Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York
Volume XXI, Number 2: May 1992


by Carol J. Oja and Mark Tucker

We've been fans of the Red Clay Ramblers ever since hearing their soulful and spirited rendition of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," recorded ten years ago. Tracking down more of their recordings, we discovered a group that programmed Foster alongside Irish jigs and reels, old-time fiddle tunes, Tin Pan Alley novelty numbers, shape- note hymns, black spirituals, early jazz, songs associated with Uncle Dave Macon and Jimmie Rodgers, and their own originals. And we were impressed by a string band that stretches instrumental versatility so far, perhaps the most stunning example is Rambler Jack Herrick, who plays not just upright bass and guitar but trumpet, harmonium, pennywhistle, and bouzouki.

The Red Clay Ramblers combine a deep respect for America's musical past with irreverent parodies, wacky humor, and a wooly performing style. After two decades of travel on the club, concert, and festival circuits, they've gained greater visibility in recent years through both stage and film collaborations with playwright Sam Shepard. Curious to learn more about this iconoclastic ensemble, we dropped in on one of the original Ramblers, banjo-player and songwriter Tommy Thompson, at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Aware that he'd be facing two historians, Thompson hauled down the band's archives from his attic. But appearances can be deceiving. The battered box, labeled George Dickel Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey, turned out to contain only back issues of philosophy journals (Thompson once studied the subject in graduate school at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill). The case of mistaken identity pretty much sums up the group: five savvy, well- educated musicians who in performance style and stage bearing give every impression of having spent most of their days sipping sour mash and picking tunes on grandpa's back porch.

The Ramblers have undergone some musical changes since starting out in 1972, yet their Southern roots hold firm. Their first album, released on Folkways in 1974, revealed an old-time string band playing traditional repertory. But already they seemed a bit restless with the format, were altering instrumentations and harmonies, and "combining originally divergent musical styles when they seemed to work together", as Thompson confessed in the album's liner notes. This approach distinguished them from an ensemble like the New Lost City Ramblers (one of their models), which tried to recreate old playing styles faithfully from recordings. As Thomp- son has said about his group's view of historical authenticity, "We're not engaged in taxidermy."

The Red Clay Ramblers had their first big break in 1974-75 with Diamond Studs, a theatrical production based loosely on the life of Jesse James. In it, they performed both traditional tunes and originals by fellow North Carolinians Bland Simpson and Jim Wann. Diamond Studs opened in Chapel Hill, then moved to New York for a seven-month run. At the time, Thompson recalls, the group sounded like one that "might have existed in the thirties but didn't." While much of their repertory came from old recordings, the Ramblers also had sat at the feet of some great string-band musicians from the Tar Heel State, especially Tommy Jarrell, the legendary fiddler and banjo player from Mt. Airy in the Blue Ridge foothills. Thompson describes Jarrell as "an irascible old character, but a truly great bearer of tradition and a noble man." Yet the Diamond Studs experience taught the Ramblers that bearing tradition did not necessarily pay the rent. As Thompson recalls, "Seeing all the royalties go to the guys who write the songs was a lesson in art." Soon after, Thompson began composing tunes, among them "Twisted Laurel" and "The Ace" (co-authored with pianist Mike Craver), both of which became immediately popular on the group's tours. "From then on," says Thompson, "we kept a balance of new songs and traditional ones."

And so they have. Landmarks in their exploration of the past have included the discovery of Foster's "Hard Times," which Craver came upon in the famous Heart Songs anthology of 1909. Thompson himself has taken along detour into the work of the nineteenth century minstrel performer Dan Emmett. After reading about Emmett in Hans Nathan's biography, Thompson wrote a dramatic monologue titled The Last Song of John Proffit. (Fellow Rambler Clay Buckner appeared alongside Thompson in a production staged last year at the Repertory Theater of St. Louis.) In the show, Thompson portrays a fictitious character, John Proffit, who, accord- ing to Thompson, was "a minstrel man with some of the same aspirations of Emmett but overshadowed by him. I tried to imagine [Proffit] talking, and thought about the trips I'd made to see Tommy Jarrell, or one of those old characters. They'd just put their feet down on the linoleum floor and gab." Thompson also sought to make a statement about blackface. After Proffit spends the entire show reminiscing about his life as a minstrel, he tells the audience, "I know what you want. You want to see the Devil himself. Well, he's on the premises." With that, he goes backstage and returns with a burnt-corked face and a black wig. Accompanying himself on a gourd banjo, Proffit delivers "Bottled and Sold," a bitter song (Thompson's own) about the cynicism of blackface.

Songs like "Bottled and Sold" -- which view America's past though a modem lens -- form a key ingredient in the Ramblers' identity. That may be what attracted Sam Shepard to the group in the first place. In 1985, as the story goes (Thompson and other band members have turned this tale of discovery into folklore), Shepard was driving around northwest Iowa in his pickup truck, fiddling with the radio dial, when he tuned into the Ramblers doing live promotion for an upcoming concert. He wanted the band to provide music for his film Country, but when that didn't work out he invited them to New York in 1986 to appear in his play A Lie of the Mind. Later the Ramblers supplied the soundtrack for Shepard's film Far North, set in northern Minnesota. And this spring they traveled to New Mexico for another Shepard film project, Silent Tongue, in which they appear on-screen as an 1870s medicine-show band. Recently, Rambler Jack Herrick described their relationship with Shepard to a reporter for the Durham Herald Sun: "Sam has a notion of what American music is and we fit that notion. He envisions us as a band driving around in a broken-down van playing in the Heartland, which is in fact what we do. We're kind of out of the musical system. We're not in the Nashville music scene or any other commercial category and neither is he, and I think he feels an affinity to us because of that."

Over the years some Ramblers have ambled off in different directions. Pianist Craver, who once contributed clever originals and a lovely lyric tenor voice to the group, stayed in New York after A Lie of the Mind to pursue a career in theater. Former mandolinist and bass-player Jim Watson now gives solo performances around Chapel Hill and sometimes teams up with the folk duo Robin and Linda Williams. Currently, in addition to Thompson and Herrick, the band features Clay Buckner on fiddle and harmonica, Bland Simpson (from Diamond Studs days) on piano, and Chris Frank on guitar, accordion, and low brass. At a recent performance in Chapel Hill, the Ramblers added percussionist Ed Butler for some of their numbers. That evening they mixed together old favorites, such as a riotous cover of Homer and Jethro's "I Crept into the Crypt" and a church-rocking version of the spiritual "Valley of the Dry Bones," with originals from their new recording, Rambler. The originals included Thompson's "Hot Buttered Rum," a contemporary love song with a parlor-ballad flavor, and Bland Simpson's "BBQ," a paean to North Carolina's beloved "state plate" ("Forget about your chicken and your Brunswick stew; Don't get behind on your barbecue.")

Despite the new faces and instruments, the band's identity hasn't changed all that much -- at once regional and cosmopolitan, old- fashioned and experimental, sacred and profane, sober and silly. The Red Clay Ramblers keep proudly declaring, in some typically American way, a refreshing musical independence

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