Dayton, Ohio - April 12, 1979
Tommy Thompson interview from the live NPR radio broadcast
"Back in the seventies, Sam's Bar & Grill in Dayton was a great place to play. The Hotmud Family kept a pretty regular schedule there—almost monthly—along with the Fall City Ramblers, a little known now, but then notorious stringband from Louisville. Touring bands were always able to pick up a fill in date and occasionally we'd double up and do a big night with two bands, which is what Hotmud did with both Red Clay and Highwoods. I still run into people around here that remember those nights with great fondness."
This quote from Rick Good, the newest and tallest Red Clay Rambler and founding Hotmud Family banjo man, came along with the bootleg of the show, which was broadcast live on local NPR radio back then. Besides 18 delicious classic Rambler live cuts, the show includes a Tommy Thompson interview about roots of Rambler music and his own banjo playing. We've transcribed the interview here for you.
NPR: Tommy Thompson plays banjo with the Red Clay Ramblers, but you probably first came to people’s attention when you were playing with the Hollow Rock String Band way back when. I don’t know how long ago that was. How do you describe the music you are doing now as opposed to what you were doing then? It seems like it’s different.
TT: Well the Hollow Rock String Band was strictly a fiddle band. We didn’t sing anything. We met a fiddle player who had learned all of his tunes person to person from old time fiddlers in the mountains. And we took his tunes and a few that the other people in the band knew and put those together as band instrumentals. They were basically fiddle tunes, and that was what the Hollow Rock band consisted of, just those fiddle tunes, mostly the ones he had learned that way.
NPR: That fiddler was Alan Jabbour, an influential musician who has worked with the Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Arts. Tommy’s career, however, has taken a different course.
TT: Now we’ve got five guys, each one with a slightly different musical background, and some with very widely different musical backgrounds, all of us dedicated to acoustic music, but not necessarily old music or rural music, for that matter. We’re trying to take all the various tastes and backgrounds and musical ambitions that exist in the band and piece them together and make a new kind of music, really, out of old music, not giving up the old stuff either. We’d like to see this new music understood as part of and the weaving together of several long traditions, but still part of the traditions.
NPR: The Red Clay Ramblers are innovative both in composing original tunes and in interpreting traditional music. One of the things that sets them apart from the old time southern string bands that predate them is their use of the piano.
TT: When we first began to play music with Mike Craver, the band was just Jim Watson and Bill Hicks and me, the fiddle, guitar or mandolin, banjo or guitar, however Watson and I did that. And we had occasion to meet and jam some with Mike Craver. And though it was not at all what we’d set out to do, we just recognized that the piano--that he had a certain rhythmic quality the way that he played the piano that energized us. We drew a lot of rhythm out of his piano playing. So whether or not it was an authentic sound, it just sounded good. So we asked him to join us.
As a matter of fact, pianos weren’t all that rare in old time music. Prosperous farmers down in the valleys had pianos. They bought them for their daughters and their wives to become ladies at. They didn’t have them up on the mountaintops very much. There’s a collection of dance tunes that was put together by an educated but rural German man named Knopf in southwestern Virginia in 1840-something. And there it is--it’s got one line for the fiddle and a chord setting for piano. At least we are sure that the piano and the fiddle were used together back more than 100 years ago in the mountains.
NPR: With the Red Clay Ramblers, musical traditions have become mixed as a result of the varied backgrounds of the members and their own personal influences. Tommy Thompson explained how he was first exposed to the music.
TT: I was born in 1937 and began to be aware of what I was hearing on the radio all through the 40’s. And I heard just about everything that was on the radio in those days, both the country music that came out of Wheeling, West Virginia, and out of Cincinnati, WCKY, and somewhat less from Nashville. But I heard a lot of music that we now think of as old time music. The 40’s was kind of the tail end of the heyday of the old time, that was sort of the crossover from when hillbilly music was being transformed into solo-star type. That was kind of a transition period. I heard a lot of that, but then I heard all the pop music that everybody associates with the Second World War years and that kind of thing. Big bands were very popular then. Cole Porter songs and Hoagie Carmichael songs--I heard as much of that as I did country stuff.
NPR: You can hear that kind of stuff coming out in your music now. It took this many years for it to get back to you. When did you start playing banjo?
TT: I bought my first banjo on April the 19th, 1961. And that was in New Orleans, and nobody in New Orleans, as far as I know, was playing a five string banjo but me, and of course I wasn’t playing it either. I hacked around on it for a couple of years. I began when I got to North Carolina in ’63. I went to my first fiddler’s convention in the spring of ’64 at Union Grove. That’s the first time I heard real honest-to-God old time mountain banjo players play.
NPR: Well who did you learn from? It seems you have a very distinctive style of your own now. Who did you get it from originally, anybody in particular?
TT: No, it was some sort of a basic motion actually I first encountered in a Pete Seeger’s “How to Play the Banjo” book. But I never got much of a sense of what to do with it. Then I heard--my first biggest inspiration was Kyle Creed who was playing with the Camp Creek Boys in those days. Something about his rhythm was a lot different than Pete Seeger was trying to get in his book. So I tried to take the motion that I’d learned out of the Pete Seeger book but get Kyle Creed’s rhythm. I never really got it, but that was what pushed me into whatever style that I have now.
NPR: While using the traditional styles of playing music, the Red Clay Ramblers apply them to new songs that they’ve written, songs that are both unorthodox and highly imaginative.
Trying to write songs about some reality that you share with other people
and write about what impresses you or what strikes you. I mean no
real old time string band had a folklorist around to tell them what kind
of music they should play and what kind not to. So we decided not
to let anyone tell us what kind of music to play and not. We respect
our musical origins, and I think it shows in all of our music that we spent
a long time learning to play in old time styles. But that doesn’t
mean that we have to sound like an old time band. We can do whatever
we are able to do in terms of our ability then we ought to be allowed to