I was both surprised and delighted to find out recently that the American roots band, the Red Clay Ramblers , have continued their existence long after many of the core members left for other projects. I was even more surprised and delighted when Sugar Hill sent me these three fine CDs in order to prove that very point.
Much of the original team-up, headlined by the inestimable Tommy Thompson, survived to record the Sam Shepard soundtrack Lie of the Mind in the mid 1980's. But since then, as is often the case with folk or traditional bands, there was a dwindling of original members and the addition of new members. In the most dramatic parting of ways, Thompson has recently been losing his battle with Alzheimers and currently resides in a nursing home. However these comings and goings have done nothing to alter the superb musicianship, imagination, sheer love for traditional American music that the original line-up demonstrated so well, although the sound and the spirit of the band has naturally changed along with the line-up transformations.
Lie of the Mind is the soundtrack for the original 1985 production of the Sam Shepard play of the same name. Little did I know, but the Ramblers got their professional start in the Off Broadway musical Diamond Studs back in 1975 -- although they had all been jamming together since 1972. The original run of Lie of the Mind must have been one hell of a show, not only did it contain some excellent old-time music played by the mostly original Red Clay Ramblers, but the play itself starred several favorites of mine -- Harvey Keitel, Aidan Quinn, and Amanda Plummer.
This is actually the last recording made by a majority of the original Ramblers (the fiddler Bill Hicks had left by this time, to be replaced by Clay Buckner)
The music -- an almost equal mix of traditional and original pieces -- is less varied than the Ramblers' first two albums. Here they concentrate on the stark, slightly melancholy sound of old-time country, such as the sparse "Red Rocking Chair" (listen to this song closely and you can hear an antecedent of the signature Gillian Welch/David Rawlings sound) are getting the the traditional "In the Pines" (here done even spookier than Nirvana's heroin-influenced version on Unplugged), Lefty Frizzell's slowly boiling honky-tonk song "I Love You a Thousand Times," and the light-hearted hoedown "Cumberland Mountain Deer Chase."
Among the originals are the murder ballad "Sister Run Sister," which actually takes good care of its woman lead character for a change, the nicely done incidental pieces "Seeing It Snow" and "Montana Underscoring," and the sweet "Home Is Where The Heart Is." Unable apparently to contain themselves stylistically too much, the Ramblers also include "Can't Live Without 'Em Blues," a fine cathouse jazz number.
The Ramblers lost even more of its original members from 1986 to 1989. By the time, they came out with their second Sam Shepard soundtrack in 1989 -- this time for the Jessica Lange feature Far North -- both Jim Watson and Mike Craver had left. Joining them to fill the resulting void, were Bland Simpson on piano and Chris Frank on piano, guitar, and accordion. Still not a shabby group by any means, although the feel of the group is noticeably different: a more produced and polished sound with slightly less edge.
Beginning the sublime instrumental "Far North," featuring Clay Buckner on the Hardanger fiddle, this is a true film soundtrack, much of it consisting of incidental music -- there's even a constant synthesizer in the background of virtually even track here. In fact, there are only three songs here out of 15 tracks. Such differences aside, this is still a fine set of music from the jazzy "Blue Duluth" to the plaintive accordion sound of "Amy's Theme."
Tommy Thompson really outdid himself with the minor-keyed, acoustic banjo-and-fiddle song "Gourd, Part 1" followed by its hard-edged, electric doppelganger "Gourd, Part 2." Clay Buckner lets loose vocally with the old-time holler "Roll On Buddy." Among the traditional tunes, is the fiddle tune "Gangar," and the bluesy harmonica piece "Train Through the Big Woods." Both of these tunes have a very Swedish feel to time (not the least of which from Buckner's ubiquitous Hardanger fiddle), possibly to indicate the Scandinavian heritage of the main characaters. Actually, Buckner seems to have taken the lead in the group for this soundtrack; his arranging, playing, and song-writing makes him just about the most represented member of the group. This doesn't count against the CD by any means; it's an excellent, extraordinarily beautiful set of music. It just makes a rather sharp contrast to the democratic days of the original Ramblers.
With 1992's Rambler, the Red Clay Ramblers returned to something of their original sound -- although with greatly improved production values. Still containing the same team as from the Far North soundtrack, the Ramblers lay out some excellent Americana music with the usual, healthy mix of traditional and original pieces.
Pieces like the plaintive "Cotton-Eyed Joe," (which really shows off Clay Buckner's beautiful voice), the fiddle hoedown "Cajun Billy," the gentle melodies of "Mile Long Medley," and "Saro Jane" with its odd mixture of both melancholy and good-heartedness, exemplify the American tradition of music. But there are odd moments here, which make this truly an original set of music, such as the haunting wisp of a song, "Ninety & Nine," which comes and goes like a gentle, chilly breeze, and the ambling 1920's Hawaiian jazz of "Hiawatha's Lullabye."
The various members get to showcase their various talents a little more on Ramblers than on Far North. Tommy Thompson provides a whistful remembrance of youth in "Black Smoke Train" as well as the penultimate track "Hot Buttered Rum," which recalls the poetry of "Twisted Laurel." Bland Simpson's "Annie Oakley" is a fascinating song about the fame of the eponymous dead-eye shooter. James Herrick gives us a beautiful song of maritime Americana in "Queen of Skye." He and Clay Buckner also team up for a pair of very Irish melodies called "Ryan's/Jordan Reel." This increased presence of Celtic traditions is made much more evident by the ending track, "Polkas," a medley of various Irish polkas.
As with every Red Clay Ramblers CD I've heard to date, Ramblers will not fail to satisfy anyone interested in Americana music. It certainly holds up to the music of the Ramblers' early glory days of the mid-1970's.
Brendan has also reviewed the Red Clay Ramblers' Twisted Laurel/Merchant's Lunch.
You can visit the official Red Clay Ramblers Web site, or read about the original line-up. Don't forget to visit Bill Hicks' fine site Blurred Time, which includes some heartbreaking passages about visiting Tommy Thompson at the nursing home.