Nevertheless, the uniting theme from day one, and present still in today's core membership of Herrick, Clay Buckner, Chris Frank, Bland Simpson and Mark Roberts--is serious musicianship accompanied by a droll sense of humor. "Daddy held the fiddle, and I held the bow," they sing in their version of the old-time chestnut, "and we beat the hell out of Cotton-Eyed Joe." That nod to the zany remains a signature trait relished by loyal fans in the Triangle and around the world.
Simpson remembers that attitude from the first time he saw the original trio in 1972, when they were playing a now-extinct Chapel Hill club called The Endangered Species.
"Jim Watson was strumming the guitar, and he picked up a triangle and started doing some kind of Cajun chanky-chank rhythm," he recalls. "Tommy Thompson leaned over admiringly and said, 'Aw, pick it, Jim!' and the place just cracked up. That kind of disarming, good-natured humor was there from the start. It was just fun to go to the shows."
With new recordings on the way, there's more fun to come. The Ramblers are reassembling their original 30-member theater production of Kudzu: A Southern Musical for the purpose of doing a full-blown cast album, with a Southern tour planned for next spring. Kudzu cartoonist Doug Marlette, in association with AOL Content, is exploring the possibility of translating the show and its characters into an interactive Web property. The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas--the Ramblers' adaptation of the Shakespeare play--was workshopped in New York City last year (with Jim Belushi as Colonel Falstaff), has been rechristened Lone Star Love, and is scheduled to open on Broadway this November. And a new "swampgrass"-tinged Ramblers album is due, with R.E.M. producer Don Dixon considering a production role--"If we decide to do it in a contained timeframe," Herrick explains.
There, as Shakespeare might say, lies the rub. "Back in the old days," Herrick says, "we'd decide to make a record, and two months later, we'd have a record. Now, you have to get it on a calendar over the period of a year or so, because there's five other things that are trying to happen at the same time."
When it comes to the Ramblers, a lot of things happen at the same time--which makes defining the group a daunting proposition. There's the music--old-time fiddle tunes, Irish reels, spirituals, Tin Pan Alley novelty songs, Dixieland, bluegrass, country, rock, and American musical numbers. There's the theater productions--Diamond Studs, A Life on the Mississippi, A Lie of the Mind, The Merry Wives, Fool Moon and Kudzu. Then there's the film scores--for Sam Shepard's Far North and Silent Tongue (in which the Ramblers also appeared), and for independent filmmaker Nick Searcy's Paradise Falls.
There's also the collaborations--with The Boys of the Lough, Eugene Chadbourn, Shawn Colvin (a short-timer with the group), Randy Newman, Michele Shocked, and Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. And the tours--not only through North America and Europe, but worldwide.
And then there's the Ramblers themselves. Formed in 1972 as a trio made up of Tommy Thompson (banjo, guitar) and Jim Watson (mandolin, guitar) from the Hollow Rock String Band, along with Bill Hicks (fiddle) from the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, they grew to a foursome a year later with the addition of Mike Craver (piano).
Herrick (bass, trumpet, bouzouki, pennywhistle), joined the group in 1976, and remains the group's senior member today. Buckner (fiddle, mandolin, harmonica), came aboard in 1980, in anticipation of Bill Hicks' departure a year later. In 1986, Craver and Watson left the group, and were replaced by Simpson (piano) and Shawn Colvin (guitar), who spent a summer with the Ramblers prior to her solo success. In 1987, Frank (guitar, accordion, tuba), signed on, and 1994 saw the departure of Tommy Thompson and the addition of Roberts (banjo, flute). Percussionists Rob Ladd and Ed Butler join in as needed. (Roberts and Ladd are presently spending the summer touring with former Eagle Don Henley.)
"There's never been a part that's been left behind--things have always been added on," says Chris Frank of the group's eclectic instrumentation and repertoire. "When I first saw them, the Ramblers didn't do Celtic music, and they didn't have a trumpet. But the band has never been able to say 'no.' When Sam Shepard said, 'I'm doing this movie set in Minnesota, and I want some kind of Scandinavian type of music, we didn't say, 'Forget it, we don't know anything about that.' We said, 'OK, we'll learn how to do it.' So Clay got a Hardanger (Scandinavian) fiddle, and learned how to work it, and we did some research and found some tunes."
Even before joining the band, Clay Buckner appreciated the Ramblers' ability to take on tunes from a variety of old-time music sources. "Because they were all good enough players, with a deep enough understanding of the music, there was a real understanding of what musical opportunities were present in the songs," he says.
Today, there's an even broader musical palette on which to draw, says Bland Simpson, "and a willingness to use that palette in very unpredictable ways, as far as what instruments play on what tunes, and what variety of instruments get changed on the same tune. The audience visibly loves it--you can see them move a foot and go, 'What just happened?"
The audience, the Ramblers are quick to admit, has been an integral part of the group's longevity.
"They put up with a ton from us, and that's part of the reason we love 'em," Herrick says.
"They're willing to forgive a lot, in terms of slickness and genius and reasonable behavior," Buckner adds. "The audience is as much a part of what we do, or probably more a part, than we are. We're just sort of rabble-rousers. We're willing to extend ourselves, not necessarily to offend the audience, but certainly to challenge them and engage them, even if it's not a sure thing. And they're usually willing to take a chance with us."
Even, he adds, if that means playing things that are "not normally found together in nature."
"There's a very thin line between tunes that don't naturally exist together in a culture, but have enough similarities that they can logically and rightly be played together," Buckner says. "I enjoy playing for people who are familiar enough with music of that sort that they can enjoy that juxtaposition. That's a pretty specialized audience."
Not to mention a special group of players. "I can't imagine finding another bunch of musicians with whom I can play as many diverse styles of music as I can with these guys," Buckner says. "And I can't really imagine better people."
With little opportunity to rest on their laurels, twisted or otherwise, the Red Clay Ramblers relish the opportunity to make music outside the bounds of traditional stardom and the rigors of the road. "We tour less than we did, but it's still a big part of what we do because it feeds the beast, so to speak," Herrick says. "It enables us to keep developing and being musical while trying to make inroads into various theater arenas, which we've done individually, as small groups, and as the whole band."
Nonetheless, he reports, "We played at Bland's daughter's elementary school the other day, and it was absolutely as satisfying as playing a gigantic folk festival with thousands of people. When there's nothing hanging over this band--and that's frequently the case, because we're not young guys starting out and doing it--we're pretty happy with what we do."
"It's a huge joy," Simpson agrees. "I've learned to have quite a good time, and a lot of fun, on stage. And that's mainly what this band does. I don't mean that we don't do some serious pieces of music, instrumentally and lyrically. But mainly, we have a real big time."
And for a band with such an extensive history, the Ramblers remain very much in the present.
"We think of ourselves as whatever it is we're doing now, much more than we think about what the band means, and where it's come," Herrick says. "We may evolve slowly, but we definitely do evolve."