Folk Life Interview with Tommy Thompson
Part Two

Folk Life editor and publisher John McLaughlin interviewed Tommy Thompson for the April, 1978 issue.  In this second half of our interview, Tommy Thompson goes from discussing the particular backgrounds of The Red Clay Ramblers, to a general discussion of Southern music, other American traditions, and the place of ambition in a career.  At one point he says he's not really "articulate" enough to describe the things he sees.  Don't you believe it.
 T: Apart from the old mountain music things, when I was little I used to listen to the pop music a lot.  I was three in 1940, and so in those impressionable ten years I heard all those Cole Porter songs, I heard Billie Holliday, and I just put all that music out of my head for all these years, and only in the past four or five years I've begun to remember them.  I feel the pressure of that music wanting to come out in me a lot.

J: Then there's a whole comic tradition in what you do.

T: Sure.

J: I remember once I heard you do a very sardonic introduction to "I Was Only Fooling You," all about the Nashville pop thing--

T: Right.  Well, I like music that's serious but doesn't take itself seriously.  And I like a stage show that's serious but doesn't take itself seriously.  Wit, to me, is as much a musical virtue as manual dexterity, (laughter), and of course we say a lot of things onstage that we really don't mean, or that we may think are funny, but our audience doesn't see anything funny about at all.  And that also varies from one locale to another.

J: An in-the-band sense of humor that comes from travelling together?

T: Yeah, but then playing so much in the South, and being from the South, influenced by the South, we find that sometimes in a Northern city--things that are funny to us somehow aren't funny at all, or the way I say them doesn't strike the audience as funny at all.

J:  But I hear you do some Irish things that do come off.  I know a number of old-timey bands that are doing it, but usually it doesn't come off at all.

T: Well, some Irish things we're working on don't come off - we haven't got it just yet.  Irish music has its own idiom, its own standard of quality.  It's a music that's both subtle and complex, and also very strongly rhythmical.  And I think that people just getting started on Irish instrumental music - if they play mountain music - often focus on the subtlety, the smooth part of Irish music.  And they get that, but they don't get beyond that, back to the place where they can play Irish music with the same excitement and drive with which they play mountain music.  And Irish music does have that same power too, that excitement and drive.  It's just more subtle in different ways, and I think that may be one reason why it doesn't come off.  But they'll get it.  We will too.

J: Oh, the selection on Merchants Lunch--"Ships are Sailing" and "Yellow Girl," and the Francis O'Neill tune--I think that comes off really well.

T: Well that's one medley that we have been working on for three years or so.  But there are Irish things we're working on now where I'm using the flatpick to play, and it's a jig, and I'm not much of a flatpicker anyhow, and at an important job like this we won't do it because it doesn't yet come off.  But it will.  It may take another year of working on it, but it will come.

J: But it seems to me that the blues things you do come out of a Black tradition--but then it is an American tradition, too.

T. Uh huh.  Well I think so much of white music has been just so influenced by Black music, a lot of mutual influence and so on.  So long as you don't attempt to "sound" Black - white musicians can do Black music fine.  The only awful thing is if you try to ape Black dialect - say an old blues man's dialect.  That sounds just terrible.

J. Your "Woman Down in Memphis" really does work.

T. Oh, that's a good song.  Actually, I think that it is white in its origin - but so very strongly Black-influenced.

J. Is that because you are Southerners?  Do you think that maybe a Northern string band might have some disadvantages in this?

T: I think maybe we do have some advantages over a Northern string band, that helps us to do things like that and have them be effective.

J: It's funny how the social history comes thorough in the music.

T: Oh yeah.  That is something that I feel intuitively is true.  But I don't know if anyone - certainly I'm not able to articulate exactly how it is that certain social things get expressed through the music.  I do think that most people who listen to the music carefully can sense it.  When somehow the performance is awkwardly detached from its social context, so that something that's supposed to be coming through isn't.  We can certainly tell when something is doing that, and we just drop it.

J: Would that also be why the shape note hymns really come off with you guys?

T: I think so.   Sure.  All of our band - or four of the five guys - are from the South, the Bible Belt, an area where Bible teaching, fundamentalists, are strong.  Where, even if we're not ourselves fundamentalists, part of the fabric of our culture is - we know it, we understand it.

J: A rich emotion comes through in that.

T: Yes.  Religious feeling is a very strong day-to-day feeling, not just a Sunday feeling.  And it's very easy, when you're doing a song like that, like "Parting Hand," to feel a rapport with the source.  To sing it expressively and not feel like a hypocrite.  Even if, when it comes down to dogma, we may not share the doctrines that are expressed in there, we certainly share in the kind of feeling out of which these songs come.

J: Have you noticed a change in attitude of Northerners towards Southerners over the past five to ten years?

T: I think so.  I think it's linked to a whole lot of things.  The fact that Southern music is important now around the country in ways it hadn't always been, and it's spreading to people with peculiar tastes, like all of us who've been interested in folk music.  For example, the Allman Brothers was not just a Southern band, they were a national band, but all those guys were just fantastic guitar players and singers, and what they were playing and singing is Southern.  As Southern as they could do it.  But there are a lot of political things that have to do with it, too.  Oh, maybe what I'm saying is that the North has dominated our culture since maybe the Civil War, and maybe a lot of things that were supposed to work out haven't worked out, and maybe people are saying, "Turn to the South," hoping that maybe that part of our culture will help.  But I wouldn't guarantee it!

J: I remember Lenny Bruce once said that LBJ was finished as soon as he opened his mouth.  If Albert Einstein had had a Mississippi accent, nobody would ever have believed his "E equals M-C squared you-all..." (laughter)

T: Sure.  I faced that when I went to college, in Kenyon College, in Ohio, and I started in '57.  And I think many of my classmates, when I arrived there, had never encountered a Southerner, and they kind of assumed that I'd have to be given help.

J: You were a redneck cracker...?

T: Yeah, I think we've passed that now, pretty much.  Jimmy Carter has a strong Georgia accent, and when the President has one, then people sort of have to swallow it, you know! (Laughter)

J: Oh, yeah.  You mention Kenyon College.  Was there much bluegrass music out in that part of Ohio then?

T: Things were just getting started, and I didn't know much about it.  At the time I was there, I think the Osborne Brothers did a concert at Oberlin.   I think it was about that time that Alice Gerrard and her husband at the time, Mike Foster, were starting to play bluegrass music and some old-timey music at Antioch.  But I didn't even know them.   It was just about the same time, but not much at Kenyon.  I remember one guy who had a five-string banjo.

J: Ray Benson, of Asleep at the Wheel, was at Antioch, same time as Seth Lichtenstien, of Arwen Mountain.

T: Oh, Seth - yeah!  Let's see, what was really hot in Ohio at the time was another influence on my taste: Dixieland.  There were lots of small colleges in Ohio, small private schools like Kenyon, with maybe 500 students and it was not the kind of budget that brought big names through every two or three weeks like there is at the University now.  For private parties they hired local bands, and at the parties I went to, at least 75% were Dixieland.  That was considered really hip.  The guys who played it were special people, and all this charisma came from these guys playing tenor banjos and tubas, two-four piano.  I learned a lot of music, though I wasn't playing music.  A lot was being pumped in that I wasn't even very aware of at the time.

J: Speaking of stardom.  Have you noticed much of that has happened to the Red Clay Ramblers?

T: Oh, not much.  I guess some.  There are certain areas of the country where for some reason or other things come together in a way.  We happen to appeal to the people, somehow, in a special way.  There happens to be a radio station where a couple of DJs like our music and are independent enough to play it, and so when we go into that area, we get treated as if we were something special.  And that's fun, but it's...kind of strange! (laughter) I think there's something happening in American music right now.  I think that most of even the best rock music - the Eagles, or Fleetwood Mac, for instance -- what they're doing is in I think pretty good taste.  They're all excellent musicians, and their songwriting skills are admirable.  But I don't think they're breaking any new ground.  Fleetwood Mac cannot do anything like say the Beatles, who were always a year or two ahead of their time.  Fleetwood Mac is a reflection of what the culture is.  Bob Dylan and the Beatles were ahead of what was happening.  Now, there isn't anything in rock music that's like that.  In the past, now, there was rock, and pop, and there was this underground stream of bluegrass and now old-timey music which has sort of edged its way in there.  They were like two separate things with neither paying attention to the other.

But those days are ending.  They're now beginning to converge.  They're always be the big AM bands will always appeal to the teenagers, and they'll always make the big money.  But there's a kind of anti-star feeling of the underground thing as we begin to influence the other.  Somebody who'll like let's say Emmy Lou or Bonnie Raitt.  Now there are two great examples of really great women singers whose musical roots are like ours.  Then there are other people, like say Norman Blake or John Hartford - especially John.  He's been a star, he's had TV exposure and that kind of thing, I'm sure he's wealthy  -- but where he's working and the kind of music he is writing, the kind of show he puts on, he's very folkie, he'd fit in at any folk festival!

J: For sure.

T: And that's a new thing. To me, that's a very exciting thing. 

J: People who didn't get taken over by the big money?

T: Right.  All the big American musics have come out of folk music, every one.  Always.  And these are people who may be big time, but who are aware of that, who let it show.  And so I envision a new middle ground in music - a crossover ground there has never been.  I want a place in that for the Red Clay Ramblers.  Or take a good band like the Newgrass Revival.  A bluegrass band with a lot of rock influences.  And yet they're really not playing rock music, it's still bluegrass, with those rock influences.  There's a place in the middle for that.  And all that big star stuff - where probably won't ever be enough money for that - we won't all have Lear jets!  On the other hand, we will be able to make a good living.  And there'll be lots of room for a wide variety of things, and it'll be kind of not-bigtime, not-smalltime, kind of medium time.

J: Very human-sized.

T: That's right - very human.

J: That's something I always saw in rock.  It came out of a whole theatrical tradition - the magic minstrels appear from behind the stage curtain, do what they do, and disappear.  But folk music was always - folk making it.

T: That's right.  To me, I see no reason why there isn't a folk culture.  I know there isn't much left in this country where a folk culture as it existed 50 years ago survived.  But there's still homemade music, and it has all kind of influences on it.  Just the fact that the influences can be so much greater than they could be 50 years ago means that they can't be "pure," but the days of that "pure this" and "pure that" don't exist any more.  There are not "pure" dialects anymore.  To go along with that, there's no reason why people who play "folk music" should make no money, and the people who make "pop music" make it all.  I think there can be a place in the middle.  I hope so!

J: Would you say that in percentage terms there are more people making their own music now?

T: Sure - everywhere we go.  Absolutely, I can't think of one place on this continent where we've played, where there hasn't been a good bluegrass band, and usually two or three good old-timey bands.  I mean with really good fiddlers and banjo players-and with what there wasn't ten years ago, people learning to sing.

J: It seems to be harder to do that.

T: I think it is. You can go out and buy a good guitar, but you can't buy a good voice.  You can get more skilled at singing, and take more advantage of the voice you've got-and there'll still be people who just have better voices, you know.  I'll never be able to sing like Keith Whitley if I learn every trick that he's got, I still don't have the vocal chords he's got.  But it just took a while to recognize that folk singing was as good as folk playing - and as interesting, and as valid as a musical form.  People have learned to sing better.  Or people who could sing, who had better voices, have begun to be singled out as people who could do more.  And I know ten years ago that wasn't so.

J: I know a lot of new, young bands starting out who are really good instrumentally, but their vocals aren't as strong.

T: And what I'm saying is that ten years ago it was worse than that.  I mean, ten years ago, the best that I knew of in existence then were the young string bands like The New Lost City Ramblers.  And it didn't take me long to recognize that, good as they were, if you just listened closely to their models, those old-timers could sing better!  But of course the New Lost City Ramblers recognized that too, I think, and when Tracy came in, he has a good country voice, and that helped a whole lot.  I mean you can hear how vastly their singing improved from their earlier records to their late records.

J: Would you call that the particular strength of the Red Clay Ramblers, their singing?

T: I don't know, it's so hard for me to say.  I know there are people who like our singing a whole lot.  I know there are a lot of things in my own singing I'd like to improve.  Sometimes we will get a record review that says the singing is great, other times people will say it's not so hot.  I think potentially we have a way, with our various combinations and so forth, to create something that hasn't been done before.  I think we've gone some way towards that.  I think our singing is solid.   It's kind of ragged; and I don't know, I'd just as soon leave it that way.  Really, I think the only one in the band that I can say, unqualifiedly, has a real singer's voice is Mike Craver.  That's really a remarkable voice.

J: Yeah!  I was a bit disappointed he didn't do "Answer Only with Your Eyes," on the new album.  When I heard him do that at Godfrey Daniels last year...

T: Well, we might eventually get that on an album.  It was just that "Melancholy" isn't a bad cut, either!

J:  Oh, sure - Mike is incredible on that.  But I think you all combine so well - you've got good voices for that.  And it's so striking, on the album as well as in the show, when you go from an instrumental cut to a cappella singing, and then back again - it's so crisp and so "arranged" sounding.

T: Oh, well, we can all sing, we can sing well enough to make most songs effective, where there are a lot of string bands around with people singing who really can't sing.  But my model singers run from really great singers, like, oh, Robert Johnson on the one end and Ralph Stanley on the other.  Or a Hazel Dickens.  There is nobody in our band who has what it is that makes for truly great singing.  And so most of what we've done will be in finding how, within the limitations we have, to make our singing effective.  With the exception possibly of Mike, we're never going to record an album where people will say, "Boy, listen to that guy sing!"

J: But I'm listening to your harmony singing--

T: But that's a way of combining forces to make something work!  A lot of people don't like our singing just because our voices don't blend.  They like J. D. Crowe's band, who were here last night, and their conception of good harmony singing is to find those three voices that blend just right, with that resemblance in tone quality.  It's so sharp, making your endings and beginnings all work out just right, with a smooth blending and liquidity that is so lovely!  And I do like that kind of singing, and if you prefer that, then you'll never like the Red Clay Ramblers' singing.  I like both kinds myself, I like Paul Martin and Ted Bogan singing together--they don't even sing the same words, but somehow that also works out too!

J: Sort of like in the Memphis Jug Band?

T: Yeah!  Who was that guy in the Memphis Jug Band?  Will Shade!  An incredible singer!  Chills up and down your spine.  We'll never have singing like that.

J: I notice you're very critical of the band.

T: Oh, no, I love the band!  But you can always see tremendous improvements you can make.  Some specific things I can see, and in other ways we maybe can improve in ways I don't even know!  And as we write more, do more of our own things, we develop a knack, a way to be totally convincing to a broader range of people.  And that's not compromising-so many people who play traditional music are so uptight about that!  But if it turns people on to the music...

J: Do you have somebody outside of the band helping you with the bookings?

T: No, we really don't.  We sometimes do it on a temporary basis, playing somebody ten percent, but this way we are autonomous, and we're making a living, and we are making a better living each year.  If we had a big agent, a well-connected manager, things might move a little faster, but we'd lose something too, a little autonomy.  I do look forward to the day when I don't have to do all this, but I want our careers to be firmly established on our own terms first, and then we can hire somebody to take care of things for us, rather than have somebody moving in and taking over, "Look, boys, here's how to make a million dollars..."

J: Do you think that's the kind of thing that might have happened if you had been younger?

T: Oh, of course.  I think the fact that all of us have earned our livings in other ways for quite a long time helped.  I was just forty this year - a lot of water has flowed under my bridge!  I think that has helped us a lot.  We've been involved with the folk scene for a long time, and I knew we could make a living, and just keep working along gradually...And some day we'd get invited to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, you know...That was a big step for us.  From a rock star's point of view, that might be nothing, but for us that was a really big thing.  What you consider nothing or a really big thing depends, I guess.  And you can hustle and work until you get it.  We'd all been playing fulltime for a year and a half before we developed any sense of ambition at all - that was not part of it.  Now I feel a really strong sense of ambition!  (Laughter)  Partly, I'd think, because we have proved we can get better than we are now, since we are a lot better than we were a year ago.  And we're not always uptight about it, about playing exactly what we want to hear.  We'd like for as many people as possible to hear us, and we're learning better how to bring them along with us.  Just the fact that there are all these kids all over the country playing old-timey music, that tells you something about where people's heads are.  There's a change in the music business in the fact that say, Emmy Lou Harris is a big star, but at least two songs on her last two albums she got from Hazel and Alice records.  That means people are listening to each other.  There's not that separation between being "everybody" and being "nobody" anymore.

J: And her contact with Gram Parsons was important in bringing that across.

T: Sure--he was very important, writing those songs that were so much ahead of his time.  Rock singers are just now coming around to what he was doing, what, ten years ago?

J: I guess I think of the Byrds as being around '67 or so.

T: So I think of the business structure of it as changing.  I think of it as there being opportunities to do our kind of thing, that there were not, ten years ago.  Or even four or five years ago.  We've been very lucky all along, to be where we were at the right time.  The maturity of our music fitted nicely our audience's.  I mean, "Stolen Love" is an album which I like very much, but that we may have outgrown in a way.  It would be foolish of us to make another album like that.  Not that there's anything wrong with it, but you've worked it through, and there's no need to keep repeating yourself.  And that record was just right for Flying Fish when we took it to Bruce Kaplan and said, "Are you interested in this tape?"  Now, we couldn't take that into Flying Fish and get on that label now.

J: Because he has changed and is into different material now, too.

T: Right.   So that was a great stroke of good fortune that Flying Fish was just getting started when we were.  Bruce's tastes have evolved, as have ours.  We're a perfect band for Flying Fish, and they are a perfect label for us.

J: Do you see any possibility of your ever making an album with some other people who are on the label too?

T: It's a possibility.  But we're working so hard now to make our own place, we're working all the time now.  So the time it takes to go and make a record is a big sacrifice for us, right now.  The idea of it - the time it takes to work up the material, and to do it with someone else that we don't play with, it would take us easily a month to do that.  And that's a month when we don't get out and let the people know we exist.  So it's not something I envision happening right now, though I can see it happening a little later on.

J: I was just thinking, John Hartford is on that label.

T: Sure.  Love to do an album with John Hartford!  Be a huge thrill!  And it would be a good record, too. 

J: Well, the funny thing is, talking with John for our interview in The Folk Life, we asked him about how he plays all those instruments, and he said it's his way of getting an old-time string band "in turn" as he goes around in a set.  And I notice with Bryan Bower's new album, also on Flying Fish, he has the Newgrass Revival on one cut, and Seldom Scene on another-and they do make a nice combination with his solo material.

T: Sure, those are fun things to do.  But it takes a lot of versatility to do that.

J: Somebody like the Red Clay Ramblers, right?

T:  Well, to do it, you have to hear the other guy's stuff.  And you have to spend a couple of months just figuring out what to do, and then do it.  But that's also a kind of versatility that a studio musician has, and we're not quite that way yet-though we are getting better at it.   But I don't think right now we're ready to go make an album with John Hartford.

J: You respect your differences as musicians then?

T: Sure.  Though I'd certainly like to be able to do that.  A couple or three years, maybe.  Though I'm not sure he knows exactly w ho we are.  We did play at one festival together, and who knows.  I don't know if he's even heard our records.

J: But he will, eh?  All things come?

T: Right.  All things come.

J: H'm.  Well, John Hartford was on our March cover, and we sent it along to him at Stone County, to Keith Case.

T: I've heard he's a really good guy.  I know people who've worked with him on various things, and the club owners we've worked for who have hired John and the Newgrass Revival, and they say he's okay, he's a good guy.

J: Yup.  And Keith will have seen the Red Clay Ramblers in The Folk Life, too.

T: All right then.

J: It's a funny business to be in, isn't it?

T: Sure is.  Been nice talking with you, John.

J: Thanks for your time, Tommy.  We'll be in touch.

(Quite a conversationalist, isn't he?  We hope to keep bringing you news of the Red Clay Ramblers in future issues of The Folk Life.  Stay tuned.)

Thanks, John! 
See also:
John's review of the Red Clay Ramblers at Godfrey Daniels
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs' ongoing wonderful online Digital Folk Life

Home Part 1
January 7, 2000
updated July 17, 2002