A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors
A Conversation with Tommy Thompson
Parts I and II
Reprinted from The Folk Life, Vol.. 1, Nos.
The recent news of the death of Tommy Thompson (born in 1937, died January 24, 2003), bringing to an end the life of a sweet and generous friend, due to the lingering effects of an early onset of an Altzheimers-like dementia first diagnosed ten years ago, was one of the saddest pieces of news we've received in a long time. Ever since we first heard them in performance down at Godfrey Daniels in Bethlehem (see the March 1977 issue of The Folk Life), we were in love with the Red Clay Ramblers, and with their onstage clown prince and centre of gravity, "Uncle Wide Load." (Tommy was, of course, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching assistant in philosophy before he got The Red Clay Ramblers van rolling, which, in some sense, made his later illness even more devastating to many of his friends.) I had a chance to spend some time with Tommy at the farmhouse of our mutual friend, Mary Faith Rhoads (there's an interview with Mary Faith not yet up online), and after that conversation we made a date to meet with him for a taped interview, next time he was in town. Since then, we followed the progress of the Red Clay Ramblers with real pleasure as they were recognized by audiences all over the USA and in Europe, as "the finest old time string band now playing anywhere," to quote our own summation of that still-vividly-recalled show at Godfrey's.
The only thing better than an old Red Clay Ramblers show is a new one, though. When we heard they'd be on the bill at the 3rd Annual Philadelphia Old Time and Bluegrass Festival at Montgomery County Community College, we knew we were going to be there. We almost didn't make it at that, with a Friday blizzard that stopped us cold even if it didn't faze J.D. Crowe and the New South; but we did manage to corner Tommy Thompson with a tape recorder in a break between workshops on Saturday afternoon, and here is the result:, as he patiently walked his interviewer thro a conversation that turned out to be so long it was a two-parter in its original form in The Folk Life.
Before turning you over to Tommy as we knew him back then, may I first take this opportunity to pay tribute to his daughter, Jesse Eustice Thompson, who lavished devoted care on her father thro the later nursing home years. Hers was an act of true devotion, and should clearly be honored as such.
And now: Tommy Thompson, talking about the Red Clay Ramblers:
Tommy: Well, John, where do we start?
John: You used to teach before you got into music as a profession?
Tommy: Yeah. I started playing music just before I went to graduate school, back in ’61 or ’62. I started graduate school in ’63. And music was a hobby that gradually took over. I ended up teaching for four and a half years, at two different colleges. But then finally I found out we could do this full time, and I gave it up.
John: We’ve just been listening to your new album, Merchant’s Lunch. It just came yesterday, and I don’t think it’s been off the turntable since then.
Tommy: We recorded it last fall.
John: I remember when we talked at the Philly Folk Festival you thought then it might be out by Christmas.
Tommy: Well, yeah, we had hopes.
John: It’s really fine—off in another direction, but still a Red Clay Ramblers album, unmistakably.
Tommy: It’s a lot of fun, every time you do an album. And by the time it gets out, you’ve thought more about your stuff and worked more on it, and you wish you could go back and do it all over again. Because you hear all the things that you think you could improve, for instance. But I guess that’s the name of the game. It’ll always be like that.
John: How much of the writing on this one is yours?
Tommy: The title song is a collaboration between Mike Craver and I, and there’s another song on there that I basically wrote, but I had a friend in Chapel Hill help me some on that one, I guess. And then there’s an instrumental on there that I wrote. Two and a half songs on it.
John: The rest are from Irish and American traditions.
Tommy: That’s right.
John: As I said, it’s clearly a Red Clay Ramblers record—you can tell them at once. How come you decided to go the way you did?
Tommy: Well, I’ve always had the attitude, in this band and in the others before that, that given a certain level of musical ability, the most important thing in a band is that a band is a social entity, and the important thing is to find people you can communicate with on a variety of different levels, that the people in it you respond to, that it makes your life more interesting to have them in it. And when Mike joined the band, it sounded good to have a piano, even though we had no conception then of what a piano might lead to in our band. We did know that the things we just jammed on were exciting, to us and to the other people who heard it. And we liked Mike, and he liked us, and so it was only after that we began to know him better, and he us, and began to hear more about what his musical background was, and what his tastes were, and began to feel what that would mean. Actually, that began before that, when Jim Watson and I first got together. I had been mostly involved in some fiddle tune bands, and we wanted a singing band. And Bill Hicks was a friend of ours, who’d been in the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, which was a fiddle tune band. And he was a good fiddler, and he was getting better. He had that Tommy Jarrell bite in his fiddling, and we liked that. So we brought him in to see if that kind of fiddle style would go with what we envisioned as a very different kind of band than Jim and I had been in. So that was an experiment, too. Where that took us had more to do with the instruments we played and how we played, more than any preconceived idea of what the music should be like. So it’s been a matter, from the very beginning, of finding what’s in the individual members, and then feeding that in.John: Serendipity?
Tommy: Right! Yeah.
John: It just seems to me, from the changes through each record, or from hearing you in concert, that you are always stretching in different ways.
Tommy: I think we’re in a stage now where we’re looking for our limits. The kinds of things we can do effectively, the kinds of things we can’t do. But we’re still in a kind of phase. We’d like to be able somehow to be fairly eclectic and have a wide variety of things we can do; but I don’t think we’ve yet achieved, somehow, something that I know I want—that is a really new sound that is our sound.
John: You don’t think you’ve got that now?
Tommy: Relative to what the other string bands are doing, we have. Our records are identifiable.
Tommy: But I don’t think it has crystallized yet the way it’s in my mind somehow it ought to go. But I think we’re on the way. I think when you’re using original material, and there are no precedents, how you use it is wide open. So I think somehow this new, crystallized Red Clay Ramblers sound is going to form at least in part around this new material.
John: Rather than the traditional music?
Tommy: I think so. I mean, there is there is no way we can ever deny our musical past. So it will always have a very strong flavor of where we come from. Much stronger than any “pop” band that’s traditionally oriented. Like Asleep at the Wheel, or the New Riders, or the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They’re country-oriented, too, yet rock music is the heart of what they do, and what they do is flavor it with country. I think we’re more strongly steeped in the country, traditional sounds than they are, and we’ll never lose that. Occasionally I’ll hear one of our pieces on the radio, on a commercial station, along with whatever else is being played on that day. And it’s then that I hear how traditional, how mountain-oriented, we really are. We come to a folk festival, or to a bluegrass and old-timey festival like this one, and we get the feeling of being very “far out,” of tryin’ to be uptown or somthin’, and I like that feeling, too. It’s exciting to be singled out that way. And yet you hear it in another context, it’s very string-band sounding!
John: Yeah. I think especially the shape-note hymn singing you do—
Tommy: We’ll never lose that.
John: Where does it come from:
Tommy: Well, for instance, “Long Time Travelling” is one of those that’s in more than one of the old shape-note books. I think we got it from “The Christian Harmony,” where it is called “White,” after its composer, B. F. White, one of the composers of many songs like that.
J. The one on the new album—not the concert you just did—is “Daniel Prayed.”
Tommy: We didn’t get that one out of one of the shape-note hymn books—not one of the canonical books. This is from an old Baptist hymnbook, and I can’t remember the name of it offhand. The first time I ever heard it, it was Doc Watson, Clint Howard and Clarence Ashley recorded it on one of those old albums they did. We heard it later, and then a friend of mine discovered it in an old hymnbook. It was almost the identical arrangement, and we got that from the hymnbook, plus whatever influence those guys had on us. Our conception of harmony singing has always been different from that of bluegrassers. In bluegrass, the ideal has always been to find people whose voices are as similar as possible. When you get that really beautiful clean blend—that’s why brother bands always worked as well in bluegrass. Just physiologically, the voices, even if one were higher than the other, they’ll still have the same timbre—
J. Genetically, being brought up in the same family?
Tommy: Right. What we have are five people with completely different voices, so when we put together a harmony part, what we’re –it’s more like –take somebody orchestrating a classical piece; you have your woodwinds, you’ve got your strings, you have your brass over here. And they all have different voices. The idea is to see how you blend those all together so that you get a unified sound. Whereas in a bluegrass band, it’s as if they’re all brass, or strings, or all woodwinds. So our harmony is different. In a way, it’s rougher, it doesn’t have that pure blend. We like it because you have more variety. Even when you sing the same parts, you can take any three guys out of the five, say, and sing the same parts, and it comes out different. And we’re able to choose which three will make the right sound for that one song.
John: You’ve used the term, “eclectic,” to refer to yourselves. Could you describe the particular backgrounds upon which you all can draw?
Tommy: Sure. Mike Craver, the piano player, was trained in classical music. He’s from a musical family, and his parents’ tastes are the sentimental songs—hymns and parlor songs say from the turn of the century up until the 20’s or 30’s—
J. The Ivor Novello song, “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” that you did on the Stolen Love album?
Tommy: Right! And Stephen Foster songs, things like that. Then when he went away to college he got involved with rock bands, so he knows rock from beginning to end—loves rock music. And you’ll hear in his piano playing rhythms that are not from mountain music at all, they’re really influenced by blues and by rock. And Jack Herrick, who plays bass and trumpet, was also classically trained. He grew up in Boston, in the heyday of the Kweskin Jug Band—they were heroes of his, so he was strongly influenced by them, by his classical training. In more recent years he’s played guitar with a Western Swing band, out West, and then in the past two years, with us, he’s made friends with a lot of bebop, fifties-type jazz musicians, and that’s affected him, opened up a lot of harmonic and rhythm things and raised the level of his trumpet playing a lot—and also his bass playing, incidentally, which is influenced a lot by jazz bass players. Jim Watson got involved in music when there was an old-time music scene going on, around where we lived. He picked up the mandolin, and learned to play fiddle tunes on it. His greatest asset is a strong, sharp sense of rhythm. His bass playing is not as fancy as Jack’s but he lays down a beat that is dynamite solid. And it’s the same in his mandolin playing and his guitar playing. He also likes country and western music, and that affects his singing.
John: His vocal style.
Tommy: Right. Bill Hicks, now: our musical backgrounds are hymns and old-time mountain instrumental things. He is from Raleigh, North Carolina, a very rural background, but his father was very well educated, and taught in what was at that time the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the state university in Raleigh. So Bill has both a rural background and a somewhat citified or at least educated background. He has the feel for the country, and also the sort of sophistication that goes along with that educated background, too.
John: Janet Bregman-Taney of the Juggernaut String Band was telling me that she was down at a fiddle convention in North Carolina a couple of years ago, and everybody was trying to play like Bill Hicks—it was a monolithic “Bill Hicks Sound” thing. And now Bill has gone and changed on them. There’s a lot more jazz fiddling on the new album.
Tommy: Yeah, I think you can hear that quite clearlyon “Woman Down in Memphis” or on “Sweet and Slow.” But though he plays a lot of jazzy notes, his bowing, the way his bow bites the string, is not like the classic jazz fiddlers, let’s say Stephan Grappeli. You can still hear Tommy Jarrell in it. A lot of people say, “he'll never be a jazz fiddler, because he's too countrified.” Well, I say he sure is. Why should Bill be another—why should he sound like all jazz fiddlers? Why can’t he have the chance to play something new, which is jazz fiddle with the old country bite? He may not achieve great things—but he ought to have the opportunity to try. Why should he change his style to do what has already been done?
John: Were his family fiddlers?
Tommy: His grandfather was one. When I first met Bill, he’d been playing guitar, sort of Sixties folk music, and he’d been doing political songs as well as some country. But he’d just gotten interested in getting out his granddaddy's fiddle and messing around some. He could only play in A then, and if we did a song in G, he'd just tune the fiddle down. And he didn’t seem interested in going much beyond that. This would be around ’66. Then he took a trip to Canada, and heard some Nova Scotian fiddlers.
John: Cape Breton?
Tommy: Yeah. And he bought some records—flipped him out! And he came home and got real serious about it then. He worked them out, and of course the more he did that, the more he began to hear the values and quality in the mountain fiddling around. And that was about the time Tommy Jarrell began to get stirred up again.
John: Tommy had been active years before, hadn’t he?
Tommy: Oh yeah. And the Fuzzy Mountain guys made friends with Tommy, and there’s something about Tommy’s fiddling. I don’t know how to describe it, a sort of humming along, like a bumblebee, that really turned Bill on. And I think that’s what made Bill a fiddler.
John: Do you think Bill would regard himself as a band fiddler, or…?
Tommy: More of a band fiddler, I think. All of us regard ourselves more as ensemble players. Of any of us, Mike probably has the tendency to feel most at home as a solo player. Though that’s not a bone of contention—he likes ensemble playing a lot, too. But I don’t think—unless maybe it’s Mike—that any of the rest of us has whatever it takes to want to be a soloist. Oh, we can each do—I can do six or eight banjo pieces that do sound good by themselves, Bill can do a lot of fiddling, and Watson’s got a lot of songs that he does on the guitar by himself. But none of the three of us would dare go on and do a show all by ourselves. Craver probably could if he put his mind to it—though I don’t know that he particularly wants to. What makes a band work, though is that you have to have that ensemble instinct. It’s that team thing, what makes some people basketball players as opposed to swimmers. It’s just in your head to be a soloist, or a band member.
John: So how long were you guys together before you knew it was going to go, that it was going to catch on?
Tommy: Jim and Bill and I had been together about a year when Mike joined us. And there were the four of us, and then we got into that play, Diamond Studs, the musical about the life of Jesse James, that played off-Broadway in New York. And that was what forced the issue of giving up our jobs. We were on leaves of absence and we had to decide if we would leave the show or let our jobs go. And we let the jobs go. I spent most of the eight or nine months we were in New York on the phone, trying to line up bookings for the fall, when the show would end. I knew we couldn’t stand to stay there any longer! So we started working as a full time band, and that was in 1975.
John: And you played on Debby McClatchy’s Innisfree album after that?
Tommy: Yeah, she replaced somebody in the show. I really had hopes she might show up here this weekend. She’s one of my favorite people.
John: I like her a whole lot too. She does a really good stage show. So, in ’75 you knew you were a band, you’d stick together.
Tommy: Well, our idea was that we would find a circuit close to home, that would maybe take us as far away as Charleston, Winston-Salem, Washingon, DC, Greensboro—everything within four or five hours from home. And then we could make a living as a band. We had no idea of doing anything other than being another band that was making a living. But that never worked out, exactly. For a start, we began to get invitations to places further afield.
John: Do you think the records helped?
Tommy: The records helped a lot. Just being able to send them out. For the first couple of years I spent all my non-playing time just writing to people, sending records, just phoning and so on. And then it turned out that a circuit like that didn’t exist for playing in those areas like we’d imagined it would, anyway. So we were forced to go further from home. Now I spend just as much time on the phone, but we don’t have to push for it. Most of it is by invitation now.
Apart from the old mountain music things, when I was little I used to listen to the pop music a lot. I was three in 1940, and so in those impressionable ten years I heard all those Cole Porter songs, I heard Billie Holliday, and I just put all that music out of my head for all these years, and only in the past four or five years I've begun to remember them. I feel the pressure of that music wanting to come out in me a lot.
John: Then there's a whole comic tradition in what you do.
John: I remember once I heard you do a very sardonic introduction to "I Was Only Fooling You," all about the Nashville pop thing--
Tommy: Right. Well, I like music that's serious but doesn't take itself seriously. And I like a stage show that's serious but doesn't take itself seriously. Wit, to me, is as much a musical virtue as manual dexterity, (laughter), and of course we say a lot of things onstage that we really don't mean, or that we may think are funny, but our audience doesn't see anything funny about at all. And that also varies from one locale to another.
John: An in-the-band sense of humor that comes from travelling together?
Tommy: Yeah, but then playing so much in the South, and being from the South, influenced by the South, we find that sometimes in a Northern city--things that are funny to us somehow aren't funny at all, or the way I say them doesn't strike the audience as funny at all.
John: But I hear you do some Irish things that do come off. I know a number of old-timey bands that are doing it, but usually it doesn't come off at all.
Tommy: Well, some Irish things we're working on don't come off - we haven't got it just yet. Irish music has its own idiom, its own standard of quality. It's a music that's both subtle and complex, and also very strongly rhythmical. And I think that people just getting started on Irish instrumental music - if they play mountain music - often focus on the subtlety, the smooth part of Irish music. And they get that, but they don't get beyond that, back to the place where they can play Irish music with the same excitement and drive with which they play mountain music. And Irish music does have that same power too, that excitement and drive. It's just more subtle in different ways, and I think that may be one reason why it doesn't come off. But they'll get it. We will too.
John: Oh, the selection on Merchants Lunch--"Ships are Sailing" and "Yellow Girl," and the Francis O'Neill tune--I think that comes off really well.
Tommy: Well that's one medley that we have been working on for three years or so. But there are Irish things we're working on now where I'm using the flatpick to play, and it's a jig, and I'm not much of a flatpicker anyhow, and at an important job like this we won't do it because it doesn't yet come off. But it will. It may take another year of working on it, but it will come.
John: But it seems to me that the blues things you do come out of a Black tradition--but then it is an American tradition, too. T. Uh huh. Well I think so much of white music has been just so influenced by Black music, a lot of mutual influence and so on. So long as you don't attempt to "sound" Black - white musicians can do Black music fine. The only awful thing is if you try to ape Black dialect - say an old blues man's dialect. That sounds just terrible. J. Your "Woman Down in Memphis" really does work. T. Oh, that's a good song. Actually, I think that it is white in its origin - but so very strongly Black-influenced. J. Is that because you are Southerners? Do you think that maybe a Northern string band might have some disadvantages in this?
Tommy: I think maybe we do have some advantages over a Northern string band, that helps us to do things like that and have them be effective.
John: It's funny how the social history comes thorough in the music.
Tommy: Oh yeah. That is something that I feel intuitively is true. But I don't know if anyone - certainly I'm not able to articulate exactly how it is that certain social things get expressed through the music. I do think that most people who listen to the music carefully can sense it. When somehow the performance is awkwardly detached from its social context, so that something that's supposed to be coming through isn't. We can certainly tell when something is doing that, and we just drop it.
John: Would that also be why the shape note hymns really come off with you guys?
Tommy: I think so. Sure. All of our band - or four of the five guys - are from the South, the Bible Belt, an area where Bible teaching, fundamentalists, are strong. Where, even if we're not ourselves fundamentalists, part of the fabric of our culture is - we know it, we understand it.
John: A rich emotion comes through in that.
Tommy: Yes. Religious feeling is a very strong day-to-day feeling, not just a Sunday feeling. And it's very easy, when you're doing a song like that, like "Parting Hand," to feel a rapport with the source. To sing it expressively and not feel like a hypocrite. Even if, when it comes down to dogma, we may not share the doctrines that are expressed in there, we certainly share in the kind of feeling out of which these songs come.
John: Have you noticed a change in attitude of Northerners towards Southerners over the past five to ten years?
Tommy: I think so. I think it's linked to a whole lot of things. The fact that Southern music is important now around the country in ways it hadn't always been, and it's spreading to people with peculiar tastes, like all of us who've been interested in folk music. For example, the Allman Brothers was not just a Southern band, they were a national band, but all those guys were just fantastic guitar players and singers, and what they were playing and singing is Southern. As Southern as they could do it. But there are a lot of political things that have to do with it, too. Oh, maybe what I'm saying is that the North has dominated our culture since maybe the Civil War, and maybe a lot of things that were supposed to work out haven't worked out, and maybe people are saying, "Turn to the South," hoping that maybe that part of our culture will help. But I wouldn't guarantee it!
John: I remember Lenny Bruce once said that LBJ was finished as soon as he opened his mouth. If Albert Einstein had had a Mississippi accent, nobody would ever have believed his "E equals M-C squared you-all..." (laughter)
Tommy: Sure. I faced that when I went to college, in Kenyon College, in Ohio, and I started in '57. And I think many of my classmates, when I arrived there, had never encountered a Southerner, and they kind of assumed that I'd have to be given help.
John: You were a redneck cracker...?
Tommy: Yeah, I think we've passed that now, pretty much. Jimmy Carter has a strong Georgia accent, and when the President has one, then people sort of have to swallow it, you know! (Laughter)
John: Oh, yeah. You mention Kenyon College. Was there much bluegrass music out in that part of Ohio then?
Tommy: Things were just getting started, and I didn't know much about it. At the time I was there, I think the Osborne Brothers did a concert at Oberlin. I think it was about that time that Alice Gerrard and her husband at the time, Mike Foster, were starting to play bluegrass music and some old-timey music at Antioch. But I didn't even know them. It was just about the same time, but not much at Kenyon. I remember one guy who had a five-string banjo.
John: Ray Benson, of Asleep at the Wheel, was at Antioch, same time as Seth Lichtenstien, of Arwen Mountain.
Tommy: Oh, Seth - yeah! Let's see, what was really hot in Ohio at the time was another influence on my taste: Dixieland. There were lots of small colleges in Ohio, small private schools like Kenyon, with maybe 500 students and it was not the kind of budget that brought big names through every two or three weeks like there is at the University now. For private parties they hired local bands, and at the parties I went to, at least 75% were Dixieland. That was considered really hip. The guys who played it were special people, and all this charisma came from these guys playing tenor banjos and tubas, two-four piano. I learned a lot of music, though I wasn't playing music. A lot was being pumped in that I wasn't even very aware of at the time.
John: Speaking of stardom. Have you noticed much of that has happened to the Red Clay Ramblers?
Tommy: Oh, not much. I guess some. There are certain areas of the country where for some reason or other things come together in a way. We happen to appeal to the people, somehow, in a special way. There happens to be a radio station where a couple of DJs like our music and are independent enough to play it, and so when we go into that area, we get treated as if we were something special. And that's fun, but it's...kind of strange! (laughter) I think there's something happening in American music right now. I think that most of even the best rock music - the Eagles, or Fleetwood Mac, for instance -- what they're doing is in I think pretty good taste. They're all excellent musicians, and their songwriting skills are admirable. But I don't think they're breaking any new ground. Fleetwood Mac cannot do anything like say the Beatles, who were always a year or two ahead of their time. Fleetwood Mac is a reflection of what the culture is. Bob Dylan and the Beatles were ahead of what was happening. Now, there isn't anything in rock music that's like that. In the past, now, there was rock, and pop, and there was this underground stream of bluegrass and now old-timey music which has sort of edged its way in there. They were like two separate things with neither paying attention to the other. But those days are ending. They're now beginning to converge. They're always be the big AM bands will always appeal to the teenagers, and they'll always make the big money. But there's a kind of anti-star feeling of the underground thing as we begin to influence the other. Somebody who'll like let's say Emmy Lou or Bonnie Raitt. Now there are two great examples of really great women singers whose musical roots are like ours. Then there are other people, like say Norman Blake or John Hartford - especially John. He's been a star, he's had TV exposure and that kind of thing, I'm sure he's wealthy -- but where he's working and the kind of music he is writing, the kind of show he puts on, he's very folkie, he'd fit in at any folk festival!
John: For sure.
Tommy: And that's a new thing. To me, that's a very exciting thing.
John: People who didn't get taken over by the big money?
Tommy: Right. All the big American musics have come out of folk music, every one. Always. And these are people who may be big time, but who are aware of that, who let it show. And so I envision a new middle ground in music - a crossover ground there has never been. I want a place in that for the Red Clay Ramblers. Or take a good band like the Newgrass Revival. A bluegrass band with a lot of rock influences. And yet they're really not playing rock music, it's still bluegrass, with those rock influences. There's a place in the middle for that. And all that big star stuff - where probably won't ever be enough money for that - we won't all have Lear jets! On the other hand, we will be able to make a good living. And there'll be lots of room for a wide variety of things, and it'll be kind of not-bigtime, not-smalltime, kind of medium time.
John: Very human-sized.
Tommy: That's right - very human.
John: That's something I always saw in rock. It came out of a whole theatrical tradition - the magic minstrels appear from behind the stage curtain, do what they do, and disappear. But folk music was always - folk making it.
Tommy: That's right. To me, I see no reason why there isn't a folk culture. I know there isn't much left in this country where a folk culture as it existed 50 years ago survived. But there's still homemade music, and it has all kind of influences on it. Just the fact that the influences can be so much greater than they could be 50 years ago means that they can't be "pure," but the days of that "pure this" and "pure that" don't exist any more. There are not "pure" dialects anymore. To go along with that, there's no reason why people who play "folk music" should make no money, and the people who make "pop music" make it all. I think there can be a place in the middle. I hope so!
John: Would you say that in percentage terms there are more people making their own music now?
Tommy: Sure - everywhere we go. Absolutely, I can't think of one place on this continent where we've played, where there hasn't been a good bluegrass band, and usually two or three good old-timey bands. I mean with really good fiddlers and banjo players-and with what there wasn't ten years ago, people learning to sing.
John: It seems to be harder to do that.
Tommy: I think it is. You can go out and buy a good guitar, but you can't buy a good voice. You can get more skilled at singing, and take more advantage of the voice you've got-and there'll still be people who just have better voices, you know. I'll never be able to sing like Keith Whitley if I learn every trick that he's got, I still don't have the vocal chords he's got. But it just took a while to recognize that folk singing was as good as folk playing - and as interesting, and as valid as a musical form. People have learned to sing better. Or people who could sing, who had better voices, have begun to be singled out as people who could do more. And I know ten years ago that wasn't so.
John: I know a lot of new, young bands starting out who are really good instrumentally, but their vocals aren't as strong.
Tommy: And what I'm saying is that ten years ago it was worse than that. I mean, ten years ago, the best that I knew of in existence then were the young string bands like The New Lost City Ramblers. And it didn't take me long to recognize that, good as they were, if you just listened closely to their models, those old-timers could sing better! But of course the New Lost City Ramblers recognized that too, I think, and when Tracy came in, he has a good country voice, and that helped a whole lot. I mean you can hear how vastly their singing improved from their earlier records to their late records.
John: Would you call that the particular strength of the Red Clay Ramblers, their singing?
Tommy: I don't know, it's so hard for me to say. I know there are people who like our singing a whole lot. I know there are a lot of things in my own singing I'd like to improve. Sometimes we will get a record review that says the singing is great, other times people will say it's not so hot. I think potentially we have a way, with our various combinations and so forth, to create something that hasn't been done before. I think we've gone some way towards that. I think our singing is solid. It's kind of ragged; and I don't know, I'd just as soon leave it that way. Really, I think the only one in the band that I can say, unqualifiedly, has a real singer's voice is Mike Craver. That's really a remarkable voice.
John: Yeah! I was a bit disappointed he didn't do "Answer Only with Your Eyes," on the new album. When I heard him do that at Godfrey Daniels last year...
Tommy: Well, we might eventually get that on an album. It was just that "Melancholy" isn't a bad cut, either!
John: Oh, sure - Mike is incredible on that. But I think you all combine so well - you've got good voices for that. And it's so striking, on the album as well as in the show, when you go from an instrumental cut to a cappella singing, and then back again - it's so crisp and so "arranged" sounding.
Tommy: Oh, well, we can all sing, we can sing well enough to make most songs effective, where there are a lot of string bands around with people singing who really can't sing. But my model singers run from really great singers, like, oh, Robert Johnson on the one end and Ralph Stanley on the other. Or a Hazel Dickens. There is nobody in our band who has what it is that makes for truly great singing. And so most of what we've done will be in finding how, within the limitations we have, to make our singing effective. With the exception possibly of Mike, we're never going to record an album where people will say, "Boy, listen to that guy sing!"
John: But I'm listening to your harmony singing--
Tommy: But that's a way of combining forces to make something work! A lot of people don't like our singing just because our voices don't blend. They like J. D. Crowe's band, who were here last night, and their conception of good harmony singing is to find those three voices that blend just right, with that resemblance in tone quality. It's so sharp, making your endings and beginnings all work out just right, with a smooth blending and liquidity that is so lovely! And I do like that kind of singing, and if you prefer that, then you'll never like the Red Clay Ramblers' singing. I like both kinds myself, I like Paul Martin and Ted Bogan singing together--they don't even sing the same words, but somehow that also works out too!
John: Sort of like in the Memphis Jug Band?
Tommy: Yeah! Who was that guy in the Memphis Jug Band? Will Shade! An incredible singer! Chills up and down your spine. We'll never have singing like that.
John: I notice you're very critical of the band.
Tommy: Oh, no, I love the band! But you can always see tremendous improvements you can make. Some specific things I can see, and in other ways we maybe can improve in ways I don't even know! And as we write more, do more of our own things, we develop a knack, a way to be totally convincing to a broader range of people. And that's not compromising-so many people who play traditional music are so uptight about that! But if it turns people on to the music...
John: Do you have somebody outside of the band helping you with the bookings?
Tommy: No, we really don't. We sometimes do it on a temporary basis, playing somebody ten percent, but this way we are autonomous, and we're making a living, and we are making a better living each year. If we had a big agent, a well-connected manager, things might move a little faster, but we'd lose something too, a little autonomy. I do look forward to the day when I don't have to do all this, but I want our careers to be firmly established on our own terms first, and then we can hire somebody to take care of things for us, rather than have somebody moving in and taking over, "Look, boys, here's how to make a million dollars..."
John: Do you think that's the kind of thing that might have happened if you had been younger?
Tommy: Oh, of course. I think the fact that all of us have earned our livings in other ways for quite a long time helped. I was just forty this year - a lot of water has flowed under my bridge! I think that has helped us a lot. We've been involved with the folk scene for a long time, and I knew we could make a living, and just keep working along gradually...And some day we'd get invited to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, you know...That was a big step for us. From a rock star's point of view, that might be nothing, but for us that was a really big thing. What you consider nothing or a really big thing depends, I guess. And you can hustle and work until you get it. We'd all been playing fulltime for a year and a half before we developed any sense of ambition at all - that was not part of it. Now I feel a really strong sense of ambition! (Laughter) Partly, I'd think, because we have proved we can get better than we are now, since we are a lot better than we were a year ago. And we're not always uptight about it, about playing exactly what we want to hear. We'd like for as many people as possible to hear us, and we're learning better how to bring them along with us. Just the fact that there are all these kids all over the country playing old-timey music, that tells you something about where people's heads are. There's a change in the music business in the fact that say, Emmy Lou Harris is a big star, but at least two songs on her last two albums she got from Hazel and Alice records. That means people are listening to each other. There's not that separation between being "everybody" and being "nobody" anymore.
John: And her contact with Gram Parsons was important in bringing that across.
Tommy: Sure--he was very important, writing those songs that were so much ahead of his time. Rock singers are just now coming around to what he was doing, what, ten years ago?
John: I guess I think of the Byrds as being around '67 or so.
Tommy: So I think of the business structure of it as changing. I think of it as there being opportunities to do our kind of thing, that there were not, ten years ago. Or even four or five years ago. We've been very lucky all along, to be where we were at the right time. The maturity of our music fitted nicely our audience's. I mean, "Stolen Love" is an album which I like very much, but that we may have outgrown in a way. It would be foolish of us to make another album like that. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but you've worked it through, and there's no need to keep repeating yourself. And that record was just right for Flying Fish when we took it to Bruce Kaplan and said, "Are you interested in this tape?" Now, we couldn't take that into Flying Fish and get on that label now.
John: Because he has changed and is into different material now, too.
Tommy: Right. So that was a great stroke of good fortune that Flying Fish was just getting started when we were. Bruce's tastes have evolved, as have ours. We're a perfect band for Flying Fish, and they are a perfect label for us.
John: Do you see any possibility of your ever making an album with some other people who are on the label too?
Tommy: It's a possibility. But we're working so hard now to make our own place, we're working all the time now. So the time it takes to go and make a record is a big sacrifice for us, right now. The idea of it - the time it takes to work up the material, and to do it with someone else that we don't play with, it would take us easily a month to do that. And that's a month when we don't get out and let the people know we exist. So it's not something I envision happening right now, though I can see it happening a little later on.
John: I was just thinking, John Hartford is on that label.
Tommy: Sure. Love to do an album with John Hartford! Be a huge thrill! And it would be a good record, too.
John: Well, the funny thing is, talking with John for our interview in The Folk Life, we asked him about how he plays all those instruments, and he said it's his way of getting an old-time string band "in turn" as he goes around in a set. And I notice with Bryan Bower's new album, also on Flying Fish, he has the Newgrass Revival on one cut, and Seldom Scene on another-and they do make a nice combination with his solo material.
Tommy: Sure, those are fun things to do. But it takes a lot of versatility to do that.
John: Somebody like the Red Clay Ramblers, right?
Tommy: Well, to do it, you have to hear the other guy's stuff. And you have to spend a couple of months just figuring out what to do, and then do it. But that's also a kind of versatility that a studio musician has, and we're not quite that way yet-though we are getting better at it. But I don't think right now we're ready to go make an album with John Hartford.
John: You respect your differences as musicians then?
Tommy: Sure. Though I'd certainly like to be able to do that. A couple or three years, maybe. Though I'm not sure he knows exactly w ho we are. We did play at one festival together, and who knows. I don't know if he's even heard our records.
John: But he will, eh? All things come?
Tommy: Right. All things come.
John: H'm. Well, John Hartford was on our March cover, and we sent it along to him at Stone County, to Keith Case.
Tommy: I've heard he's a really good guy. I know people who've worked with him on various things, and the club owners we've worked for who have hired John and the Newgrass Revival, and they say he's okay, he's a good guy.
John: Yup. And Keith will have seen the Red Clay Ramblers in The Folk Life, too.
Tommy: All right then.
John: It's a funny business to be in, isn't it?
Tommy: Sure is. Been nice talking with you, John.
John: Thanks for your time, Tommy. We'll be in touch.
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