An interview with Bill Hicks and Tommy Thompson near the end of the New York run of Diamond Studs in 1975
Red Clay Ramblers Give Up Broadway for Hillbilly Music
By Mary Burch
The Raleigh Times staff writer
Against the stark, wood-frame set of “Diamond Studs,” Tommy Thompson and Bill Hicks began picking a toe-tapping tune.

They call their music old-time hillbilly, but their delivery is polished after seven months on Broadway.

Hicks, a Raleigh native, and Thompson, a former philosophy professor at N.C. State University, are half of the Red Clay Ramblers, a string band.  The Ramblers, along with the Southern States Fidelity Choir, provide instrumentation for “Diamond Studs,” a musical based on the life of Jesse James.  The play opened Tuesday at the Ranch House in Chapel Hill where it originated a year ago and was discovered for a successful Broadway run.

“Diamond Studs” has helped us in a lot of ways,” began Thompson, a big burly red-head with full beard.  He plays both Jesse James’ mother, Zerelda, and bank-robbing cousin, Cole Younger, in the musical.

“It’s been a good experience for us, but we want to make it as a band, not in theater.”

The Red Clay Ramblers was an established string band before it joined the “Diamond Studs” cast, Hicks pointed out.  The band has maintained a separate billing throughout the play’s run to keep its own identity.

But now it’s time for the group to strike out on its own again.  The Red Clay Ramblers will leave the “Diamond Studs” cast next week and return to concerts.  The band will make its home base in the Triangle area.

The group has recently produced a second album, “Stolen Love,” scheduled for release any day.  Its first LP, “The Red Clay Ramblers,” was released last August.

“We have jobs flying at us that we couldn’t have gotten before, or at least we would have had to struggle to get, “ said Thompson, who has given up teaching for a fulltime performing career.  “And when you’ve staked your life on music, it’s a great feeling.”

The new album will include “The Year of the Jubilo,” one of the three songs that the Red Clay Ramblers contributed to “Diamond Studs.”

The Red Clay Ramblers is an outgrowth of a revival of bluegrass and blues music that began in Chapel Hill about 15 years, ago, Thompson said.

“We were formed pretty much by who was left around at the time in 1972,” he mused.  “We had all been playing in an amateur and semi-professional capacity in other groups that had disbanded or had members move away.”

Thompson, guitarist and banjo player, and Jim Watson, who plays autoharp, mandolin, bass, and guitar, had been with the Hollow Rock String Band.  Hicks, a fiddler who had been with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, joined them in 1972.  The fourth member, Mike Craver, who plays piano and guitar, joined in 1973 after playing with several rock groups.

The group was named by Thompson.  “I had this cardboard box of books sitting in my house with red clay pots printed on it,” Thompson laughed.  “We couldn’t call ourselves that, so I wanted to call the group Red Clay, but that sounded too much like a rock group.  So we added Ramblers, which is a traditional name for hillbilly musicians.  There are at least 120 different ramblers that play at Union Grove.  I liked the alliteration of the name.”

The Red Clay Ramblers became part of “Diamond Studs” through a friendship with The Southern States Fidelity Choir, a group organized by Bland Simpson.

“We shared several gigs with the Southern States Fidelity Choir at the Cat’s Cradle (a Chapel Hill tavern) and got to know the group on a personal basis,” Hicks said.

“Bland and Jim Wann were writing ‘Diamond Studs’ about the same time and they needed a string band to fill out the instrumentation.  So we were asked to join in.”

The Red Clay Ramblers added an historic flavor to the “Diamond Studs” score, Thompson said.  The Southern States Fidelity Choir played more modern string band tunes while the Ramblers went in for old-time mountain songs.  It proved to be a successful blending of sounds under the direction of John Haber.

Producers of Chelsea Theater Center in New York saw the play in Chapel Hill last October and decided to take the whole cast to New York.  It opened on New Year’s Eve at Westside Theater for a seven-month run.

A second company opened in Washington in May for a two-month run and a third company is currently performing “Diamond Studs” in Tucson, Ariz.

New York audiences were the most difficult to reach, Hicks noted.  “The play involves the audience, but in New York, it was hard to tell if you were getting through.  Then there would be a standing ovation at the end of the show.”

“Diamond Studs” hasn’t brought instant success to the Red Clay Ramblers, but success is a relative term for string band music.

“String band music fans are a small clique,” Thompson said.  “If a rock group sold only 2,500 copies of an album, it would be a flop.  But when a string band sells 2,500 copies, it’s a hit.

“It takes about nine or 10 years to make it in any music field.  We’ve all put in our time.”

The Red Clay Ramblers will travel to New York and the northeast for concerts in September and to Ohio for a concert date in November.

In the meantime the group will perform at The Pier here Oct. 1 and at Déjà Vu Oct. 9, 10 and 11.  The Ramblers will also give a concert Monday night at the Ranch House in Chapel Hill, beginning a new monthly series of string band concerts there.

Studs Souvenirs
September 14, 2003