CHATHAM COUNTY — To hear the Red Clay Ramblers play is to get an education, even when theyre just warming up. A recent evening found the hyper-eclectic bands core four fiddler Clay Buckner, pianist Bland Simpson and multi-instrumentalists Chris Frank and Jack Herrick casually arrayed in the studio behind Herricks house.
Between digressive discussions about barbecue, long-ago gigs, porcine anatomy, smallpox vaccines and the inherent appeal of Tina Fey, the Ramblers worked up some tunes for an upcoming folk-festival date, displaying impressive off-the-cuff virtuosity. First up was an old Irish reel, proceeding at an amiable lope with Buckners fiddle seeming to dance atop Franks accordion and Simpsons piano.
That in itself was unusual, because piano isnt an instrument usually associated with Irish reels. But the Ramblers, who mark 40 years in show business this month, have never been much for puritanical niceties. After the number wound down, Frank asked what theyd just played.
Thats Miss McLeods Reel, Buckner said.
Well, thats the name over there, Frank said, referring to its Irish origins. Whats it called over here?
Hop High Ladies, Buckner said, absently fiddling on the tunes main riff.
They moved on to another tune that proceeded at more of a stately pace. After working it over some, Herrick (who identifies himself as a junk man wholl play anything that fits in the van) rooted around his closet and emerged with a bouzouki, an eight-string Greek instrument. That gave it more of a droning, almost Middle Eastern flavor.
Yeah, Frank quipped, thatll be on our upcoming album, The Red Clay Ramblers Play Hava Nagila all Jewish numbers!
That was a joke, right?
Well ... with us, you never know, Frank said, prompting Simpson to recall when the Ramblers actually played Hava Nagila at a wedding. And just for the heck of it, they fired it up and it wasnt half-bad in case you were wondering what a Hebrew folk song might sound like done up in a quasi-old-time hoedown arrangement for accordion, fiddle, piano and bouzouki.
Et cetera, et cetera, Buckner drolly noted as the last note faded.
Fresh take on old-time music
The Red Clay Ramblers first came together in the fall of 1972 as a trio of banjo player Tommy Thompson, guitarist Jim Watson and Fiddlin Bill Hicks. From the start, they put a highly idiosyncratic spin on old-time music, adding elements of vaudeville, jazz, blues, music theater and whatever else struck their fancy. Hicks described them as a band that might have existed in 1930, but didnt.
Through myriad changes, the Ramblers have retained the ability to make old music seem new and new music seem old, in the process becoming a Tar Heel institution (and not just because their name is a riff on bluegrass forefather Charlie Pooles Depression-era band, the North Carolina Ramblers). They headlined the first Festival for the Eno in 1980 and have since played everything from Broadway stages to military bases.
Enough time has gone by for the lineup to turn over completely a couple of times. Hicks and Watson had both departed by the mid-80s, leaving Thompson to carry on with replacements. One was singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin, a member in her pre-pop-star days. Alzheimers forced Thompsons retirement in the early 90s; he died in 2003.
But theyve been a model of stability the past quarter-century. Of the core quartet that still plays as the Ramblers (augmented by others onstage), Frank is the new guy and he joined in 1987 as Colvins replacement. Through it all, a band-of-equals egalitarian spirit has served the Ramblers well, even if it left old-time purists confused.
In the early days, we were criticized for that, Herrick said. I remember a guy coming up at a festival once and saying, I dont like it that all you guys talk onstage. You oughta get just one guy to do that. That struck us as something to ignore with all due haste and fervor. Its probably got something to do with the bands longevity.
Co-founder Thompson has been absent from the Ramblers for nearly two decades. But in many ways, they still bear the larger-than-life mark he left behind.
Tommy was a very deep and complex man, Simpson said. But onstage, his entire purpose was high musical style and wit and merriment. He suffused the band with that merriment quotient, which we couldnt help but carry on. Tommy never vocalized such a thing its just the way he led the troupe.
Making music for movies
The Ramblers first four decades have seen some disappointments, including a planned Broadway run of their musical Lone Star Love that was canceled after a falling out with star Randy Quaid in 2007. But theyve had a lot more triumphs, conquering Broadway with Fool Moon in the early 90s and collaborating with numerous local and national theater and dance companies.
Theyve also had a long and fruitful association with director/playwright Sam Shepard. The Ramblers served as pit band for Shepards1985 stage production A Lie of the Mind (starring Harvey Keitel, among others). Shepard also put them onscreen as a medicine show band in 1994s Silent Tongue, which was the late River Phoenixs final film.
If all goes according to plan, more big-screen work could be down the road. Theres a feature film that Simpson is very keen to make happen, based on a North Carolina-centric book he doesnt want to name just yet.
We wouldnt direct it, but get it off the ground, Simpson said. Find the money, producer, director. And wed do the soundtrack, maybe more. Sam (Shepard) put us in Silent Tongue playing bit parts, so maybe some of that. Part of the fun of this anniversary is to reflect forward, think about things we want to do and different ways to put entertaining musical narratives onstage. A musical theater piece is different from a dance piece, is different from a concert in a big hall, is different from a concert in a club.
The Ramblers have done all of that, and more.
The playing is better now than its ever been, Frank said. We are unique in what we do, a niche of one. Were not a bluegrass band or a string band or an old-time band or a Dixieland band, but all that and more. The bottom line is we like each other and have fun when we play, and we know each other so well. I can play with Clay Buckner better than anybody because I learned the tunes from him, and I always know when hes ready to stop. Its such a huge repertoire weve played over the years, and I feel like our best music is still to be played. I feel pretty good about that.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat