"Daddy held the fiddle and I held the bow, and we beat the hell out of cotton-eyed Joe."

If you absolutely had to find a short definition for The Red Clay Ramblers, alt-country might do the job, but it doesn't really do justice. Having played together, in various permutations, for 28 years, the Ramblers are a string band who play mountain music, gospel, bluegrass, folk tunes, Irish ballads, show tunes and mix it all liberally with a wild-eyed, good-natured sense of humor.

"There's never been a part that's been left behind--things have always been added on."

The three original members of the Ramblers in 1972 were Tommy Thompson(banjo, guitar), Jim Watson(mandolin, guitar) and Bill Hicks(fiddle). Mike Craver joined them later on piano. They started playing in the, now-defunct, Chapel Hill, North Carolina club, The Endangered Species. They soon moved on to The Cat's Cradle, also a Chapel Hill club which defies the laws of physics, gravity and economics by surviving numerous changes in ownership and location, with nothing more than a bare room/cheap beer strategy.

"Jim Watson was strumming the guitar and he picked up a triangle and started doing some kind of Cajun chanky-chank rhythm. Tommy Thompson leaned over admiringly and said 'Aw, pick it, Jim' and the place just cracked up."

They began touring the south and mid-west in 1973 and returned home to debut their first musical, Diamond Studs, a play about the life of Jesse James. The Ramblers took Diamond Studs to New York where they played off-Broadway to nightly sold-out crowds. Reviews were fabulous, though some were offended by the glorification of an outlaw.

"Jesse James is hit in the face with a pie at the encore number and extemporizes a new verse in the song about getting hit in the face with a pie."

In 1976, Jack Herrick joined the band to play bass and trumpet where he remains as the band's longest running original member. Clay Buckner took Bill Hicks' place in 1980 and six years later, Craver and Watson were replaced by Shawn Colvin and Bland Simpson. Colvin only hung around a season before going solo, eventually scoring a hit in 1997 with "Sunny Came Home". In 1987, Chris Frank (guitar, accordion, tuba) came on, maintaining the status quo until 1994 when Tommy Thompson departed to make room for Mark Roberts (banjo, flute). The bands' willingness to take on practically any type of music contributes to their longevity.

"The audience visibly loves it. You can see them move a foot and go, 'What just happened?'"

The Rambler's have a self-effacing worldliness that only the truly down to earth, people who are comfortable with themselves and enthusiastic about what they do, can possess. They have appeared on Broadway and set box office records in Los Angeles, been guests of Garrison Keillor on "A Prairie Home Companion" as well as doing several guest spots on national television. They have also been known to play at their kid's schools.

"It's a huge joy. I've learned to have quite a good time, and a lot of fun, on stage. And that's mainly what this band does."

Discography:

  • Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin' Al McCanless
  • Hard Times
  • Yonder
  • Merchant's Lunch
  • Twisted Laurel
  • Red Clay Ramblers "Live"
  • A Lie of the Mind
  • It Ain't Right
  • Rambler
  • Far North
  • Stolen Love
  • Chuckin' the Frizz (Live at Cat's Cradle)
  • Debby McClatchy with the Red Clay Ramblers
  • Doing My Job

Theater:

  • Diamond Studs
  • Lone Star Love, or the Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas
  • Fool Moon
  • Kudzu
  • Silent Tongue
  • Bah Humbug

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