The Red Clay Ramblers is a band that has made a difference. I’ve had the privilege (and pleasure) of knowing and working with the group since its inception just over 30 years ago. Who knew then that it would still be a vital entity at the turn of the new millennium, but we are better off for it. The original conception of Bill Hicks, Tommy Thompson and Jim Watson, the Ramblers both reflected and energized a small movement to reclaim the musical heritage of rural America. By the 1960s, Americans were largely unaware that much of the rock ‘n roll, country and other forms of popular music that dominated the airwaves actually came from somewhere.
The Ramblers celebrated the music of common working people from the Depression-era American South, black and white, who’d created some of the most spirited and compelling music on the planet by sharing mixing, and ultimately synthesizing the folk-music traditions that originated in Europe and Africa.
In the late ‘60s, before they formed the Red Clay Ramblers, the founding members-to-be sought out older traditional players as teachers and mentors, as well as early recordings, many only available in their original 78 rpm formats. They shared tunes informally, but with boundless passion, at the now legendary get-togethers at Tommy Thompson’s house in the Hollow Rock district between Durham and Chapel Hill. Those combustible parties produced two great bands—the Hollow Rock String Band and the Fuzzy Mountain String Band—that were hugely influential in spurring a national revival of interest in rural fiddle and banjo music.
The Ramblers coalesced in 1972 with a bolder creative vision. Their mission was to go beyond the faithful execution of the music of the past, but to draw on it as the principal inspiration for a new kind of American music that would be very much of their own making. In doing so they broadened their musical palette to include the colors of vintage jazz, the blues, close-harmony quartet singing, Celtic fiddle tunes, even classic Tin Pan Alley and novelty songs. The addition of the multi-talented Mike Craver in the band helped make this heightened ambition possible. At some point along the way commentators gave up trying to categorize the group. The Red Clay Ramblers became America’s favorite “whatzit” band.
The group’s horizons expanded further when they began to write their own songs and tunes. Lo and behold, their original material was every bit as remarkable and memorable as the many classics they’d “Ramblerized” over the years. If all of this were not enough, it also turned out that they were gifted actors and entertainers. Diamond Studs, a fun-filled musical romp created by Chapel Hillians Jim Wann, Bland Simpson and John Haber and based very loosely on the life of Jesse James was called to New York City for a smash-hit run off-Broadway. I’ll never forget seeing Tommy Thompson’s picture appear in the pages of Newsweek magazine alongside a glowing review of the show. Clive Barnes, the crusty critic for The New York Times was ecstatic. “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes," he wrote, "…the real, the authentic America." Diamond Studs was important to Rambler history for another reason: Jack Herrick joined the cast in New York, and then he joined the band.
The Red Clay Ramblers were now firing on all cylinders. They wrote wonderful songs, made fine albums, gave great concerts, and toured the world. They also maintained their serendipitous love affair with theater. In 1984, the playwright/actor Sam Shepard caught them on public radio in Iowa where he was directing a film. This began a long-lived collaboration. The Ramblers’ provided original music and performed for Shepard’s play A Lie of the Mind and later for his films Far North and Silent Tongue. The theater has kept the Ramblers busy to the present day. Among their many credits are the hilarious Tony Award-winning production, Fool Moon, with the brilliant comedians David Shiner and Bill Irwin; Kudzu, based on the cartoon strip by the same name; and Lone Star Love, or the Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas.
As is inevitable with all bands, things change and people come and go. Bill Hicks left in 1981, to be replaced by versatile fiddler Clay Buckner. Jim Watson and Mike Craver departed in 1986 to pursue their own muses. The Ramblers were joined by old friends Bland Simpson, Chris Frank (who came in following Shawn Colvin’s 1987 stint with the band). Drummers Ed Butler and Rob Ladd have frequently toured as Ramblers, and playing the Rambler boanjo since 1994, in turn, have been Mark Roberts, Don Lewis, and, most recently, Rick Good.
But nothing affected the chemistry of the Ramblers so much as the dawning realization that something was not right with Tommy. In the early 1990s, Tommy Thompson began to suspect that his increasing forgetfulness went beyond the norm for his age. Eventually he sought a diagnosis, and he learned that he had acquired early onset of an Alzheimers-like dementia. The disease was to take his life on January 24, 2003.
Tommy had immense presence. Large in physical stature, he was larger still in personality and artistic vision. He was a master of the “clawhammer” style of banjo playing. Clawhammer is an early technique that was developed by African slaves and later adopted by white southerners, altogether different from the rolling finger-picking style of Earl Scruggs, and that is synonymous with bluegrass music. Like the band itself, Tommy embraced the “old-time” form, but did it his way. His beautiful melodic style in turn inspired countless other banjoists. Tommy was a gifted songwriter. "Hot-Buttered Rum" and "Twisted Laurel" are two of his best compositions. He was a wonderful entertainer, who could always be counted on for comic relief. And for those with the good fortune to have seen Diamond Studs, who could forget his turn as the mother of Jesse James? In the latter years of his career, he wrote and performed an extraordinary one-act play titled The Last Song of John Proffit, inspired by the life of 19th-century minstrel Daniel Decatur Emmit.
But Tommy reserved his greatest act for the end of his life, accepting what many would consider a cruel fate with consummate grace. He never felt sorry for himself and he dedicated his waning strength to helping others cope with the disease that afflicts families as well as individuals. In this endeavor, he was assisted by his children, Tom Ashley and, most especially, his daughter, Jesse, who epitomizes the human potential for love and devotion. In the final days of his life, as close friends and family will attest, Tommy never lost the song in his heart.
Tommy Thompson’s spirit is surely with us tonight, and I am certain he is quite happy to be among his many friends, who are assembled here on stage and off.
This small essay does not pretend to do justice to the history and accomplishments of the Red Clay Ramblers. Much important information can be obtained from the Web sites: www.redclayramblers.com and redclayramblers.tripod.com. Special thanks to Keeper of the RCR Flame Bren Overholt. Thanks also to Jesse Eustice, Mike Craver, Bill Hicks, Jim Watson, Bland Simpson, Jack Herrick, Cece Conway, Barry Poss, and Allison Lee.
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June 17, 2003