|Roots of the Red Clay Ramblers
CD release notes
liner notes from the 1995 CD release of both Fuzzy Mountain String Band
The Fuzzy Mountain String Band and Summer Oaks and Porch.
Informal music making was a regular thing at Tommy and Bobbie Thompson’s house near Durham, NC, in the mid 1960s. Alan Jabbour, Bertram Levy, Tommy and Bobbie eventually formed the influential Hollow Rock Stringband out of those jam sessions, and in 1967 another handful of regulars decided to form a band of their own which they called the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. Dave Crowder and JoAnn “Claire June” Stokes provided guitar accompaniment to the fiddling of Malcolm Owen and Dick Zaffron, who also played mandolin on occasion. Eric Olson played melody on the five-string banjo. In the spring of 1968, the Fuzzies played to no great acclaim at the huge Union Grove fiddler’s convention, but did appear on the LP recording issued of that year’s convention. By 1969, the band’s membership changed. Bobbie Thompson joined as the sole guitar player. Malcolm’s wife Vickie Owen played the fiddle tunes on mountain dulcimer, and Blanton Owen joined Eric as an additional banjo man. Bill Hicks brought his fiddle to the group in 1970.
We played for our own enjoyment, mostly in the living rooms and parlors, with an occasional paying job, folk festival, or fiddler’s convention thrown in to complicate the works. At the Pipestem Festival in 1970, we met Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton Levy of the brand new Rounder Collective and they asked if we would like to record an LP for their new label, Rounder Records. We said yes.
In the fall of 1971, we recorded our first LP, The Fuzzy Mountain String Band (Rounder 0010). We set up a two-track tape recorder in either Bobbie or Eric’s living room. Using several Rube Goldberg adaptations, we patched our shared microphones (some were only one step removed from tin cans with strings) into the recorder. There was no mixing board, and all takes were live. We were pretty sure a “punch in” was what you did when you lost your church key. Bobbie designed the jacket cover, and Bill wrote the notes in January, 1972.
By the time we finished our first recording, Blanton had moved to Johnson City, TN to attend college, Eric had taken a library job at Cullowhee, NC, Malcolm and Vickie were making plans to buy land in western North Carolina, and Bobbie was on the verge of taking a new job as chief book designer at Princeton University Press. In February, 1972, Bobbie was killed in an automobile accident while en route to her new job in Princeton, and her daughter Jesse was critically injured. That winter was tough for us all. Jesse finally began to speak again after spending a month in Duke University Hospital.
Our record came out that winter and we all went to Union Grove again—this time with Sharon Sandomirsky on guitar and Tom Carter playing either banjo or mandolin. We played Tommy Jarrell’s version of “John Brown’s Dream” and –lo and behold!—won first place in the Old Time Band competition. The best “prize” Union Grove could give us came later, though. The Union Grove organizers sent the 1972 festival recording with our “Brown’s Dream” on it to Tommy, not to us. Not only did they think it was Tommy Jarrell playing the tune, so did Tommy—until he heard Bill’s singing.
Rounder asked us to record a second LP, which we did in August, 1972. This time we recorded in a radio station (WDBS, Durham) but still in live takes. The album was titled Summer Oaks & Porch after the Bobbie Thompson intaglio print of the same name and which was used on the cover. It shows Bobbie’s front porch, the site of many summer music playing sessions, and the huge white oak trees that shaded it. We dedicated the record to Bobbie Thompson.
The last major performance of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band was at the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap in the summer of 1973. By the fall of that year, the band members were fairly well dispersed. Tom and Blanton were doing their historic “search for Henry Reed” in the Blue Ridge. Bill had formed the Red Clay Ramblers with Tommy Thompson and Jim Watson. Malcolm and Vickie were raising a family on a farm in Madison County, NC. Eric continued his job at Cullowhee, NC. Only Sharon stayed, the mainstay of old-time music for new groups of musicians in the Durham/Chapel Hill area.
The FMSB always had as its core repertoire the Henry Reed tunes we learned from the playing of Alan Jabbour. Alan recorded Henry Reed, a southwest Virginia fiddler with an extensive repertoire of unusual tunes, on several occasions, and in turn taught the tunes to the rest of us. We certainly owe a debt of gratitude to the Hollow Rock String Band for all they did to bring traditional fiddle and string band music into the larger world.
From the beginning, members of the FMSB ventured forth to visit and record old-time fiddlers and banjoists throughout the upland South. And learning their tunes “right” was important. We took great pride in the fact that virtually all of our repertoire was learned first-hand, most from traditional musicians we visited, recorded, and got to know. Bobbie was especially critical; she was the one willing to tell any of us that we didn’t have a phrase quite right.
As the 1970s and 80s wore on, we noticed that “our” tunes, the tunes we learned from the great old-timers in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, had taken on a new life. They were no longer associated with Oscar Wright, or Tommy Jarrell, or Fred Cockerman, or Gaither Carlton, or Kyle Creed, or Taylor Kimble, or Frank George, or Burl Hammons. In most cases, they were not even associated with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band. Playing the tunes very much like someone else was not considered necessary or even good. The tunes were being played simply because they were good tunes, apart from who “originally” played them, or how.
The Fuzzies were always a “big band.” We had two fiddles, usually playing the melody in unison; two clawhammer banjos playing as close to the tune as we were able, sometimes one high and one low; a dulcimer closely following the fiddles; a guitar playing heavy bass runs and solid chords; and sometimes a mandolin providing more melody and chord-chops. The FMSB, following the lead of the Hollow Rock String band and along with our contemporaries, The Highwoods Stringband, offered a model for the lush, big-band sound that is still heard today. Even now we can easily imagine today’s new groups meeting every week through the cold months, working on tunes for the next round of festivals and contests, eating gingerbread, drinking hot cider and mulled wine, and smelling wood smoke and dancer’s dust.
Performing did not make us a band; that was never our goal. We did perform occasionally, of course, but as Tom Carter said, “One thing we were looking for was a sense of community.” The band was the practice sessions, the sitting-around-and-playing-tunes, the scootching close and feeling the vibrations of the fiddles, banjos, and guitars. It was the big parties, the impromptu dances, the smoked oysters, turkey, and country ham. It was the people, the friends, the families. It was, above all, our love for the old tunes and our desire to play them “right,” even if they did end, well, fuzzily.
The Fuzzy Mountain String Band is no more, but the tunes, through the recordings, remain. The tunes which we learned and played are our greatest contribution to the world of old-time music. On a trip to Ireland in 1990, Sharon happened on a fiddle concert in Dublin and heard an Irish band performing much of the FMSB repertoire on stage. Bill toured Europe with the Red Clay Ramblers in 1977 and saw the first Fuzzy LP, in its proper alphabetical spot, on a shelf in a Stockholm living room. In 1994, Blanton was at a bar in Helena, MT, where a makeshift band was playing, among other tunes, “Quince Dillon’s High D Tune,” right off the “Summer Oaks & Porch” record. The tunes are out there now, and we are proud to have been able to put them there.
-- Bill Hicks, Blanton Owen, Sharon Sandomirsky - 1994
Fuzzy Mountain Music
Union Grove Fiddlers Convention 1970 by Bill Hicks
1970s Fuzzy Mountain Pics
1995 Fuzzy Mountain Pics
Eugene Chadbourne on the Fuzzy Mountain String Band
Jessie Thompson's Letters
Roots of the Red Clay Ramblers: The Hollow Rock String Band
Tommy Thompson: Coming to Hollow Rock