From the very beginning and through the years, across defections and factions and permanent losses, the Red Clay Ramblers have always excelled at looking back. But it's not that the Red Clay Ramblers live in the past. It's that they bring the past to life.
"It's something of an Americana music tour," says piano player Bland Simpson, describing a Red Clay Ramblers show. "From old-time Carolina mountain music to New Orleans stomp blues to Spike Jones novelty numbers. And beyond!" For that first stop on the tour, Simpson and his fellow Ramblers—bassist/trumpeter Jack Herrick, fiddler/mandolin player Clay Buckner and guitarist/accordionist Chris Frank (they all sing and make additional noises)—are able to tap into this state's rich musical heritage. This current lineup has been doing as much for two decades, though the band name is now in its 37th year of state historical preservation and presentation. A trio of early Ramblers, called The Original Red Clay Ramblers, continue to use the name for the same purpose, too.
"A lot of our zest in performance is a carry-forward from great North Carolina players like Toast, NC, fiddler Tommy Jarrell, whom we knew," Simpson offers, "and stars of the late '20s/early '30s string-band era like Charlie Poole & the North Carolina Ramblers, who hailed from what's now Eden, NC, the old tri-cities of Leaksville-Spray-Draper."
In just that little bit of bonus geographical information, you get a feel for Simpson's grasp of North Carolina history and his musical forebears. It wouldn't be that far off to call the Ramblers' rich sense of history a fifth member, but the neat trick is that it doesn't get in the way of the performance. The past isn't a weight but a springboard, with the band taking tradition for a joyous leap, as on a 10-minute fiddle-tune medley, arranged and orchestrated by Herrick, that wraps around "The Old North State Ramble," North Carolina's state song.
You could say that the Red Clay Ramblers are among those who have been entrusted with the state's musical legacy, and they seem comfortable handling that treasure while also contributing to the riches.
"We've been extremely lucky beneficiaries of all that great string-band and old-time Carolina music, plus bluegrass and Piedmont blues, plus decades of very inventive theatrical history that we've ultimately come to be a part of," says Simpson, who has earned his spot in the theater conversation with the award-winning likes of Diamond Studs, Fool Moon, Kudzu and Lone Star Love. "You realize you and your work really are part of a continuum, and that what you're doing was informed by a lot of talented instrumentalists and bandleaders and songwriters who were swinging and slinging it out there before you ever picked up a guitar or horn or sat down at a piano."
One Saturday evening long ago, Ramblers co-founder and banjoist, the late Tommy Thompson, was listening to the radio and cooking. "Over the Waterfall," a tune he spotted, poured from the speaker. He'd played it with his previous band, the Hollow Rock String Band.
"He stopped peeling a carrot and looked up and smiled, and after a half a minute, he turned to me and said, 'We saved that tune!'" says Simpson. "When Tommy ... learned and played it, only a handful of people still knew it, so it was a piece of music almost extinct. 'Now,' Tommy said at the time, 'everybody plays it.'"
The Red Clay Ramblers join forces with the North Carolina Symphony at the Booth Amphitheatre on Saturday, June 6, as part of the Summerfest Series. The show begins at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $25-$30.