A more motley crew you couldn’t wish to meet. There is, for example, a burly guy called Tommy Thompson with a forest of a beard and braces sagging under pressure from an immense belly. He’s up there playing guitar, singing his head off, and quite obviously having a thoroughly lovely time.
And behind a piano there’s Mike Craver, lithe and shorthaired, looking like a cross between a Cambridge don and [Brian] Eno. Assorted around them are two more bearded brawnies, Bill Hicks and Jim Watson, both with the appearance of having strayed from a Southern farm and been presented with a divine ability to play fiddle and bass respectively. The ranks are completed by a long thin guy called Jack Herrick turning in some explosive trumpet.
Ladies and gentlemen … the Red Clay Ramblers
A colourful and exceptionally gifted bunch from North Carolina, they ought to be making their English debut in a prominent slot on the bill at the Cambridge Festival or somewhere equally prestigious. The actuality is, in fact, somewhat more modest--the Half Moon Folk Club at Putney to be precise--but the end result is surely the same.
Initially curious because of the cartoon appearance of the band and the bewildering eclecticism of the music they were playing, a sizable crowd at the Half Moon quickly became fascinated and then enraptured by the exhilarating music they were creating.
After the third encore, with the audience refusing to budge, stamping for more, Thompson looked at Hicks, Hicks looked at Watson, and they all grinned broadly and would probably have been happy to carry on all night had they been allowed.
I draw your attention to them now because it will surely not be long before they are back again, and only a foolish person would miss it when it happens. For the skeptical, Sonet has just released their most recent album, “Twisted Laurel,” here (on Flying Fish in the States) and though it only conveys a fraction of the joy and excitement they create live, it’s a useful indication of the type of music they play.
It’s not a music that is encompassed easily by brief descriptions, but basically the inspiration comes from The Depression, from the mountains in the Southern States of America, and old-time American music in general. They play material like Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mississippi Delta Blues,” some Carter Family songs and a few traditional numbers mixed with their own songs, a smattering of gospel, and a bit of rock, with Herrick, and occasionally Craver, providing a little jazz.
More importantly they present it with such spirit and fervour it’s impossible to think of anybody not being captivated by it. They have an obvious and overwhelming love and respect for the type of music they are portraying.
The Ramblers came together around four years ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where some of them had been at college together. There had been widespread interest among young musicians in Chapel Hill in old-time music, and Hicks and Thompson, who were together in the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, linked up with Watson from the Hollow Rock String Band. Both bands had recorded for Rounder. Craver and Herrick were later additions.
They used to travel into the mountains and take part in the music competitions like Union Grove that were held regularly with money as the prize. This naturally brought them into contact with other musicians interested in the same sort of thing, and to some extent, the real thing as far as mountain music was concerned.
Now they still like to play concerts for the same audiences in the mountains, and though they admit there are some people unhappy with the way they play the music, most people are delighted that young musicians are taking an interest in their music. No way do they parody it, and the people realize that with bands like the Red Clay Ramblers and Highwoods String Band there’s every chance of it being preserved.
They’ve maintained an attitude of fun towards the music, even though turning professional has forced them to be more organized about it all -- they say it hasn’t affected the enjoyment they get from playing. Their approach to the business is still low-key, taking care of management and agency themselves, and not too concerned about becoming rich and famous as long as they’re having a good time.
Folkways released their first record nearly four years ago, but they don’t get too much satisfaction from recalling that one now, their career seriously getting under way when they went to New York two years ago and were invited to take part in a Broadway show.
The show, Diamond Studs, based on the life of Jesse James, was conceived in Chapel Hill, and the Ramblers were naturals to provide some of the music and participate in the story. It ran for several months and as a result of that they gave up their day jobs, subsequently getting a large number of bookings on the strength of their reputation in Diamond Studs.
Flying Fish also took an interest, and “Twisted Laurel,” their second album with the label, which was released in the States last November, is doing particularly well. They are extremely happy at the moment.
One ambition they had to fulfill was a European tour, and earlier this year they determined the time had come. It proved a major problem as they were setting up the gigs themselves from the States, and financing it seemed like an insurmountable stumbling block. But they got themselves a spot on a festival in Switzerland, which paid for their fares, and when they knew they were definitely coming, it was easier to set up other gigs, including several dates in Scotland and one in England (the Half Moon), as well as appearances in Germany, France, Holland, Sweden and Roumania. It’s been unreservedly successful and there must be every chance we’ll see more of them next year.
[Ed. note: Tommy Thompson played with the Hollow Rock String Band, not the Fuzzy Mountain String Band.]
The Red Clay Ramblers, Half Moon, Putney
Chas De Whalley, Sounds, July 9, 1977
In these days of unbridled electrical energy, it never ceases to surprise me the drive and excitement that can be generated by a highly ordered and structured musical form like Bluegrass country.
At Putney’s Half Moon (South West London’s premier folk club), Americans the Red Clay Ramblers proved that the simple and traditional combination of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitars, and bass has not yet been outmoded by the Speeding Seventies. Not when played with real skill and real humour.
Five North Carolina country boys, the Red Clay Ramblers kicked off with some blistering dance tunes like “Trouble Among the Yearlings” --bluegrass bop, beat on the brat style. And then they stretched out into a little of everything you fancy from Carter Family country classics, check "50 Miles of Elbow Room," to Thirties Western Swing and genyouine Mississippi delta jazz like "Beale Street Blues" and the mournful and melancholic "Woman Down in Memphis" (which featured some fine muted trumpet from string bassman Jack Herrick).
But while they were not to be faulted musical skill-wise, the real ace in the Ramblers pack was their vocal harmonizing. From the five part accapella gospel of "The Parting Hand" and "Daniel Prayed" to the Disneylike scratchy jangle of the hilarious "Corrugated Lady" (from their new "Twisted Laurel" album on Sonet), the Red Clay Ramblers were note perfect.
And, believe me, some of those notes were squeezed into the tightest corners. No wonder Putney’s packed back room kept calling them back for more.
How many went home talking of the Red Clay Ramblers in the same breath as other contemporary bluegrass greats like the Dillards, I wonder?
Me and me mate did, and I don’t think we