the original old-time bands that had their recording heyday during the 1920s and early 1930s. "We wanted to be a band that you might have heard back in those old days, but not any particular one," Thompson explains.

The group's first major departure from the prevailing string band format came in 1973 with the addition of piano player Mike Craver. With Craver, the Ramblers ventured more into the areas of old blues and Dixieland-tinged pop music and began developing their vocal harmonies beyond the casualness characteristic of most revivalist bands. With the further addition of trumpet player Jack Herrick in 1975, the band's blues and Dixieland capacities were further expanded. In addition, Herrick revealed an aptitude for string bass that strengthened the rhythmic underpinnings of the repertoire's string band elements.

"We thought we'd be real revolutionary and have a string band with a piano in it," Thompson laughingly recalls of the first expansion move. Yet he also sees the addition of both Craver and Herrick as the natural extension of the group's interests and of its desire to do more than "just repeat what we'd been doing or what other people had been doing." According to Watson, both decisions were made spontaneously: "We just started playing and said 'Well, this is it; this is what we want.'"

Although they had released an album The Red Clay Ramblers With Fiddlin' Al McCanless in 1973, the group's first major recognition came from its appearance on Broadway for seven months in Diamond Studs, a musical based on the life of Jesse James. The show, which received rave reviews, had originated in Chapel Hill, and when the chance to do it in New York came along, the Ramblers quit their day jobs and headed north. In the notes to the group's second album, Stolen Love, on which their eclecticism really begins to emerge, Hicks describes the Broadway experience as one of "playing traditional material eight shows a week for New York theatergoers who, before they walk into the theater, don't know a country fiddle from a kazoo."

Since leaving - with some relief - the lights of the Great White Way, the Ramblers have devoted themselves to the full- time pursuit of their music. They have appeared widely in the United States and Canada, and have twice toured Europe and the United Kingdom. Whether featuring traditional material, songs learned from a variety of recorded sources, or their own old-time styled compositions, both the Ramblers' live performances and three more recent albums on Flying Fish - Twisted Laurel (FF030), Merchants Lunch (FF055), and Chuckin' The Frizz (FF089) - continue to reveal the liveliness, variety, and humor associated with old-time music at its best.

"We're doing exactly what those old-time bands did," confirms Thompson. "They listened to everything they could find and played every kind of song. Charlie Poole [leader of the North Carolina Ramblers, one of the most influential and successful of the original bands] played songs unimaginably different from traditional southern things. A lot of water's gone over the dam since then, so there's a whole lot more stuff available to us than there was to them, but just like they did, we try to exploit everything that's available."  To which Jim Watson adds, "We just take the song and do with it what we want." 

This article was preceded by "Tommy Thompson - High-energy Clawhammer Banjo"
Home Souvenirs
January 1, 2001
updated January 8, 2002