Concert Review:
Ralph Stanley and
The Red Clay Ramblers

By John Delgatto
Folkscene, February 1978, volume 5, #12,  Los Angeles, CA

(Favorite quote:  "What a refreshing breath of air the Red Clay Ramblers brought to Los Angeles!")

Bringing good music to Southern California, especially old timey and bluegrass music, is often a major effort and a financial risk as well.  Thus, the current series of concerts at the Fox Venice Theatre, which began with a performance by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys with the Red Clay Ramblers, rates high just for effort and courage alone!  These concerts are coordinated by Matt Kramer, who has done a considerable amount of artist promotion in the area; here, he has turned to a musical genre that gets more audience support back East.  For the first concert he was up against even bigger obstacles than usual, including a competing bluegrass festival only days away.  Hence, the attendance was small but enthusiastic.  (In contrast, his second concert with John Hartford and The Dillards was a near sell-out.)

Whether it was the sound system, lack of a full house, or the acoustics of the Fox Venice -- neither act came across as forcefully as one might have expected in live performance.  The music was there, but the electricity between artist and audience was missing.  Ralph Stanley and his band suffered most from the situation, combined with the fact they were tired from their long trip out here.  Their set was short, disjointed, and disappointing compared to the previous shows I have seen them do.  Even Curly Ray Cline’s antics only briefly livened up the show.  In all fairness to Ralph, it was obviously just a rare off night.  He’s had maybe one or two bad nights in the past 10 years - not a bad record.  Also disappointing was the performance of Keith Whitley, lead singer of the Clinch Mountain Boys.  I’m convinced now, more than ever, that he should be singing other kinds of music.  I hear a George Jones quality in his voice, and perhaps it is country music or Newgrass that he should be singing.

I had never heard the Red Clay Ramblers, either live or on record, before this concert. They have two albums on Flying Fish, and I knew Bruce Kaplan (Mr. Fish) was very high on the group.  Like many at the concert that night, I found out why.  What a refreshing breath of air the Red Clay Ramblers brought to Los Angeles!  I had become sick of all the old timey string bands content to “re-create” the sound of old ‘78’s.  Groups like the New Lost City Ramblers served their purpose in opening up a new world of music to many of us city people back in the Sixties and early Seventies; but I often wondered what would result if people began to experiment with that style of music now, in view of all the diverse contemporary musical influences.  In the 1930’s innovators turned the old string band music into bluegrass; what form could this style of pure mountain music develop into if placed into the right hands?

The Red Clay Ramblers may be the answer. What makes this band so striking is the presence of Mike Craver and his piano.  I think if the economy of the South in the early 1900’s had allowed more pianos in family households, it would have been as common to play piano as it was to play banjo, fiddle or guitar.  Its sound fits perfectly, as if it should have been part of this music all along, and Craver plays superbly.  The fine sound of Jack Herrick’s trumpet and trombone, the expert performance of Bill Hicks on fiddle and Tommy Thompson on banjo, and the solid bass playing of Jim Watson: all contribute to a new sound in an old framework.  The Ramblers played many songs from their latest album, Twisted Laurel (Flying Fish 030); and they were, without exception, fresh, alive and most pleasing.  Besides being expert musicians, the Ramblers are equally fine singers, especially on the trio numbers.

This trip to California will hopefully be the first of many.  All fans of old timey music should be coerced to hear them live or, at least, on record.  It wouldn’t be a bad idea for the bluegrassers to have a listen, also.  Both groups could benefit from hearing some good music performed by a truly engaging group like the Red Clay Ramblers.  Let’s also hope that Matt Kramer will continue the noble task of bringing entertainers of this caliber to any L.A. audience.  Lord knows, we need it! 

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June 16, 2005