Old-Time Sounds With Wit, In Taste

By Harry Crump
Durham Morning Herald July 29, 1986

Chapel Hill - There’s something in the Red Clay Ramblers’ smooth vocal blend and their tactful, to-the-point musicianship that can make even the most sentimental, old-fashioned love song seem not overdone.  They manage very successfully to tread the fine line between maudlin, wrench-your-heart-out country and tongue-in-cheek sassy swing numbers that could have been written in the 1930’s.

In fact, one of the songs in their vast repertoire dates back to the 19th century (Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times”), though many others with that authentic old-time feel were actually written by group members Mike Craver, Tommy Thompson and Jack Herrick.

If the Ramblers didn’t have such an unerring sense of taste and humor to their arrangements, they might sound like holdovers from The Porter Wagoner Show or the whitewashed crooners of Lawrence Welk’s troupe.  Instead, the band’s sound embodies the best aspects of traditional forms sprinkled with a healthy dose of wit.

True to their name, the Red Clay Ramblers rambled through many different song forms and a couple of funny stories, to the delight of a standing-room-only crowd at Paul Green Theatre last Friday.  Rambler Tommy Thompson grabbed the attention of the audience with tales of flatboat river life accompanied by solo banjo.  He got the most laughs with a story about a contest to see who could be the most obstinate, in which “the captain won by cutting a hole in his bottom lip and sticking his tongue out at us.”

There was great variety in the instruments the band used as well as in the vocals, as all five members took lead vocal chores at one time or another.  Pianist Craver’s singing communicated a fragile, endearing quality in “Dust and Nothing Else” and “Old Fashioned Girl.”  The latter was done with tact and taste, as Herrick stepped up to blow muted trumpet lines over Craver’s piano.

Thompson contributed appropriately melancholy lead vocals to his own “Regions of Rain.”  Fiddler Clay Buckner probed the depths of the blues Skip James’ “Killing Floor” with a high lonesome lead vocal.  “It Ain’t Right” found Buckner in a light-hearted mood, as he sang of the trials of a relationship to a brassy, swinging traditional jazz back-up.  Mandolin player Jim Watson wrung the emotion out of the country tearjerker “I Love You A Thousand Ways” with his high nasal voice.  Last but not least, Herrrick held his own on “Light Years Away,” as he sang passionately to Buckner’s bluesy harmonica and Craver’s melodic piano.

To go along with all this vocal variety the band played a few jigs to spice up the concert.  As the show went on, the band got more adventurous and called up a couple of friends, Chris Frank on trombone and accordion with Barney Pilgrim on fiddle.  With the extra players, the concert took on a raucous, spontaneous jamming quality, as the enlarged band went from an up-tempo jig to a straight gospel vocal to a “gospel party tune” to the final encore, “Merchants Lunch” when trumpet and the two fiddles traded fours over a strong piano and bass foundation.

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January 6, 2004