It was almost closing time
at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, but everybody just had to
hear more. As it had been the night before, almost every other song ended
with enthusiastic applause, cheering, and standing ovations. "Tank," the
owner of Down Home, announced if everyone would help remove the beer from
the tables, the band would play some more. After all the beer had been
handed to the smiling waitresses, the Red Clay Ramblers played on.
The Red Clay Ramblers are a dynamic,
talented, and entertaining band. Only after four more encores did they
finally stop ... at least at the Down Home. After the crowd of happy people
had finally left (most went up to thank the Red Clay Ramblers), we were
able to start our interview.
Talking with the Red Clay Ramblers
is very much like their music. They are energetic, happy people, with the
ability to have you horse-laughing one minute, yet deep in reflective thought
Pickin': Where did you get exposed
to your music?
I grew up in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. I remember my grandfather
played fiddle; I always wanted to play fiddle. I listened to a real good
radio station in the early '50's, WPTF in Raleigh. In the mid-'60's, a
lot of people were playing around the Durham and Chapel Hill area, which
is when I met Tommy. I started going over to Tommy's. He had these jam
sessions every Friday night. (related story)
Pickin': Who would you say influenced
you the most?
Tommy Jarrell had a big influence on me, and a fiddler named Burl Hammonds
from West Virginia. More recently I've been listening to jazz people like
Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Everything I've listened to has
had an influence on me. Grappelli had a strange influence on me. Not so
much the actual notes, but the sounds. People like Charlie Parker for the
bluesy things I play.
Pickin': You are one of the original
Red Clay Ramblers then, correct?
Tommy and Jim and I played together informally ... but Tommy came up with
the name in the fall of '72. (related story)
Pickin': Where do most of your songs
of the fiddle tunes come from the mountain fiddlers like Tommy Jarrell.
We used to go up and visit with them so we could learn the tunes.
Do you all write?
Yes, and we get a lot of material off old 78's and some from written sources.
Pickin': What kind of a fiddle do
It's a copy of a Bergonzi. I don't know anything beyond that.
Pickin': How do, you relax?
Pickin': What are your future ambitions?
Well, some of them have already been met. Like we have made an impact on
old timey music. I think we may have pushed the boundaries a bit. I'd just
like to keep playing, there's nothing better than playing.
Pickin': What I've heard lately,
or in the past few years, has been mostly string, but to be able to hear
all the instruments you play is an incredible addition.
Well, thank you.
Pickin': Would you mind naming off
all the instruments you play?
you saw most of them tonight, except the harmonica and the piano. It wasn't
quite in tune. The harmonica and the trumpet are the two I've been playing
the longest. I play Hohner harmonica and my trumpets are Olds-Mandez, the
only kind I'd ever own. I play the valve trombone, which is a King, and
the King mellophone. The guitar is a '51 Gibson Cand W, and I use Guild
strings. The standup bass is a Kay. It's rapidly becoming one of my favorite
instruments, and I also play electric bass.
Don't forget the pennywhistle.
Oh, yeah. It's my favorite right now. I'm spending all my time fooling
around with it. It's a Generation.
Pickin': Do you just take a liking
to something and wear it out?
Well, some things I stay with, like the guitar and harmonica. You can learn
some of them pretty fast.
Pickin': You've been with the Red
Clay Ramblers how long now?
About eleven months. I joined them about a month and a half before we did
the Twisted Laurel album, which I was on. It came out last November.
Pickin': How did you get up with
the Red Clay Ramblers?
They were in New York doing "Diamond Studs," a
musical play, an off-Broadway thing. They were doing the life story of
Jesse James. Their band was in it. A guy quit and I got called to come
up and that was when I met Tommy and the rest of these guys.
Pickin': You have a very ... uh...
Spotty is the word you're groping for.
Pickin'- Well, you've played rock
and roll, off-Broadway....
All of these guys have been in different stuff. It's odd. We like to think
of ourselves as the, uh, "glitter" end of the old timey spectrum.
Pickin': The group itself sure brings
out a refreshing note to old timey music. What is your background?
was a music major in college for a while, but before that I was a jug band
Pickin': Is the classical background
true of all of you?
Mike has a classical background, and Bill studied some in college. He was
a violinist before he was a fiddler-God save the world!
Pickin'- Any outside interests?
Yes, Bill and I play a lot of chess. Gardening. I really love rock climbing.
Ropes and shoes, that's for me.
Pickin': Are you going to be recording
while you are in Europe?
No, but we will be recording again in August. It should come out about
Pickin'- Where did you grow up?
I was born in West Virginia, lived in northern Florida through high school,
and spent four years in the Coast Guard in New Orleans. Since then I've
lived in Chapel Hill, and I haven't grown up yet!
Pickin': Tell me about your European
We're leaving New York on the 8th of May ('77) and we'll play three or
four days in Germany. Then, a couple of weeks in Switzerland, then a quick
trip up to Sweden ... I think it will be one or two nights in Holland,
and then two weeks in France. We'll get a week's vacation before we come
Pickin'- And you'll be back in the
States for the rest of the summer?
Pickin': That's an unusual style
of banjo you play ... is that a clawhammer or a frail or....
I call it a clawhammer. It's called a lot of different things in different
parts of the country. It's an old timey style.
Pickin': Where did you learn the
old timey style?
I got really interested in clawhammer when I went to my first fiddlers'
convention at Union Grove in '64, and I saw Kyle Creed play there.
Pickin': Tell me about your instruments.
The banjo is a Vega Fairbanks, made about 1910. The records are not very
accurate, but the serial number indicates it is between 1910 and 1912.
The guitars are Martin.
Pickin': What kind of strings do
I use Pro Formula. I like the way they are gauged on the package so you
can arrange your own set.
Pickin': Where do you get most of
The idea now is to do things that nobody else is doing. When we first started,
we played stuff directly from the old-timers. We went and visited them
in the hills and learned from them.
Pickin': You said last night that
Clarence Ashley is your hero.
Yes. Many people have tried to imitate him. He started recording in the
late '20's. He made the first recording of "House of the Rising Sun," which
is something you don't normally associate with mountains.
Pickin': What do you do when you
get time off?
I don't have any time off. I like to read, I guess that's my main relaxation.
He reads about eight books a day! Anything, trash... buys paperbacks
in the 7-11's.
Pickin': You're from North Carolina,
Yes, Piedmont area.
Pickin': How did you get together
with the Red Clay Ramblers?
They were in Chapel Hill, in a play, "Midsummer Night's Dream," and the
director wanted a saloon piano. I told him I could do it. I wanted a chance
to jam with them so I could get in their band ... and they fell for it!
Pickin': And you've been with them
since summer of....
Pickin': What kind of music do you
lot of Bach, and I like commercial stuff, too. Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood
Mack, I really like that stuff.
Pickin': How long have you played
Since I was in the fifth grade, about twenty years.
Pickin': What kind do you play at
I have an old upright and an electric piano.
Pickin': You all collectively arrange
Yeah, like nobody takes charge, everyone just throws in what they have.
Pickin': You just sort of lean back
and nod for someone to come in?
Yes, it's no big deal. It's all very naturalistic. That's the way to do
Pickin': Where did you learn most
of your music?
I started playing folk music back in the early '60's - I started learning
to flatpick guitar when a friend of mine took up Bluegrass banjo. I started
learning mandolin in '68, around the time I met Tommy and Bill around Chapel
Hill, when everyone was in the old timey music scene in the late '60's.
Pickin': How do you get new songs?
Do people just come up and say "Hey, I like that song"?
A lot of songs people will suggest at a practice session and we will work
on it a while to see if we can work it into something we can use.
Pickin': What kind of instruments
do you have?
The mandolin is an F-2 Gibson from about the 1920's. I use a Martin D-21
from about '56.
Pickin': What kind of strings?
Pro Formula GHS Bright Bronze. I also play the bass. In fact, I got some
horrible blisters tonight. I play a little autoharp, but they are a pain
to tune up to every piano we come across.
Pickin': Do you have any future
Future ambitions? Well, a guy asked me the other night that if we become
rich and famous like the Beatles, would we ever come back and play here
(the Down Home) . I told him yeah, sure.
Pickin': The people here at the
Down Home sure do love you. You can hardly close the doors here.
Yeah, well, that's why we love to play here.
Pickin': How do you feel about going
Oh, I think it's going to be a hilarious trip. I studied French in high
school and everyone is telling me to brush up on that French, so I can
lead them around. But I'll bet everyone over there knows English, so what's
the use of knowing French?
Pickin': When you are in Europe,
how are you going to travel?
We're going to buy a van. All the jobs are hours within this one town in
France, Nantes, and I guess we'll try to find a house there. The tour is
arranged by Patrick Couton, and he lives in Nantes.
The Red Clay Ramblers play
old time music with such high energy it's just down right contagious. They
can bounce a room full of people out of their seats one tune after another,
but when a slow one is played, that same room is so quiet you can hear
a pin drop. They play in a way that let's you feel the fun and beauty of
the old time style music. Within each member of the group is an outstanding
artist. Combined, they form one entertainment package that is a joy to
listen to and even better in person. Their constantly expanding repertoire
is bound to please most anyone's taste in music. If good entertainment
is what you want, and who doesn't, then check out the Red Clay Ramblers.