The Red Clay Ramblers at Godfrey Daniels

by John McLaughlin
Photos by Jamie Downs McLaughlin
The Folk Life, Vol. 1 No. 5, March 1977

The stage in the back room of the Godfrey Daniels coffeehouse on 4th Street in Bethlehem, Pa., isn’t much bigger than your average kitchen table.  But it’s held some of the biggest musical talents to pass through the area in its first year of operation, from Michael Cooney to Jay Ungar to Rosalie Sorrels.  This past weekend, though, it had to accommodate one of the biggest ever, plus his four friends.

Tommy Thompson and the rest of the Red Clay Ramblers took over the boards, for a banjo picking, fiddle-diddling, whistle-twiddling, bass-slapping, guitar-strumming, pyaner-jingling, trumpet-blowing, mandolin-plinking, all-singing, all-grinning, belly-laughing, back-scratching good time music show.  I said a good time music show!

They hit the stage about nine o’clock for their first set, and it was full flat-out foot-stomping music from then on.  From their opening hoedowns they zipped into a brace of Irish polkas, then whipped on through their “Henhouse Blues” --chicken flying everywhere around the plane-- and quick-stepped their “Corrugated Lady” on into their “Forked Deer” and trucked on into some basic Native American Beefalo “folklore” --you know, the kind you associate with the back end of a beefalo--before they slowed down enough to give us a good look at them.  It was that breathless an evening, and the whooping, cheering crowd was bouncing on its chairs long before they even got as far as I am now.  Mercy!

Luckily, the lovely Carter Family arrangement of “Anchored in Love” slowed them down to a floating harmony, otherwise they might have gone charging on past us like a band of rebel dervishes.  But luckily no one, least of all the Red Clay Ramblers, can be disrespectful to the magic of the Carter Family, so they gave us a fine imitation --Mike Craver as Sara, Jim Watson as Mother Maybelle, and big old Tommy Thompson, introducing himself as “Jimmy Carter, and I’m running for President.”  So we got our first real chance to size up the gang while some of us caught our breath.

They really are immensely talented guys, individually and as a group, with solo virtuosity that manages to come to terms with group harmony in a way that’s a credit to their obvious mutual affection.  You don’t want to dwell too much on the term “immense,” in relation to Tommy Thompson, since it’s an easy joke - if you call sassing a guy that size “easy.”  Still he does get a lot of kidding about his heft - Bill Hicks referred to him in passing as “Uncle Wide-Load,” but I must say he bore it philosophically.  But then, I suppose if I was his size I could let a lot just bounce off me, too.  Kidding aside --and it gets contagious around these Carolina loons-- the Red Clay Ramblers are the most fun I’ve seen sprawled across a room since the Marx Brothers unpacked their steamer trunks - and these guys play a lot better music than Harpo or Chico ever did.

Tommy, the largest man in the room by a wide margin, is also one of the biggest song writing talents to come out of the old-time string band revival, and that’s counting back as far as the New Lost City Ramblers.  His “Twisted Laurel,” the hit of the first set of the evening, just invites harmonizing, and gets it in depth from Jim Watson, Mike Craver and Jack Herrick.  It’s the title cut of their third album, Flying Fish 030, from which they drew perhaps a quarter of their evening’s program.  That in itself is significant; they obviously weren’t just peddling their album, as you might get from some group who had little else worked up for a concert appearance.  In fact, over half of the program isn’t on any of their albums, so that’s probably a good sign for those of us who are looking forward to more goodies from them in the future.

Their repertoire is ever widening, in part because they keep expanding as a group.  Mike Craver joined them for their second album, Stolen Love (Flying Fish 009), and his role in the third album expanded considerably; Jack Herrick, who joined them for Twisted Laurel, has an ever bigger role in the stage set, so it bodes good, like a body should.  Not only does he turn out a wicked trumpet, as in “Beale Street Blues” and “Doctor Jazz,” but his Irish whistle playing totally transforms the “Ballydesmond Polkas” and whips them along through the medley of jigs from O’Neill that they’ve added since they took him on.  So that’s been a good move, all around.

Mike Craver, too, adds a dimension to The Red Clay Ramblers that most old time revival bands can’t come near.  From his “Keep the Home Fires Burning” on the second album, he edged them over towards dealing with more jazz, and it keeps gaining a slice of the action; but at the same time he has one of the loveliest, soft tenor voices that your mother would just love to hear.  No lie: his rendition of the great Lilly brothers’ song, “Answer Only With Your Eyes” stopped the show dead in its tracks, and that was just one skinny little guy with a stirrup capo halfway down his folkie guitar.  Mother of voices, what a beautiful song!  If it doesn’t appear on the next album, there’s going to be one very miffed fan in this corner, I’ll tell you.

So add those two major talents to a group that already included Tommy Thompson of the massive talent --he and Mike got together to write “The Ace,” a lovely double-time trip through petty catastrophe that’s a major comedy-- and to Bill Hicks, with whose magic fiddling Jack slapped a syncopating bass in the second set, and together with Jim Watson, who was trading off whistle licks on the mandolin with Herrick and with Craver on the guitar --it’s just impossible to get around it.  The only problem you could see would be if the egos of these virtuosi got in one another’s way, and Tommy Thompson has taken it on himself to so arrange the sets that everybody gets a fair bash at the spotlight.

But they seemed to be too busy dealing with the music as well as screwing around with the audience for any of that petty crap, I’m glad to say--both on and off stage, and in between at the breaks, when they mingled with the customers in the front room.  And they could do no wrong with these people, who came out for a Sunday evening’s fun and got a Super Sunday bowlfull --what a way to spend a Sunday evening in Bethlehem! --and they were called back for repeated encores at the end of their second set.

Just a point - they goof around, falling into instrumental breaks with sheer amazement, skidding from monologue to harmony in midsentence so slaphappily that you’re tempted to think you’re dealing with a bunch of goofy clowns--sweet hymn-singing and virtuoso music making all aside--then you stop and count it up for a moment.  And you find that both sets contained exactly sixteen numbers, that the first set ended with the tunes that closed their third album, and the second set closed with the first tune from their second album -- leading into the Christian Harmony benediction of “Long Time Traveling,” that is--and if that’s slap-happy then I’m an old English sheepdog.

When you go out to see the Red Clay Ramblers, you go out for a good time, and that’s what they give you, from start to finish.  All they are is the finest old-time string band I’ve ever heard.  I mean, so that there will be no mistake --and fully realizing that the Philadelphia Bluegrass and Old-time Music Festival is coming up a few days from when this first appears--let me say it again.  I think the Red Clay Ramblers are the finest old-time string band now playing anywhere.  So shoot me.

But before you do, go and check them out for yourself.

See also:
John's 2-part Interview with Tommy Thompson
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs' ongoing wonderful online Digital Folk Life

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July 15, 2002