Former member of the Red Clay Ramblers plays in Bloomington Saturday night

By Steve Hinnefeld, Herald-Times Staff Writer
Published: Nov 28, 2002

Mike Craver writes and sings songs that defy category.

Best known as a member of the Red Clay Ramblers, a North Carolina string band of the 1970s and early '80s, he has written and performed in three stage musicals.

In solo concerts, he accompanies himself on piano on original songs that evoke the music-hall and Tin Pan Alley styles of the early 20th century.

"I just basically play and sing," he said. "I play the songs I've done on my records and I talk a little."

He will play and sing in Bloomington Saturday in the Blue Room Semi-Underground House Concert series at 732 Whitethorn Place. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation is $5 to $10.

Craver spent 13 years with the Red Clay Ramblers, moved to New York to work in theater, then returned in the late 1990s to Lexington, N.C., where he records for his own Sapsucker Records. His latest CD is SHINING DOWN.

When he goes on the road, it's usually to do his musicals at regional theaters, including a recent stint in Milwaukee.

"I basically make my living doing theater," he said over breakfast this week. "You just wait for somebody to give you a call."

Craver is co-writer of OIL CITY SYMPHONY, a four-person show about a high school band that reunites after 25 years, and RADIO GALS, about a late-'20s pirate radio station run by a retired music teacher and her friends. A couple of his favorite songs are sung by a frontier undertaker in BOSH AND MOONSHINE, a musical he wrote for the Boot Hill Repertory Theater in Dodge City, Kansas.

"It's a typical cowboy, music-hall set but I put an undertaker in it," he said. "I ended up liking the character" which he played himself "and the songs."

Craver's songs are often first-person character pieces. Pure Americana, mixing folksy touches and witty rhymes, they are sometimes based on true stories.

He has songs about George Gershwin, a disabled World War I vet and a heavy metal band from Kalamazoo, Mich. He sings a supposed true-life tale in which the British writer Oscar Wilde bests a rough bunch of Colorado silver miners in a drinking contest.

Craver grew up listening to classical and pop music, played in rock bands at the University of North Carolina and fell in love with the Incredible String Band, which combined trippy Celtic sounds with the occasional Gilbert & Sullivan influence. With the Red Clay Ramblers, his style shared a period sensibility with Carolina and Virginia old-time dance music.

The group sometimes played at a music barn run by Jeanette Carter, daughter of two members of the legendary country group the Carter Family. Craver and bandmates Tommy Thompson and Jim Watson recorded a Carter Family tribute record, MEETING IN THE AIR, in 1980. When Sara Carter died that same year, they sang "Fifty Miles of Elbow Room" and "Anchored in Love" at her funeral.

The Red Clay Ramblers continue as a band, but without the original members.

And Craver said he's content to pursue his own music, spreading his one-set musicals from one small stage to another.

"I sort of write myself in," he said, "so I can always have a part and always have work."

Reporter Steve Hinnefeld can be reached at 331-4374 or by e-mail at