The Red Clay Ramblers got their start in 1972 and, over the years, have evolved with many personnel changes. Once a string band, the group now offers smatterings of American roots music from New Orleans to Tin Pan Alley. The Ramblers have a history of spreading their music through theater productions as well as music performances.
Pianist Bland Simpson has been involved with the band almost since its inception. At band mate Chris Frank’s house, Simpson helped mail out discs of the Red Clay Rambler’s newest album, Old North State earlier this week. Before calling an end to the afternoon and heading home to grill dinner, Simpson spoke with The Independent over the phone about the history of the group, its broadening sound, and performing roots music in alternative venues.
The Red Clay Ramblers play Chatham Mills in Pittsboro at 8 p.m. on Friday, October 23. On Saturday, October 24, they move over to Chapel Hill’s ArtsCenter at 8:30 p.m. $15-17.
THE INDEPENDENT: Just to start at the beginning, you joined the Red Clay Ramblers in 1986, but the band performed your show Diamond Studs off-Broadway in 1975. How did you get your start with the group?
BLAND SIMPSON: Jim Wann and I wrote the show Diamond Studs, and we had a band called the Southern States Fidelity Choir. We invited the then Red Clay Ramblers to join us. We would put these two band together and stage this show about the outlaw Jesse James. That’s what we did in the fall of ’74 here in Chapel Hill, and it was immediately picked up by the Chelsea Theater Center of Brooklyn and moved, pretty much in tact, to New York. I knew the fellow in the band, but that’s when I really got to know them quite well. Jack Herrick came and joined the show in progress in New York when the fellow playing Frank James dropped out. He joined the show, and then after the show closed, he joined up with the Ramblers. That’s how he came into the group. We worked together at various timesI would occasionally do a guest appearance with them. We worked together on Life on the Mississippi, which was down here at PlayMakers in the fall of 1982. I had done a number of things with the band over the years, but I had not been a bona fide member until the very end of 1986.
You’re an English professor at Chapel Hill and are involved with the Creative Writing Program. How does your writing background enter into and influence the music that you make?
I’m very, very conscious of narrative content and theme and so forth. I think the level of cross-pollination between the teaching of writing and the writing I do, both prose (mostly non-fiction) and lyric writing in songs and any scripting I do, the level of cross-pollination is pretty high. To me, it’s all one piece. I don’t separate it out. When I’m not teaching and can be home at work writing, that’s what I’m doing. But the creative work is, in effect, research. That’s what I do. That’s why I have a job at the university.
In addition to the more traditional performance venues for bands, the Red Clay Ramblers have performed in ballets, with a symphony, and in theater. Why so many different outlets?
It’s just the way it’s fallen out with this particular band. We have a great deal of versatilitythe variety of types of music that we’ve played, and that we’ve written. I think we’ve had a very strong interest in the variety of venues, the variety of genres and styles and presentations. We haven’t done a great deal of ballet; we’ve done two ballet shows and one other dance show called Rambleshoe with Rhythm in Shoes, a tap and modern company from Dayton, Ohio. And we’ve only done this one symphonic piece with the North Carolina Symphony. But we have done a lot of theater. It’s a pretty theatrical band. The variety of forms of expression and forms of imagination keep it all interesting. This was never a band that intended to go out an tour 300 dates a year or anything like that. The special projects have helped keep it going. We’re starting the 38th year of this band as a performing ensemble, allowing for personnel changes over the years. The current band, the core four of us, have held together since 1987. That’s a pretty good run for any performing arts ensemble, particularly a fairly small band.
And has performing in different venues changed the sound of the band?
I wouldn’t say changed. You take different approaches for different numbers depending on what they need to do. I will say working in the theater, one is extremely conscious of the need for every single lyric to land, to get out there into the audience, to the foreground. If you’re making jokes or funny remarks in song lyrics, if the audience doesn’t hear them, then you only had the one chance. It’s not like a record you can back up and play it over and over until you figure out what they’re saying. So we think a great deal about not only what we’re trying to say, but how it’s being said. Can the line be any simpler or clearer? You think about things like, is this lyric going to be too hard to understand, and what’s a better way to do it? Working in theater makes you highly conscious of that kind of thing.
You mentioned you try to play a wide variety of sounds for the various venues you perform at. Are you preserving the sounds, transforming the music, or what?
I don’t think we’re really preservationists. There are some tunes we do, particularly mountain tunes and occasionally a Celtic tune, that we are pretty faithful to. But mostly, we’re into either original writing or fresh and original settings for older pieces. We’re trying to keep some of these older forms and instrumentations alive and well by applying them very vigorously to new settings and situations. But it’s not in an ethnomusicological way. We’re performers. We’re trying to engage the audience in the strongest way possible.
Do you consider yourselves more of a live music band, more of a theater band, or are they two different beasts that you like to tackle separately?
We’re a live and, I hope, lively performing band. The spirit of the band has been worked out over many years and in many different venues, from small clubs to large concert halls. We’ve tried to bring that liveliness into the theater pieces. But it would be a little forced to make that distinction. When we’re doing a theater show, that’s what we’re doing, but it’s the same band. We play characters, but we’re pretty much ourselves. We’re not actors [laughter], I guess would be the shorthand way to say it.
The current lineup of the Red Clay Ramblers has been going strong for a couple decades now. How has the group evolved since it started in the ’70s?
This goes back to your question about preservationists. Initially, Tommy Thompson, Jim Watson, and Bill Hicks formed the band as a trio with the expressed goal of replicating, very faithfully, the repertoire of the Southern string bands of the middle and late 1920s and early ’30s. That was a very particular goal. But as soon as they got going and added more personnel and got into the theater and were using the band in different ways theatrically, then it started to stretch out after Jack got in the band. Jack played string bass, and he played trumpet. It wasn’t only a string band anymoreit had a brass instrument in it. So things evolved. Pretty soon, they were looking not just at the repertoire of the old string bands from the 1920s, but they were looking at all kinds of Tin Pan Alley songs that were maybe not as well known as the fellows thought they ought to be. So the nature of the repertoire broadened.
And it’s continued to broaden over the years?
Well, of course. We’re always looking for stuff from the old days, and this new record has a couple. We’ve got a nice Louis Jordan song, ‘It’s Hard to be Good without You,” a beautiful ballad, not one of his better known pieces. We’re always looking for that either forgotten gem or unrecognized gem. I think just the fact that we’ve kept on writing original stuff has certainly given us a trunk of our own to pull things from.
So how does your latest album, Old North State, fit into the history of the Red Clay Ramblers, or how does it point to the future?
We just thought it would be a great project for us after all these years to really focus keenly on the state. A lot of the string band music, the Charlie Poole Piedmont stuff and the Tommy Jarrell Round Peak Mount Airy influence, we wanted to acknowledge that and salute that. And also to do some new stuff. We’ve got a song on there about the mysterious death of beautiful Nell Cropsey. I wrote a book about the Cropsey case, a true story from the turn of the last century. But we also did about a 15 minute piece on the Cropsey story in the ballet we did with the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh, so the song that’s on Old North State comes from that ballet. It’s just a chance for us to say we love our home state and thank our native culture for giving us so much rich material to work with.