Legends beget legends, at their best. Few–if any–legends in this region’s musical and theatrical history loom larger than the Red Clay Ramblers. On New Year’s Eve 1976, a relatively unassuming group of folk musicians hit the New York theater scene from behind with Diamond Studs, a raucous “saloon musical” about the life and times of Jesse James.

If the critics briefly sniped at the acting, they swooned at the score–a collection of old-time string-band and Reconstruction-era songs with the odd shaped-note hymn thrown in for good measure. These were leavened by a crazy quilt of company originals: carefully crafted replicas of the times before, and tunes from far more recent pages in torch song, vintage rhythm and blues and roadhouse rock and roll.

Diamond Studs played off-Broadway for 232 days, a gig that launched a series of high-profile theatrical collaborations over the next three decades with artists including Sam Shepard and Bill Irwin, in shows that repeatedly placed the band’s music on Broadway and the West End.

Still, the initial news that Mojo Productions planned to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Diamond Studs with a production at the Barn at Fearrington Village gave long-time regional theatergoers pause. True, the company that producer Franklin Golden established while an undergraduate at UNC bolted from the gate with the world premiere of Good Old Girls, Paul Ferguson’s carefully calculated compilation of Southern tales by Lee Smith and Jill McCorkle, with original music by Matraca Berg and Marshall Chapman. But after Fergusonleft the scene Mojo foundered, ironically, when its founder took the stage–and the lead–in every subsequent production by the company. A Cotton Patch Gospel with a woefully unseasoned Golden at the helm was one of a handful of shows I walked out on in the last 10 years. A subsequent Pump Boys and Dinettes fared better but still suffered from obvious immaturity in major roles. By the time the group relocated to Charlotte in 2003, Mojo at its core seemed mostly devoted to giving its principal significant time on stage.

Thank heavens things change. Diamond Studs is no mediocre vanity production. By the time its formidable band of 13 (count ’em!) musicians established their commanding presence in the opening, “Jesse James Robbed This Train,” the older, darker tones in Golden’s voice and stage presence had me convinced that he belonged there.

Indeed, in all likelihood I wasn’t the toughest critic in the room last Saturday night. Several audience members I spoke with had seen the production–with the original cast–at Chapel Hill’s Farm House in 1975, and its revival after the show closed in New York. If my eyes did not deceive me, company friends and family ringed the room, a group who’d known and loved that show by heart for about as long as some of those folks on stage had been alive. Now, that’s what I’d call pressure.

But if I cannot compare this production to the original, I’m not preoccupied with it, either. To impress me, this production didn’t have to trump the aces the Ramblers played some 30 years before. It merely had to make the case for Diamond Studs, tonight, in present tense.

Those first five solid songs–the tune cited above, “The Ballad of Jesse James,” “These Southern States that I Love,” “The Year of Jubilo” and “I’m a Good Old Rebel”–convince us early that the music is the center, the real star of the show. This is particularly true given the flimsiness at this point of Jim Wann’s broad comedic sketches, which serve as little more than connective tissue to the payoffs in the tunes he co-wrote with Bland Simpson.

You can tell when the punchlines spoken simply pale in comparison to those that are sung: “Nobody makes better liquor than my Uncle Bill / and nobody drinks it up quicker…” bellows Greg Bell in an early, boozy reminiscence. The gravitas contained in the single lyric “There’s a payment due on someone’s soul” beats any–and possibly all–words spoken on stage the whole night.

No, there is a genius in the music, and an authenticity that belies the facile monkeyshines without. But–and it bears noting–the genius in this early work remains inconstant.

At this point, our ears are jarred when Studs segues from an unreconstructed rebel and all that came before to comparatively formulaic, four-by-four straight ahead rock and rollers, “Mama Fantastic” and “Steal Away.”

As outlaw queen Belle Starr, Taz Halloween torches the bluesy “I Don’t Need a Man to Know I’m Good,” before thin lyrics reduce a subsequent “Northfield, Minnesota.” Miles Andrews and Rick Hauchman poignantly delve into the 1800s for the “New Prisoner’s Song,”before the band reassembles and just jams through a raucous, rewarding “King Cole (Been on the Job Too Long),” the simply devastating women’s harmonies in “K.C. Line,” and “Cakewalk into Kansas City.” Michael Holland’s vocal work is haunting on more than one occasion on this night.

As Jesse’s bride, Amanda Watkins can sell a song with admirable savvy and poise. After delving into lowest-common-denominator stereotypes from bad Western films in a sketch where Mexican federales inevitably call the title character “Hesse Hames,” Golden and Watkins delve into the Billie Holliday songbook, of all places, for “Sleepy Time Down South.”

No, most of the musicians here don’t take their acting seriously–nor are they required to in this historical lampoon of a musical. As mentioned above, Golden acquits himself well in a title role that calls for little emotional bandwidth–as long as anyone is speaking, anyway–and when he sings, we pretty much do believe.

It’s interesting to note that within a couple years of Diamond Studs’ debut, three sets of film families–the Carradines, the Keaches and the Quaids–would collaborate on The Long Riders, a serious film version of the life of Jesse James. Ry Cooder compiled and composed the soundtrack from some of the same sources heard here; like this show, much of that music bears rehearing again.

There aren’t as many slam segues in that work, true. But Cooder wasn’t bent on what might be called speculative vaudeville, forging music old and new with cheap laughs and the occasional sober truth into a unique new performance.

Thirty years later, I’m still not comfortable with the term “musician’s theater.” I think it far too easily excuses slapdash acting and ad hoc direction–both of which we undeniably saw at various points last weekend at the Barn.

The point still remains: Someone had to do it first. Someone had to experiment with musical theater forms that had grown static well before 1976. Diamond Studs is what one of the earliest and most successful of those experiments looked like. The Ramblers became more sophisticated after it. So did the world.

But at its best, Studs cooked with a solid vengeance–in 1976 and last weekend at the Fearrington Barn. Thanks for the reminder–and for letting a show that’s by now a legend simply breathe again. x

E-mail Byron Woods at bwoods@indyweek.com.