By Steve Romanoski
Option Music Alternatives, March/April, 1988
How do you describe a group, which considers Sam Shepard, Roger Miller, and Eugene Chadbourne the “three poles” of its career? The Red Clay Ramblers are an evolutionary, neo-old-timey string band. Although their roots are firmly embedded in a traditional style, the band has always aspired to take their music beyond the limitations set by traditionalists. The Ramblers, which were originally formed in 1972, have provided the music for several theatrical productions, have eight albums under their belt, and even contributed the theme music for the popular PBS series The Woodwright’s Shop.
The current Rambler roster includes only one of the original members. Banjoist Tommy Thompson, who is also responsible for many of the band’s most requested tunes, notes that, “The idea behind the Ramblers was to recreate southern string band music of the style of the 1920s and ‘30s. About a year later, we brought a piano player (Mike Craver) into the band, not for the sake of the tradition, but for the fact that it was hard to get pianos up in the mountains in those days. He played with us some, and it just sounded good. That was the beginning of the end of our desire to recreate the old time sound.”
Perhaps the band’s first big break came in 1975, when they were chosen to perform in the play Diamond Studs in New York City. The theatrical performance ran for seven months in the Big Apple. Thompson describes the show as “a fairly innovative form of theater that involved using musicians as the actors. So we used our guitars and banjos as guns (the play told the story of Jesse James). We’re the ones that spoke all of the lines, sang the songs, and played the instruments.” He recalls that “the orchestra was out of the pit and on the stage. That led to about seven months of playing what the writers called swamp rock. I don’t know exactly what that meant, but it was a far cry from traditional string band music, and it gave us a taste of performing songs that were written within our lifetime. It was exciting and stimulated us to think about starting to write songs for ourselves.”
The band at this point included multi-instrumentalist Jim Watson, fiddler Bill Hicks, Craver, and Thompson. During the period when they were performing in Diamond Studs, they met Jack Herrick, who performed on trumpet and bass. His interest included Dixieland jazz styles, which he had performing experience with, and in the spirit of the Red Clay Ramblers, they invited Herrick to join. Herrick played bass in Diamond Studs and has since become a vital link in the evolution of the band. The Ramblers’ personnel remained fairly consistent until 1981, when Bill Hicks left the band, and Clay Buckner arrived with fiddle and harmonica. Now Thompson relates, “the original piano player (Craver) is off on a long term sabbatical, and Bland Simpson joined up with us at the beginning of last year. Our original mandolinist (Jim Watson) left in December (1986) and we’ve had Shawn Colvin, the first female Rambler, working with us since the beginning of last February, although she’s going off to pursue her solo career.”
Despite an attitude which pushed the ensemble toward progressive musical styles, the Ramblers maintained their string band image by continuing to showcase the banjo, mandolin, fiddle, and guitar in their music. Each performance by the Red Clay Ramblers featured traditional gems like “Daniel Prayed” or the ever-popular fiddle tunes, along with the original music that truly made them rebels in their musical style. Of the new material performed by the Ramblers, Thompson points out that “since a song has never been recorded before, there is no precedent for how it’s supposed to sound. Composing opened us up a bit on how we might arrange things in a non-traditional way while continuing to use traditional instruments.”
The Ramblers set out on several grueling road trips after the release of their first recording (on Flying Fish), which took them to colleges, festivals, and club concerts. This heavy-duty roadwork established them as a solid draw on the folk circuit, and it wasn’t long before they began to develop a base of support amongst young folk music enthusiasts and progressive bluegrassers. Their sound was fresh and innovative. They weren’t afraid to inject a little humor into their stage show, which is too often unheard of in traditional string band performance. In short, the Red Clay Ramblers were an ambitious ensemble whose main support was an audience that allowed them to experiment with their music. Thompson notes that the attitude of the band has always been to keep the tradition in our music, but somehow reach out and speak to our own generation and not rely on presold folkie fans of old-time music.”
While other bands were content to write tunes about mountains, moonshine, and murders, Thompson and the Ramblers reached for more memorable subjects. One of the band’s most requested numbers is “Merchants Lunch,” a ditty that was co-written by Tommy Thompson and Mike Craver. The Merchant’s Lunch was a typical redneck beanery, which is described, in the song, as looking like “half past midnight in the afternoon.” The featured character is a six-foot tall, green-toothed woman fondly remembered as Broadway Brenda who “looked as big as a fort.” Thompson reveals that there was actually a Merchant’s Lunch in Nashville. “It’s right next door to Linebach’s (a legendary country music hangout), which was a popular lunch place for people who could afford to go other places than Merchant’s Lunch. When the Nashville music was in downtown Nashville, Linebach’s was where everyone used to go. Next door at the Merchant’s Lunch was a seedier crew.”
Perhaps it was that penchant for folk surrealism, which brought the group to the attention of playwright and director Sam Shepard. Thompson relates a tale which makes their connection to Shepard seem more serendipitous. “We were doing a concert in Iowa in the spring of ’84, at one of the branches of the university. We had been asked to come in a day ahead of time and do a broadcast on their public radio station. We broke our necks to get there a day early to do this free show, griping about it. But it so happened that Sam was out in Iowa shooting the movie Country, and he was driving around, cruising the dial on his pick-up truck and he heard us on the radio. Thank heaves for public radio!”
Nearly two years later, Shepard was in New York rehearsing his play A Lie of the Mind. He had planned to use recorded music, which apparently wasn’t working out, when – in another happy accident – he saw a poster from the earlier play Diamond Studs with the Red Clay Ramblers name on it. He recalled the group’s broadcast, had his assistant director locate several of the Ramblers’ records, and within a few days was on the phone with the band. After two months of rehearsals, the Red Clay Ramblers hunkered down for a six-month stint as the nightly pit band in a Manhattan stage play. “He was great to work with,” says Thompson. “Not only was he a musician, but the kind of music that he’d been involved with was not so far from what we were doing – he was in the Holy Modal Rounders. He was able to take a guitar in his hand and play some licks, to give us the feel of a rhythm, to strum and sing a Dr. John song that he liked a lot. He was able to get at the piano to show us a weird rhythm that he was hoping to get in a certain song. He was able to give helpful critiques of what we were doing. It was a very comfortable collaboration.” In the end, all of the underscoring and four of the six songs which opened and closed each of the three acts were composed by the Ramblers.
The band is currently working on a score for Shepard’s new movie Far North, scheduled for release this spring. “He plays his cards close to his chest,” observes Thompson of Shepard. The playwright and actor, who did not perform in the run of A Lie of the Mind, left New York after the show’s second night, casually mumbling to the Ramblers, “We’ll do a film.” Two years later, the vague promise was kept and the Shepard-scripted and directed film will probably be a vehicle that will bring the music of the Red Clay Ramblers to more ears than anything they’ve yet done. Less famous but apparently as satisfying was a collaboration between the Ramblers and Eugene Chadbourne on Chadbourne’s Country Protest LP. The band had known Chadbourne’s wife Mary since her days as a folk music promoter in Calgary, and the Red Clay Ramblers even played at Eugene and Mary’s wedding. Some time later, Chadbourne invited the Ramblers into the studio and in two hours captured the idiosyncratic “Medley in C" on tape, a work which encompasses everything from Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” to Black Flag’s “TV Party” to Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.” "I’m as proud of being on that record as I am of the record of the music from A Lie of the Mind. It doesn’t get as much prominence, but it’s a real statement.”
Speaking of Roger Miller (as in “King of the Road,” not Mission of Burma), the country songwriter had written a musical called Big River which played in Cambridge, Mass., and La Jolla, California before landing on Broadway. The producers brought the Ramblers out to Cambridge to work on the play when Miller was dissatisfied with its musical direction. As Thompson recalls, “When it went to Broadway we were out of a job because Roger wasn’t satisfied with us either.”
While the band has maintained a high level of popularity in the folk music community, there are still hard-core traditionalists who look upon the work of the Ramblers with scorn. This is because the band takes chances with their sound and doesn’t worship past musical idols. The Red Clay Ramblers are pioneers in a field that is beginning to expand. Recently, two new bands have surfaced who take even more liberties with the style. The Chicken Chokers and Horseflies are young and innovative groups who, like the Ramblers, maintain a foothold in string band music, but take the genre one more step down the road. In the case of the Horseflies and Chicken Chokers, it is done with new wave-influenced vocals and instruments that include synthesizers.
Thompson notes that, “The string bands that inspired us weren’t overly conscious of tradition. They just played the way they play and listened to whatever music was available to them on records and radio. They continued to use traditional instruments, and as we look back on it they sound funky and old-timey. They were looking forward when they were doing that. I think that we’ve done the same thing.
“I don’t know if it makes any difference whether we are or aren’t traditional musicians anymore. I certainly never felt like we made any break with it. I have, through the years, constantly felt that we were making a break with a certain audience who felt that we ought to be listening and ‘replicating’ more carefully. We made a break with them, but I never thought that we made a break with tradition in general. It’s foolish to write songs now, with the same values and the same attitudes on the same subjects in the same writing style that [string band pioneer] Charlie Poole did. Those songs have been written! It’s not art to continue to work in a formula what’s more or less exhausted.” But Thompson is careful to add, “We respect those things, and there are always hints of it in our work. I like to feel that the songs we write incorporate everything that we’ve ever learned.”
December 29, 2001