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Red Clay Ramblers

The old-time stringband music and country songs celebrated at The Charlotte Country Music Story remain vital thanks to many talented young musicians (often of urban upbringing) who draw inspiration from older generations of rural folk and country artists. One of the most accomplished, creative, and influential of the younger bands who has helped to rekindle interest in traditional forms of country music is the Red Clay Ramblers.

The Red Clay Ramblers: (L to R) Jack Herrick, Tommy Thompson, Clay Buckner, Mike Graver, Jim Watson
The Red Clay Ramblers: (L to R) Jack Herrick, Tommy Thompson, Clay Buckner, Mike Craver, Jim Watson

The Ramblers got their start in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1972, deriving their name from the rolling red clay hills of the North Carolina piedmont. Founders Tommy Thompson, who plays banjo and guitar, and mandolinist Jim Watson learned tunes in the 1960s from master Carolina fiddlers, and desired to form a band that would bring this infectious old-time dance music to younger urban audiences. They were joined in the early 1970s by Mike Craver, Bill Hicks, and Jack Herrick. Craver plays piano and guitar. Herrick provides support on a multitude of instruments including bass, tin whistle, trumpet, and harmonica. Fiddler Bill Hicks left the band in 1981 and was replaced by Clay Buckner.

The band immersed itself in the pre-bluegrass stringband tradition, not only studying with living musicians but learning fiddle tunes and novelty numbers from old 78 recordings. Before long they were composing their own songs and tunes borrowing from the idioms of early jazz, vintage gospel, Irish music, western swing, and more: in short, creating their own performing style much the way the 1930s Carolina radio bands did.

The Red Clay Ramblers’ music has proved widely popular. They have released six albums and appeared on stage in the 1975 off-Broadway musical Diamond Studs, and more recently with Roger Miller in a production based on Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Tommy Thompson has recently written and starred in a one man show named The Last Song of John Profitt. They spend over half of each year touring North America, with occasional forays into Europe and Africa.

In their concert and workshops at Spirit Square, the Red Clay Ramblers will share the music of some of the early Carolina musicians who are no longer with us. Banjoist Thompson believes that the music is not merely good entertainment but a uniquely American cultural achievement: “Two musical traditions collided in America—the European (especially English and Irish) and the African. The first stringband was when a fiddle and banjo played together. The banjo was a product of Africa and the fiddle a product of Europe. It was a ‘coming together’ of literally global proportions.”

Among the vintage Charlotte recording or performing artists whose music the Red Clay Ramblers feature from time to time are the Delmore Brothers, Uncle Dave Macon, Fiddling Arthur Smith, and the Carolina Tar Heels. No Rambler performance is complete without a superbly harmonized rendition of a Carter Family song or two. Mike Craver, Jim Watson, and Tommy Thompson have collaborated on an all-Carter LP entitled Meeting in the Air, and their strong voices fully realize the potential of this classic material.

— from George Holt, ed., The Charlotte Country Music Story (Spirit Square Arts Center and North Carolina Arts Council, 1985)

Update 2015

Like the stringbands of the 1930s, the Red Clay Ramblers continually change and grow. Clay Buckner and Jack Herrick from the 1985 edition of the band now lead a line-up of Ramblers that includes songwriter Bland Simpson and multi-instrumentalist Chris Frank plus frequent guests. Since 1985 they’ve appeared in Sam Shepard’s film Far North, had a run on Broadway in the show Fool Moon, and recorded with Shawn Colvin, Randy Newman, and others. Their 2009 CD Old North State and many others are available on their website.

Other Ramblers seen in the 1985 Charlotte Country Music concerts? Tommy Thompson passed away in 2003. Jim Watson has toured for over 25 years as the heartbeat of Robin & Linda Williams’ “Fine Group,” appearing often on public radio’s A Prairie Home Companion. Mike Craver pursues musical theater projects including scoring the highly successful Oil City Symphony and Smoke on the Mountain which have become favorites of community theater groups nationwide. But they miss being ‘Blers. So two or three times a year, Watson, Craver and original Red Clay Ramblers fiddler Bill Hicks get together with friend Joe Newberry to play a handful of concerts.

For more on the history of the band.