A review of the album Twisted Laurel from 1976 in The Unicorn Times
By Terence Winch
The Red Clay Ramblers’ last album, Stolen Love, was one of the best recordings in years by a string band.  Their versions of “Kingdom Coming,” “Staten Island Hornpipe,” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning” are a joy to listen to.  But their newest LP Twisted Laurel, on Flying Fish, one of the best independent labels in the country, outdoes any of their previous work.  The Ramblers are more and more becoming a band in a class by itself, setting a standard of excellence that is inspirational.

They are a “traditional” group insofar as the instrumentation and material for their music follows in the tradition of such performers as Charlie Pool, The Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers.  But this is not to say that they are not an innovative band.  Their arrangements are complex and tight without being pretentious.  The blend of sound, vocal and instrumental, that the Ramblers can produce is distinctive.  It does what the best music must do: it delights the ear.  On this recording they’ve expanded the range and variety of their sound to include trumpet, trombone, tenor guitar, kazoo and organ along with their usual combination of fiddle, banjo, bass, piano and mandolin.  They make a kind of music that’s been around for a long time sound newly exciting by stretching its form in experimental ways.

There’s a sense of humor in the spirit of their work that is one of the many pleasures of listening to this band.  But the quality most appealing in their music is its intelligence.  This is music that sounds bright, not just sonically, but in the attitude the musicians take to their repertoire; they never condescend to the sources of their music.

The Ramblers are from North Carolina, but this new LP was recorded in the D.C. area at Bias Studios by Bill McElroy, one of the most respected engineers in this part of the world.  And he deserves his share of credit for the impressive precision and quality of this recording.  It takes a gifted pair of ears and some very solid techinical skill for a sound engineer to come up with a recording that is as exact and sensitive as this.  All the elements of this band’s music are there, just right.  Nothing is mangled or missed.

The original music on the LP is an index to the Ramblers’ range of talent.  “Twisted Laurel” by Tommy Thompson, one of the most genial men in the South, may make him the Wordsworth of old-time music.   The song is not so much a narrative as an “atmosphere song.”   Without sentimentality, it evokes a melancholy place and mood.  The language is tight, the images sharp, the melody beautiful.  “The Ace” (co-authored by Mike Craver) and “The Corrugated Lady” (written with Johnny Black), also Thompson songs, reveal the comic side of his music.  The Ace's hard-luck romantic adventures make him more of a deuce, sometimes even a joker.  The music sounds funny too—plenty of kazoo, trumpet and trombone.  Jack Herrick, the newest Red Clay Rambler, is the man who blows the horns on this record, providing the band with new musical possibilities that it exploits skillfully.  “The Corrugated Lady,” another song in the ridiculous-romance genre, features a countermelody of The Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” produced by McElroy with the metallic sound of an antique recording.

“The Hobo’s Last Letter,” written by fiddler Bill Hicks, is the only non-Thompson original on the album.  It’s a frame song—a song within a song—put together with real know-how by Hicks and sung in two parts: a slow opener in Mike Craver’s fragile tenor, followed by Watson’s hard-nosed vocals.  Their voices, so completely different, balance perfectly.  The Ramblers know precisely how to use their voices.  Craver’s solo interpretation of “Will You Miss Me?” and his lead vocal on “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” are a tribute to The Carter Family that comes close to surpassing Mother Maybelle herself.  And Watson’s lead vocal on a classic Charlie Poole tune, “The Beale Street Blues” (written by W. C. Handy), is right on target.

Besides fiddling with the speedy clarity of an American Jean Carrignan, Hicks’ sings in a voice so authentic it sounds like it belongs to some 63 year-old moonshiner hiding out in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  His double-fiddling on “Ryestraw” is one of the many touches that make this LP so successful.  Hicks kicks off “Flying Cloud Cotillion,” a tune that displays the band’s instrumental talents and its ability to play complex traditional music without getting tangled up in it.  Herrick’s trumpet and trombone and Craver’s piano give this recording a jazz punctuation that only one other country-music-based band—a new York group called “The Central Park Sheiks” (who have also just released an album on Flying Fish)—uses as effectively.  The rest of the material on this record—a medley of “Blue Jay” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me;” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mississippi Delta Blues;” “Rockingham Cindy;” “The Telephone Girl;” and “I Was Only Teasing You”—is all terrific.

Unless the Ramblers are only teasing us, this album was not recorded, as the credits claim, in June of 1967.

Raymond Simone, who designed and illustrated the jacket, has put together a product that is on the same level of quality as the music it contains.

The Ramblers are accomplished entertainers.  Tommy Thompson, for example, is one of the best on-stage storytellers around.  They’re a working band that frequently plays jobs in this area: at The Red Fox in Bethesda, The Cellar Door, Charlie’s West Side (in Annapolis).  But if you can’t get to see them, enjoy their music in the privacy of your own home by buying a copy of Twisted Laurel.

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April, 1999
updated May 27, 2003