Leda Hartman interview with Mike Craver for WFDD/NPR
Mike Craver is a haunted man and it's a fact he freely admits. After all it's hard not be possessed by the pull of those who came before you, when their traces are everywhere you live, in the cedar trees and the cow pastures and the pine needles of the Piedmont, in the old houses still standing and the ones' torn down.
Craver's people have been around here for generations; some of them were among Lexington's earliest settlers. Now he's given them new life, by capturing the spirit of their time and place in his CD WAGONER'S LAD.
"He's sort of got this old soul, I think, which comes out very strongly in his new body of work," says
George Holt, Director of Public Programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art. "Many of the songs come directly from the old nineteenth century ballad tradition, which was transplanted here with the first Anglo and Scotch Irish settlers and there's a very direct lineage there, but of course Mike brings a very modern sensibility to his interpretations."
You can hear this mix of old themes and new sounds in the CD's title track "A Wagoner's Lad" -- a new song with an old name. Hartman plays some of "A Wagoner's Lad":
"Had me a shop in the Rockford town, nineteen hundred and two
Built me a barn with the carbide lights
A cottage with a river view…"
The crossroads where Craver grew up during the l950's and 60's was one of those tight little Piedmont NC communities where everybody literally did know everybody else, and they all looked out for each other.
Craver returned to Lexington in l994 after a long stint in New York City. Back home he spent hours listening to his mother's memories of the place, and his understanding of it deepened and set his creative juices flowing.
Craver: "We'd ride around, we rode around Davidson County till we wore it out, then we went over to Rowan Davie and up to Yadkin and Surry, and she would just talk. We'd pass old farms that looked like the farms when she was a girl, and we she and I both had this nostalgia for it, even though it wasn't my era, but it got to the point where I just enjoyed it and loved it so much that I Wanted to live in that era myself, and maybe in your imagination you can."
Hartman plays a some of Dewberry Place.
"There was a time we surely miss, a time of charm and grace
Embodied in an edifice, known as Dewberry Place"
Both writing and music came early to Craver. When he was a kid his favorite book was the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and he'd scratch out plays with a pen dipped in ink. His father, a frustrated violinist, made sure that Craver took music lessons. "At various times during my father's he'd decide to take the fiddle back up again -- excuse me, he never called it a fiddle -- he only played classical music. And if you turned on the TV and there was country music, that was "hillbilly music" to him.
Hartman: "He was a snob?"
Craver: "Yes, he was a total snob about that. Both my parents were. The classics were ALL!"
But Craver's no snob. His musical influences run the gamut of American Pop culture. In the early l960's he found Motown -- he says it spoke to his hormones. Then in his high school years he was part of a very clean cut, well, nerdy-looking, folk group, called the Bleecker Street Singers. Still later, at the University of North Carolina, Craver played rock and roll.
Craver: "We played for a "Students for a Democratic Society" rally on Franklin Street. We were on a flatbed truck with a gas generator, and the police came and somebody threw something and the police threw some mace into the crowd. and it was very exciting. We had a wonderful time!
When Craver joined the Red Clay Ramblers in l973 he found artistic partners who shared his desire to fuse various musical influences to create an original sound. Bill Hicks was one of the original founding members and still one of Craver's close friends.
Hicks: I think as a pure musician Mike was the most trained and the most versatile and just the most talented person in the band.
Craver brought the Ramblers his piano and guitar playing and song writing and an ethereal tenor voice. You can hear it soar on Lord Gregory, the only traditional song on Wagoner's Lad, which he sings completely in falsetto. Hartman plays some of Lord Gregory.
"I am the the queens daughter I come from Capuchin
In search of Lord Gregory, pray God I find him"
Craver left the Ramblers in l986 for New York, where he helped direct and arrange the music for the off Broadway hit SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN and wrote the tunes for two other award winning musicals.
He came back to North Carolina a few years before his mother's death, seeking solace, simplicity, and a sense of home.
Craver: "I felt like I wanted to come back and experience it while it was still here, the little of it that was left."
Craver recorded WAGONER'S LAD in a cabin back behind the old home place, overdubbing his own his voice and keyboards and guitar to create a body of work that's totally his own. He performed some of the songs from his CD this summer at the North Carolina Museum of Art, but he isn't planning a major tour to promote the disc nor is he signing on to a big label for major distribution. Craver's music doesn't fit into any predictable formula. Bill Hicks says that may be an asset that's artistic, rather than commercial.
Hicks: "Mike has his own vision, so he'll have possibly a hard time, if he wants, to try to sell songs to mass market people -- that might be hard for him, cause he's' not writing songs that are stupid."
The artist himself meanwhile doesn't seem overly concerned with promotion and sales. He says he made WAGONER'S LAD because he could, and he's sure it would please his forbears. Hartman plays some of One Day When Now Is Gone:
"One day this'll all pass and I might have a little regret
Tthat I didn't spend more time with Mom on the porch
Watching the crabgrass bloom and the roses scorch."
I'm Leda Hartman….