photos by Cece Conway (Jack, Tommy, Bill, Jim) and Ivan Mann (Mike)
What The Red Clay Ramblers Play...
Article from Pickin' - The Magazine of Bluegrass and Old Time Country Music, November 1977
by Michael Sudge
It was almost closing time at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, but everybody just had to hear more. As it had been the night before, almost every other song ended with enthusiastic applause, cheering, and standing ovations. "Tank," the owner of Down Home, announced if everyone would help remove the beer from the tables, the band would play some more. After all the beer had been handed to the smiling waitresses, the Red Clay Ramblers played on. 

The Red Clay Ramblers are a dynamic, talented, and entertaining band. Only after four more encores did they finally stop ... at least at the Down Home. After the crowd of happy people had finally left (most went up to thank the Red Clay Ramblers), we were able to start our interview. 

Talking with the Red Clay Ramblers is very much like their music. They are energetic, happy people, with the ability to have you horse-laughing one minute, yet deep in reflective thought the next. 

Bill Hicks

Pickin': Where did you get exposed to your music? 
Bill: I grew up in the Raleigh, North Carolina area. I remember my grandfather played fiddle; I always wanted to play fiddle. I listened to a real good radio station in the early '50's, WPTF in Raleigh. In the mid-'60's, a lot of people were playing around the Durham and Chapel Hill area, which is when I met Tommy. I started going over to Tommy's. He had these jam sessions every Friday night. (related story)
Pickin': Who would you say influenced you the most? 
Bill: Tommy Jarrell had a big influence on me, and a fiddler named Burl Hammonds from West Virginia. More recently I've been listening to jazz people like Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. Everything I've listened to has had an influence on me. Grappelli had a strange influence on me. Not so much the actual notes, but the sounds. People like Charlie Parker for the bluesy things I play.
Pickin': You are one of the original Red Clay Ramblers then, correct?
Bill: Tommy and Jim and I played together informally ... but Tommy came up with the name in the fall of '72. (related story)
Pickin': Where do most of your songs come from? 
Bill: Most of the fiddle tunes come from the mountain fiddlers like Tommy Jarrell. We used to go up and visit with them so we could learn the tunes.
Pickin'-. Do you all write?
Bill: Yes, and we get a lot of material off old 78's and some from written sources. 
Pickin': What kind of a fiddle do you play? 
Bill: It's a copy of a Bergonzi. I don't know anything beyond that. 
Pickin'- Strings? 
Bill: Thomastic. 
Pickin': How do, you relax? 
Bill: I stay home!
Pickin': What are your future ambitions? 
Bill: Well, some of them have already been met. Like we have made an impact on old timey music. I think we may have pushed the boundaries a bit. I'd just like to keep playing, there's nothing better than playing.

John (Jack) Herrick

Pickin': What I've heard lately, or in the past few years, has been mostly string, but to be able to hear all the instruments you play is an incredible addition. 
Jack: Well, thank you. 
Pickin': Would you mind naming off all the instruments you play?
Jack: Well, you saw most of them tonight, except the harmonica and the piano. It wasn't quite in tune. The harmonica and the trumpet are the two I've been playing the longest. I play Hohner harmonica and my trumpets are Olds-Mandez, the only kind I'd ever own. I play the valve trombone, which is a King, and the King mellophone. The guitar is a '51 Gibson Cand W, and I use Guild strings. The standup bass is a Kay. It's rapidly becoming one of my favorite instruments, and I also play electric bass.
Bill: Don't forget the pennywhistle.
Jack: Oh, yeah. It's my favorite right now. I'm spending all my time fooling around with it. It's a Generation. 
Pickin': Do you just take a liking to something and wear it out? 
Jack: Well, some things I stay with, like the guitar and harmonica. You can learn some of them pretty fast. 
Pickin': You've been with the Red Clay Ramblers how long now? 
Jack: About eleven months. I joined them about a month and a half before we did the Twisted Laurel album, which I was on. It came out last November. 
Pickin': How did you get up with the Red Clay Ramblers? 
Jack: They were in New York doing "Diamond Studs," a musical play, an off-Broadway thing. They were doing the life story of Jesse James. Their band was in it. A guy quit and I got called to come up and that was when I met Tommy and the rest of these guys. 
Pickin': You have a very ... uh... variable background. 
Jack: Spotty is the word you're groping for. 
Pickin'- Well, you've played rock and roll, off-Broadway.... 
Jack: All of these guys have been in different stuff. It's odd. We like to think of ourselves as the, uh, "glitter" end of the old timey spectrum. 
Pickin': The group itself sure brings out a refreshing note to old timey music. What is your background? 
Jack: I was a music major in college for a while, but before that I was a jug band freak.
Pickin': Is the classical background true of all of you? 
Jack: Mike has a classical background, and Bill studied some in college. He was a violinist before he was a fiddler-God save the world! 
Pickin'- Any outside interests?
Jack: Yes, Bill and I play a lot of chess. Gardening. I really love rock climbing. Ropes and shoes, that's for me.
Pickin': Are you going to be recording while you are in Europe? 
Jack: No, but we will be recording again in August. It should come out about early '78.

Tommy Thompson 

Pickin'- Where did you grow up?
Tommy: I was born in West Virginia, lived in northern Florida through high school, and spent four years in the Coast Guard in New Orleans. Since then I've lived in Chapel Hill, and I haven't grown up yet! 
Pickin': Tell me about your European tour. 
Tommy: We're leaving New York on the 8th of May ('77) and we'll play three or four days in Germany. Then, a couple of weeks in Switzerland, then a quick trip up to Sweden ... I think it will be one or two nights in Holland, and then two weeks in France. We'll get a week's vacation before we come back. 
Pickin'- And you'll be back in the States for the rest of the summer? 
Tommy: Yes.
Pickin': That's an unusual style of banjo you play ... is that a clawhammer or a frail or.... 
Tommy: I call it a clawhammer. It's called a lot of different things in different parts of the country. It's an old timey style.
Pickin': Where did you learn the old timey style? 
Tommy: I got really interested in clawhammer when I went to my first fiddlers' convention at Union Grove in '64, and I saw Kyle Creed play there. 
Pickin': Tell me about your instruments. 
Tommy: The banjo is a Vega Fairbanks, made about 1910. The records are not very accurate, but the serial number indicates it is between 1910 and 1912. The guitars are Martin. 
Pickin': What kind of strings do you use? 
Tommy: I use Pro Formula. I like the way they are gauged on the package so you can arrange your own set.
Pickin': Where do you get most of your songs? 
Tommy: The idea now is to do things that nobody else is doing. When we first started, we played stuff directly from the old-timers. We went and visited them in the hills and learned from them. 
Pickin': You said last night that Clarence Ashley is your hero. 
Tommy: Yes. Many people have tried to imitate him. He started recording in the late '20's. He made the first recording of "House of the Rising Sun," which is something you don't normally associate with mountains.
Pickin': What do you do when you get time off? 
Tommy: I don't have any time off. I like to read, I guess that's my main relaxation. 
Mike: He reads about eight books a day!  Anything, trash... buys paperbacks in the 7-11's.

Mike Craver

Pickin': You're from North Carolina, too? 
Mike: Yes, Piedmont area.
Pickin': How did you get together with the Red Clay Ramblers? 
Mike: They were in Chapel Hill, in a play, "Midsummer Night's Dream," and the director wanted a saloon piano. I told him I could do it. I wanted a chance to jam with them so I could get in their band ... and they fell for it! (laughs) 
Pickin': And you've been with them since summer of.... 
Mike: Summer of '73.
Pickin': What kind of music do you listen to? 
Mike: A lot of Bach, and I like commercial stuff, too. Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mack, I really like that stuff. 
Pickin': How long have you played piano? 
Mike: Since I was in the fifth grade, about twenty years.
Pickin': What kind do you play at home? 
Mike: I have an old upright and an electric piano.
Pickin': You all collectively arrange your music? 
Mike: Yeah, like nobody takes charge, everyone just throws in what they have. 
Pickin': You just sort of lean back and nod for someone to come in? 
Mike: Yes, it's no big deal. It's all very naturalistic. That's the way to do it. 

Jim Watson

Pickin': Where did you learn most of your music? 
Jim: I started playing folk music back in the early '60's - I started learning to flatpick guitar when a friend of mine took up Bluegrass banjo. I started learning mandolin in '68, around the time I met Tommy and Bill around Chapel Hill, when everyone was in the old timey music scene in the late '60's. 
Pickin': How do you get new songs? Do people just come up and say "Hey, I like that song"? 
Jim: A lot of songs people will suggest at a practice session and we will work on it a while to see if we can work it into something we can use. 
Pickin': What kind of instruments do you have? 
Jim: The mandolin is an F-2 Gibson from about the 1920's. I use a Martin D-21 from about '56. 
Pickin': What kind of strings? 
Jim: Pro Formula GHS Bright Bronze. I also play the bass. In fact, I got some horrible blisters tonight. I play a little autoharp, but they are a pain to tune up to every piano we come across. 
Pickin': Do you have any future ambitions? 
Jim: Future ambitions? Well, a guy asked me the other night that if we become rich and famous like the Beatles, would we ever come back and play here (the Down Home) . I told him yeah, sure. 
Pickin': The people here at the Down Home sure do love you. You can hardly close the doors here. 
Jim: Yeah, well, that's why we love to play here.
Pickin': How do you feel about going to Europe? 
Jim: Oh, I think it's going to be a hilarious trip. I studied French in high school and everyone is telling me to brush up on that French, so I can lead them around. But I'll bet everyone over there knows English, so what's the use of knowing French? 
Pickin': When you are in Europe, how are you going to travel? 
Jim: We're going to buy a van. All the jobs are hours within this one town in France, Nantes, and I guess we'll try to find a house there. The tour is arranged by Patrick Couton, and he lives in Nantes.

The Red Clay Ramblers play old time music with such high energy it's just down right contagious. They can bounce a room full of people out of their seats one tune after another, but when a slow one is played, that same room is so quiet you can hear a pin drop. They play in a way that let's you feel the fun and beauty of the old time style music. Within each member of the group is an outstanding artist. Combined, they form one entertainment package that is a joy to listen to and even better in person. Their constantly expanding repertoire is bound to please most anyone's taste in music. If good entertainment is what you want, and who doesn't, then check out the Red Clay Ramblers. 
Home Souvenirs
April 28, 2000
updated January 8, 2002