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by David Menconi THE NEWS AND OBSERVER, Raleigh, NC (Dec. 27, 2002):

'They just don't write 'em like they used to" is a familiar complaint. But anybody who says that hasn't heard Mike Craver, the former Red Clay Ramblers pianist. He plays Tuesday at the Church of the Good Shepherd in downtown Raleigh, as part of First Night.

Most of the songs on Craver's third solo album, "Shining Down" (Sapsucker Records), sound like they could be covers dating to the first half of the 20th century. But except for "Rhode Island Is Famous For You" (from the 1948 musical "Inside U.S.A."), all the album's songs are originals of relatively recent vintage.

"I'm very retro," Craver says by phone from his office in Lexington. "When you're growing up and maturing, you can very easily be hypnotized by contemporary culture. When I was a college kid, I was happily hypnotized because there was a lot going on -- there always is. But as I get older, I find myself appreciating things like film classics.

"I'm absolutely riveted by the '20s, '30s and '40s," he adds. "I guess I'm a nostalgia buff. The Red Clay Ramblers were the perfect band for me, and I didn't even know it. When I first met them, they were doing Depression-era songs, and at that point I was thinking that hippie singer-songwriters were the thing. I guess we're always in the right place at the wrong time; or the wrong place at the right time."

Craver spent 13 years with the Ramblers and played on some of the ensemble's most notable projects, including the definitive 1985 Sam Shepard collaboration "A Lie of the Mind." Craver left the Ramblers the following year to pursue a theatrical career, writing and performing such critical favorites as 1994's "Radio Gals" and 1998's "Bosh & Moonshine."

Six of the 14 songs on "Shining Down" were written for those two productions, including the sly George Gershwin homage, "Dear Mr. Gershwin." Other songs were inspired by Craver's mother's writings about growing up in small-town North Carolina. Still others came from journals Craver kept while touring with the Ramblers -- such as "Kalamazoo," written about an encounter with a metal band on the road. Despite its disparate sources, "Shining Down" hangs together surprisingly well.

"Right now, I'm really enjoying just playing music as opposed to theater, which is very different," Craver says. "When you do theater stuff, you tend to go someplace and stay a while because it's hard to do theater one-nighters. But with a band or solo act on the road, it's a lot more gritty and you encounter much more of the real world. Theater is more of a controlled environment. Touring is kinda like everything but the kitchen sink; you find yourself in these incredibly impossible places where you only stay for a little while.

"If you're lucky."


INDEPENDENT WEEKLY (Nov. 6, 2002): When Mike Craver calls Shining Down "a collection of odds and ends from my tune trunk," you can imagine he actually owns one: battered from travel, covered with decals from Paris and Rome, and possessing a built-in minibar for those long nights in distant hotel rooms. Resplendent in a purple paisley tux, maroon tie and white carnation, brimming with jaunty good will, Craver knows the role he's playing and fills it happily. That he apes Cole Porter and George Gerswhin--to the point of incorporating a slice of "Rhapsody in Blue" into a tune called "Dear Mister Gerswhin"--should come as no surprise to fans of his early work with the Red Clay Ramblers. Craver has always tended toward the theatrical, later finding his niche in a series of successful musicals.

On Shining Down, a parade of offbeat characters is treading the boards: "That Wicky Wacky Hula Hula Honka Wonka Honolulu Hawaiian Honey of Mine" comes from Radio Gals (his musical about an all-girl radio station in the 1920s). The recipient of an equine mail-order bride, whose "nose was an organ of singular strength, as renowned for its width as it was for its length," is a character from "Bosh and Moonshine," (his show about an Old West music hall). The CD's title track is sung from the points of view of four High Plains characters: a gunslinger, a Shakespearean actor, an undertaker, and a dance hall girl. And the namesake of "Diamond Lil" is a short order cook from Pennsylvania with a knack for pyromania.

There's pure sentiment, too, in a cover of "Rhode Island is Famous for You," from the 1948 musical, Inside U.S.A., and in original numbers like "Everyone's Gone to the Moon." People don't write music and wordplay like this anymore, but Craver does, with tremendous affection.

In this regard, he's only doing with a piano what revivalists like the early Ramblers did with fiddles and banjos: recreating the feel and sound of an era he loves, putting his personal stamp on it, and giving us something unique and new that seems vaguely--and wonderfully--familiar. --DAVID POTORTI


DIRTY LINEN (Dec-Jan '03):
(I really can't tell if this is a decent review or not but I thought I'd include it for fairness sake. --MC)
Mike Craver was the piano player for the Red Clay Ramblers for many years. In l984 he launced a solo career with a modest album on Flying Fish that didn't seem to do much for his career. After achieving some success with several New York theater productions, he tried his hand once again at recording a solo album. Wagoner's Lad (1999) was an original and intelligent collection of songs, and Shining Down, which basks in a musical style that is more Tin Pan Alley/cabaret than its predecessor is a worthy follow-up. Some of the songs, such as "Dear Mister Gerswhin," are from his musicals (in this case, "Radio Gals"). Other songs, equally literate, mention Tyrone Power, Wittgenstein, and Tom Watson and Alexander Bell. The title song is sung from four points of view: a gunslinger, a Shakespearean actor, an undertaker, and a dance-hall girl. Craver is a good singer and pianist who writes charming songs that evoke an earlier era, both musically and lyrically. (PEC)



By Wayne Bledsoe, Knoxville News-Sentinel entertainment writer
July 28, 2002

Whatever Mike Craver creates might be called, the world needs more of it.

Craver gained a following in folk circles as part of the original Red Clay Ramblers - an impossible-to-peg string band in which Craver usually played piano. He left the group to pursue writing musicals and landed critical acclaim and drama awards with "Oil City Symphony" and "Radio Gals."

His solo albums are deft combinations of old-time country, 19th century parlor music and Cole Porter-style classic pop.

Like Randy Newman or Ray Davies, Craver creates aural portraits and can open up a character's world within the space of three minutes.

Craver's subjects on "Shining Down" include a lovably coarse female music fan named "Diamond Lil," a young man who loses his legs and his soul in the Battle of Argonne Forest and a 1920s-era woman who realizes that her would-be fiance of 10 years is going to leave her an old maid.

Some of the best tracks, including the title cut, come from Craver's 1998 Old West-themed musical "Bosh and Moonshine."

In the creepily funny "When I Was a Little Wee Babe," gay undertaker Reverend Mould tells of how he went from performing mock funerals for his dolls to opening a business in which repairing bullet holes in real corpses costs a little extra.

In "The Butterfield Stage," a Dodge City resident recounts meeting his mail order bride - a woman who turned out to look a little like a horse and whose teeth "were like stars - they came out at night."

While many of Craver's songs sound sort of idiosyncratically contemporary, Craver is masterful at capturing the sound and feel of past eras. In addition to "The Butterfield Stage" (presented as a jaunty saloon ballad), "That Wicky Wacky Hula Hula Honka Honolulu Honey of Mine," from the musical "Radio Gals," is an original tongue-twisting number that perfectly re-creates the goofiness of the 1920s Hawaiian craze.

Craver provides plenty of laughs, but his songs and his characters have too much heart to be dismissed lightly.

"Shining Down" is a little more piecemeal and less dark than Craver's brilliant 1999 disc, "Wagoner's Lad." However, it's a joy and it seems better with every listen. Grade: A



SHINING DOWN by Mike Craver

This season, independent CDs by Former Red Clay Ramblers are popping up everywhere. This one, Shining Down , is by Mike Craver, whose forte is piano, but who also plays guitar, percussion, and theramin.

The subtitle is "A program of comic novelties and pensive ballads sung and played upon the paino forte." Craver is stuck in the first half of the 20th century, so you might hear "archaic piano styles," as well as tin pan alley, vaudeville, pseudo broadway musicals and generic pop. Many people, especially my age, are not very enthusiastic about these musical styles, having heard enough of it on the TV as a child. However, Craver marries these styles with quirky but sometimes appropriate lyrics which at their best can be weirdly dark and brilliant. I learned this from Craver's second album, Wagoner's Lad (1999), in which he fused his broadway style with North Carolina Folklore in a way that was reminscent of Copeland. Some of the tracks on this album just irritate me, but the first four tracks are great eerie pieces of America, it's as if Craver ran out of vinegar after this and turned into syrup and Driving Miss Daisey.

This third album, Shining Down, retains Craver's "The Entertainer" style, enhancing the plunky barbershop piano. It moves on from the Piedmont backwoods into... well, a patchwork of several different musical stage productions, as well as adaptations of stories that Cravers' mother wrote. As a whole the lyrics and the tunes lack some of the weathered barn charm of Wagoners Lad. Some, however, still carry the punch of a damp outbuilding with a body inside. "Argonne Wood" is, as might be predicted, a song about a WWI soldier who came home with both legs blown off, his soul permanently lodged "in the heart of Argonne wood." Of his comarades, " could they know? They'd be cut down like the grain..."

One track that recalls Wagoner's Lad is "Cimarron Cyclone," about a gentleman who bites the dust in a tornado in Kansas. "I was thinking to myself 'Its just a little zephyr' When I got knocked down by a low flying heifer." Now those are lyrics! "Kalamazoo" is set to a well-hooked pop tune, an esoteric comment on American culture. Someday Craver is going to "buy a couple acres on the edge of the American soul, Not close enough to lose control." Here's a couple of lines:

"I met these guys in a band called Peter Lorre,
They do Scorpions, they do Judas Priest,
The drummer's named Doug and he's from Detroit
And he wears a bicep bracelet---Doug's a beast."

There is some image play in the song as well as some conflict. Some songs are just goofy. "The Butterfield Stage" is a song about a mail order bride set to the tune of "Sweet Betsy From Pike. "Her teeth were like stars, they came out at night." And then there's the Gilbert and Sullivan styled "When I Was a Little Wee Babe," about a boy who always wanted to be a mortician. "That Wicky Wacky Hula Honka Wonka Honolulu Hawaiian Honey Of Mine" is just what it looks like it would be.

Craver's piano playing is marvelous, and to add to the quirkiness his vocals are plain, as if he were singing on a kids album. As on Wagoner's Lad he plays most of the backing music himself. --Judith Gennett


SHINING DOWN by Mike Craver

This set of idiosyncratic, inventive, antique-sounding piano-based songs is hardly what you'd call "bluegrass," but since Craver was a founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers, one of my enduring favorites of the hippie-era bluegrass scene, I think it's worth bringing to your attention. The songs do share a certain Gilded Age feel in common with country's old-timey roots, but this is more of a play on the bygone traditions of music-hall and vaudeville performers, bringing to mind early Randy Newman, or the later work of Great Britain's Ian Whitcomb. The songs are about showbiz, World War I, goofs on old themes such as disaster ballads or vintage Hawaiiana (for example, the tounge-twisting "That Wicky Wacky Hula Hula Honka Wonka Honolulu Hawaiian Honey Of Mine...") Many of these tunes were drawn from theatre pieces Craver has worked on over the years, distinctly separate projects, but the album holds together with Craver's unique, wry sense of humor. Longtime fans will want to check this out, to hear what Craver's been up to in the last few years. [Check out Mike Craver's website for more information about his post-Ramblers career...] --Joe Sixpack, San Francisco Bay area critic



It's difficult to describe some artists and their art. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Awhile back, I was introduced to the artist before I'd heard his art. Of course, it made me want to hear his songs, and pronto. If you don't go to live music shows much, make it a point to attend his. He has a heap of talent. When Mike Craver sings, people shoosh you up good. It's listening time.

Mike currently has two albums available for sale at his website, The later is Shining Down, and it is a gem. Upon my first listen, I was struck by the sheer beauty of everything that makes Mike's songs happen: the piano, the guitar, and his keening tenor that occasionally slips into an ethereal, haunting falsetto. It is, for lack of a better word, enchanting. I don't go around letting people cast spells on me, but darn if Mike's music has done it. He's not "just" a singer-songwriter, but has also written several successful musicals and was one of the original Red Clay Ramblers. (They're another review. Old time? Singer-songwriter? Big fun? They got it!) His robust musical experience most certainly shines through on this album. In fact, some of his musical selections appear on the album, with That Wicky Wacky Hula Hula Honka Wonka Honolulu Hawaiian Honey of Mine being an extra-fun one from his musical Radio Gals. I'm already working on memorizing that one for my next sing-along. You should, too.

The music that will keep me listening to Mike Craver, though, are his ballads. To sit in a room and hear him sing Argonne Wood, there's nothing like it. It is an unexpectedly timely song, considering the fact that we are looking at a possible war and have sent 150,000 troops to the Mideast so far. Lyrics like this remind you what music can be at its best:

"And the order comes and the whistles blow Up from the trenches all the laddies go The looked at each other but how could they know? They'd be cut down like the grain."

Rarely have I heard music that is as consistently engaging and thoughtful as Mike's. If you're the sort who likes subtlety, intelligence, and depth in your CD collection, then you head on over to and add Shining Down to your collection. Listen to gently. --Kim Holzer

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