New York Ramblers
Just five good old Tar Heel boys picking and grinning off Broadway

by Mary Cornatzer, Staff Writer
The News and Observer, Raleigh, NC, Sunday, January 12, 1986

They’re just five good old boys from North Carolina--fiddlers and pickers--but somehow or other the Red Clay Ramblers have wound up in hog heaven.  They’re rubbing elbows with stars, performing in the trendiest new play in New York, Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” and even getting invited to play at actor Robert Duvall’s New Year’s Eve Party.

And they’re doing it all without the blink of an eye.

“It’s not strange or intimidating anymore,” trumpeter Jack Herrick said in a telephone interview from New York.  “All these famous people come to the show and at first we’d sit up there and point at ‘em, but you can get used to anything, I guess.

The Ramblers, based around Chapel Hill, is one of North Carolina’s most successful acoustic bands.  Since it formed in 1972, the band has traveled across the United States and into other countries, taking the gospel of old-timey string music from local clubs to African nations.  In addition to Herrick, the Ramblers are Tommy Thompson on guitar and banjo, fiddler Clay Buckner, pianist Mike Craver and bassist-mandolinist Jim Watson.

They’ve even rambled up to New York before, performing Off-Broadway in 1975 in “Diamond Studs.”  The Jim Wann-Bland Simpson musical about Jesse James traveled from Chapel Hill to New York and stayed for seven months.  That production, more or less, led to their latest gig.

Herrick said playwright-director-actor Sam Shepard had first heard the Ramblers on a live Iowa radio show a few years before and had pushed to have them do the soundtrack for “Country,” the 1985 film in which he starred with Jessica Lange.  They were vetoed by somebody else in the production, but when it came time to pick the music for “A Lie of the Mind,” Shepard just happened to see a “Diamond Studs” poster and remembered the band.

The Ramblers found a message from Shepard’s sister and assistant director, Roxanne Rogers, waiting on them when they returned home from a performance in Cleveland, Ohio.  Thompson and Herrick were in New York two days later.

Herrick said Shepard wanted them to write several new songs as well as to find some old country tunes he remembered.  “This is not a musical, but rather a play with music,” Herrick said.  “To write the songs, we had to see the scenes.  Luckily there was an eight-week rehearsal period for the show.  It wasn’t exactly rushed but it was just as fast as you could stand for it to be.”

They ended up writing four of the 11 songs they perform in the show.  The music is a mix of old blues and country; Herrick calls their contributions “just the usual Red Clay Ramblers music.”  Which means a little bit of everything--some rock, some country, some blues, and even--in “Home Is Where the Heart Is,” Mike Craver’s effort--one that’s orchestrally organized.

They perform from a little balcony above the stage, opening the show with Herrick and Thompson’s “Run, Sister, Run”; playing between acts and closing the show with a Rambler standard, “Hard Times.”  The songs are not connected to the plot but provide a thematic link.  And during the scenes, their underscoring instrumentals provide the atmosphere for Shepard’s tale of two families bound by the brutal marriage of their children.

Writing in New York magazine, theater critic John Simon said, “The Red Clay Ramblers supply transitions of bouncy country music on quirky instruments, not the least of which is their vocal cords.”

It may not be the glowing review Clive Barnes of The New York Times gave them for “Diamond Studs” (“Yes, yes.  A thousand times yes.”), but then a lot of things are different this time.

“This is a much more professional, more standard New York type of production,” Herrick said.  “’Diamond Studs’ was more down home and it was a lot of fun.  This is slightly more serious.”

It’s also a chance to work with actors Harvey Keitel, Geraldine Page and Amanda Plummer (“a higher caliber of actors than we’ve ever been associated with before”), and of course Shepard.  Herrick calls him an inspirational director.  “He lit a better fire under us than anyone’s ever been able to before. … It’s been a real revitalization for the band. [click on the pic for a larger one]

In fact, the collaboration has been so successful, Herrick said, they’re talking about other projects together.  Shepard wants to do a film based on the play and they’re talking about a cast album.  They might even be featured in another Shepard play.

And they’re making contacts.  Thompson says they’ve been getting inquiries about writing more theater pieces, and of course there was Duvall’s party.

Duvall, who played a down-and-out country singer-songwriter in the film “Tender Mercies,” is a big country music fan.  He asked the Ramblers to perform after seeing the play.  “We sing this old Lefty Frizzell song (“I’ll Prove It a Thousand Ways”) and that really made a connection with him,” Thompson said.  “It turns out that he has a framed copy of the original manuscript of the song.”

The party, Thompson said, was fun.  “He has a very large apartment on the upper West Side and he has a new young wife and most of the people there were of her generation.  There were some movie and theater people there, but it wasn’t wild at all.  It was just a pleasant, homey affair.”

Meeting stars, singing in the new year with people like Gary Busey and Sigourney Weaver, is fun for the minute but hardly the high point on the Ramblers’ New York experience.

“What was worth the trip was getting to know Sam and working with him personally,” Thompson said.  And it’s that collaboration, the feeling that they had contributed something to the creation of the play, that’s kept them from getting bored watching the same show six nights a week.  “We’ve also been getting a real good response from the audience,” Thompson said.  “They think that we add to the show, so that’s made us feel like we’re more than just on the periphery.”

The Ramblers will be with the show until May.  Then there’s an album, “RCR,” to be finished (they’re working on it now on their one day off each week) and maybe even another tour of “Diamond Studs.”  A production, which would begin in Cleveland and then go on tour, is in the planning stages, but Thompson said nothing definite had been set.

Both Thompson and Herrick promised that the bright lights of Broadway haven’t turned their heads.  “We may do a few shows someplace else, like Alaska, but we’re definitely coming back home in May,” Herrick said, “and we’ll play right away.”

[Notes: a cast recording of "A Lie of the Mind" was made and the "RCR" recording the Ramblers were working on was retitled "It Ain't Right."  The Red Clay Ramblers' discography page has more information on these recordings.]

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October 6, 2003