Wendy Goodman and Mike Taylor
"We all come from different backgrounds, and we’ve tried to open our music up so that all these different roots could form part of the organism we are,” remarked Tommy Thompson of the Red Clay Ramblers after their Tuesday night performance at the Ark coffee house. The Ramblers, consisting of Thompson, switching between banjo, guitar, and bass, Bill Hicks, bowing his fiddle, Mike Craver, pounding and strumming his piano, guitar, and bass, Jim Watson on mandolin, guitar, and bass, and Jack Herrick, plucking and blowing his bass, guitar, penny whistle, and trumpet, put on a fine show that drew from diverse sources of material, yet came across as a well-integrated whole.
It was amazing to watch the endless combinations of instruments being formed. From time to time, various band members would step out, leaving the remaining ones to create simpler instrumental textures. Herrick, the group’s main bass player, often appeared to be a dancing appendage of his instrument. Sometimes Watson strummed his mandolin so enthusiastically that it seemed like he was reaching into the sound hole. As with most good groups larger than one or two people, it was impossible to decide whom to watch at times. It was like being at a three-ring circus.
Each member of the band sings, allowing almost as many vocal arrangements as instrumental ones. They sang a few tunes a cappella, providing ample proof of their marvelous harmonizing abilities. “Daniel Prayed” and “Parting Hand,” two old spirituals done without instruments, were among the most moving works of the evening.
Although the band works as a unit, the individual members are not lost in it. The lead singing was shared by all of them, giving an individual touch to each of the numbers. In addition, each one took vocal solos from time to time. Craver performed a beautiful blues tune he believes has Dixieland origins. “At least it came from a Dixieland book,” he explained. His soft soaring voice combined with his exquisite piano work to form one of the evening’s highlights.
“A tenth of our repertoire are our own songs,” noted Thompson. The band’s original tunes peppered the performance, adding spice to the evening. “I Got Plans,” one of Thompson’s songs, was an amusing and melodic effort. Its content could easily be compared to the lives of numerous Ann Arbor residents, and its chorus of “When I grow up, I’m gonna settle down” sums up the whole experience. The bulk of the group’s material, however, consists of old American folk tunes such as “The Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Deep Elum Blues.”
“Champagne velvet for the folks on the hill -- Blue Ribbon for the boys at the bar,” written by a textile union organizer in the thirties, was a spirited social commentary. Accompanied only by two guitars, a Carter family song, “Anchored in Love,” aroused warm feelings. Described by the band as “typically nonsensical” and the Uncle Dave Macon tune called “Rabbit in the Pea Patch” was just that.
“You look like pretty hard-nosed people. Try to be more sentimental,” kidded Thompson before “Stolen Love,” the title track of one of the Ramblers’ three albums. Craver’s piano shone on “Wahoo, Wahoo, Wahoo, a song with naughty lyrics.
“We thought we’d do one in the language of the Beefalo, in memorandum as it were. We can’t translate Beefaloese so we call it ‘One Beefalo Special,’” noted Herrick as the group launched onto another of Thompson’s zany originals. The lyrics were a bit obscure, but the instrumentation was fantastic. Although Hicks wrote the words for “Company Blues,” Watson sang them. This song featured piano, bass, and fiddle.
Instrumentals popped up every now and then, giving the members chances to show off their instrumental abilities. At one point, they played a couple of fiddle tunes, “Fire on the Mountain and Sugar in the Gourd.” Later on, the band played a few Irish numbers, as well as a small collection of jigs.
“Ramblers is a traditional name for mountain bands like us, and the soil where we live is red,” explained Thompson, discussing the origin of the name of the Chapel Hill, North Carolina based group. “Chapel Hill is a music town,” he continued. After playing together informally, like many other musicians in town, the three original members of the band decided they could make it as a touring group.
When the Ramblers left the stage, the crowd kept clapping. Obviously, an encore, a rare event at the Ark, was needed. The group came back to do a rousing version of “Rockingham Cindy.” This got the crowd even more excited, forcing a second encore.
This time, Herrick came on with his trumpet. What followed was one of the evening’s most outstanding moments. “Merchants Lunch,” which will be the title of the Ramblers’ next album on Flying Fish Records, is a beautifully orchestrated, cleverly written tour de force about a bar in Nashville, Tennessee, so sleazy that “it looked like half past midnight in the afternoon,” and a man who went there. It was a stylish end to a wonderful evening. It was also the Red Clay Ramblers’ first appearance at the Ark. With luck, they’ll be back again and again. (Webgal's note: "and they were.")
Tommy Thompson, Mike Craver, and Jim Watson are on the left
with Bill Hicks and Jack Herrick on the ladder in the center (1980)
Other notables are identified in our Photo Album.