Inspired by the tunes that they would hear at Galax, Union Grove and other festival spots and emboldened by the music parties held at Bobby and Tommy Thompson's place off Randolph Road, Bill Hicks, Jim Watson and the latter Thompson formed the Red Clay Ramblers in the fall of 1972.
In turn, UNC-Chapel Hill student Mike Craver found himself inspired by the string band music brought to him courtesy of the Rambler trio at such Chapel Hill clubs as the New Establishment, Endangered Species and Cat's Cradle. "The songs were very vivid. They were catchy, and they were these old things from the Depression, the '20s and '30s," he recalls. "To a college kid, they made a big impression." Craver, a pianist who grew up playing classical music, was hooked, and he signed on in '73.
Those early shows pulled from the catalogs of Ralph Stanley, Charlie Poole, the Carter Family and even Bessie Smith, with an emphasis on songs that showcased the band's lively harmony singing. As Hicks put it, "We just kind of learned old stuff." The African-American string band Martin, Bogan, and Armstrong, who'd been playing together since the '30s under a variety of names including the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, also was an important influence. Hicks was fortunate enough to learn fiddle tunes from veteran players such as Tommy Jarrell and Burl Hammonds, and those songs would work their way on the set list. "The basic principle of the band in those years was that everybody was a creative force," says Hicks. "We more or less just went around the circle, 'What do you wanna do? What do you wanna do?'"
Thompson was a triple threat on the banjo, with the ability to play using the clawhammer, three-finger roll and plectral styles, and the ginger-bearded, ex-football player was also a larger-than-life presence. With Craver on piano, Watson contributing mandolin and guitar, an upright bass making the rounds, and everybody singing, all the ingredients were in place for shows that offered both variety and honest-to-God entertainment. "I think playing's about expression," Hicks states, and he and the other Ramblers' fondness for performing as opposed to just tossing off notes earned them an even bigger following.
The Red Clay Ramblers continued to evolve as bands tend to do, at least those that don't consider complacency to be a valid musical direction. There were performances in the Chapel Hill-born, New York City-embraced play Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James, followed by even more original material and new members. In 1981 Hicks was the first original Red Clay Rambler to leave the band, with Watson and Craver staying on board for another five years. All three stayed busy with other projects over the years--Craver has written several plays, Watson tours with Robin and Linda Williams, Hicks and his wife Libby are mainstays at festivals and contra dances, and each has released solo albums--and it wasn't until the 2001 Festival for the Eno that the three reunited.
When Craver, Hicks and Watson get together under the name the Original Red Clay Ramblers, it's truth in advertising on two levels: It is three of the original members (Joe Newberry, a strong clawhammer banjoist and singer, sits in the late Tommy Thompson's seat), plus you'll hear the sound that characterized the Ramblers in their early days. A laughing Watson comments on another element, the identification factor: "We like playing music with each other, but if we're going to play, we also like people to show up. So by using that name, it lets people know who we are."
That said, to keep the evening from being a total nostalgia trip, there's a good chance that a song from one of the artists' solo recordings might show up alongside a selection like "The Ace," one of the earliest Thompson-Craver collaborations. And there are apparently a couple of other differences between then and now. "There were a lot more young people in the audience back then," a laughing Hicks says. "And we'd stay up later."
The Original Red Clay Ramblers play the Cave Friday, Nov. 25.