An Old-time Reunion

by Bill Moss

Hendersonville, NC. December 10. 2004

In Mike Craver's world, Alexander Graham Bell uttered his famous line because he accidentally spilled acid in his lap while perfecting a new invention.

Watson come here I want you
I've had a little accident it seems
Though the telephone's been solved
My underwear's dissolved
Watson come here I want you

Standing behind the synthesizer on stage at the Flat Rock Playhouse, Craver fixes his mouth in a nervous half-grin and plays non-stop in Oil City Symphony, the story of four high school geeks who have returned for a reunion concert to honor their beloved piano teacher, Mrs. Reeves.

Craver, as the eponymous "Mike", is the former flower child who now makes his living as a junior high guidance counselor and harbors a desire to play the Mexican Hat Dance on the stadium organ for the Chicago White Sox.

His bandmates are piano player "Mark" (Michael Rice), a church minister of music who lives with his mother; drummer "Debbie" (Klea Blackhurst), a dentist's wife who still must be the life of the party even if she's aging out of the Junior League; and "Mary" (Darcie Deaville), the violin player who teaches music appreciation "at the junior college level," still practices two hours a day and is an avid fan of women's roller derby.

Oil City Symphony merrily carries the audience through 18 songs, including a patriotic medley, an eight-handed piano tribute to Mrs. Reeves, the drum solo of IN-A-GADDA-DA-VIDA, two tunes about buzzing bugs and a lightning-paced medley of 10 Christmas carols.

Mike Craver created Oil City Symphony in 1987 along with three other musician-writers -- Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk and Mary Murfitt. Since then it has been performed more than a thousand times from New York to California and every region between.

"I should have kept count, I guess," Craver says in an interview in his dressing room after a matinee performance. This one ended, as they all do, with the cast outside serving green punch and sugar cookies to theater patrons. "I've probably done it at least 1,500 times and I think of all the punch I've poured ... I just got through doing it for 11 weeks up in Minneapolis."

Oil City Symphony keeps the audience guessing for the first few numbers. It's nearly all music, with just a little transition dialogue between songs. Yet the characters are so likable and the songs so infectious that pretty soon people are tapping their toes and happily following wherever the show leads.

"It's always received well wherever we do it," Craver says. "It's kind of fool-proof if you get the right people to do it. It's got kind of an uplift to it."

After the debut at Circle on the Square Off-Broadway, the cast took the show on the road. Klea, who joined the cast back then as the second Debbie, learned to play the drums for the role.

After a while, Craver moved on to other projects, including another musical Radio Gals.

"About five years ago, it started to rear its head again," Craver said. A producer revived Oil City in an Off-Broadway production. "Then we went up to Cape Cod and did it there right before 9/11 and since then we've been doing it a lot."

Watching Craver on stage, one might not suspect his creative genius helped shape the show or that critics have compared his lyric-making to George Cohan's and Cole Porter's.

I had a reason for going to see Craver, besides the play. I knew him as the quiet piano player in a raucous band back in my days at Carolina.

In the mid 1970s I was usually there at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill on Friday nights when the Red Clay Ramblers played. Before they expanded their range beyond roots, the Red Clay Ramblers were an old-time string band. They exuded great joy reviving old traditional ballads and strumming bluegrass standards.

Original players were Tommy Thompson on banjo, Jim Watson on guitar, mandolin and bass, Bill Hicks on the fiddle, and Craver on piano.

If Thompson and Watson were the raconteurs and center-stage musicians, Craver was the George Harrison figure. He made up songs of a clearly different character that still fit well into a Ramblers set.

"Certain people were really into traditional music. Bill and Tommy and Jim knew a lot more about that kind of music than I did," he said, as if unaware he had described the whole band except himself.

The early Red Clay Rambler records like Twisted Laurel and Hard Times -- the ones I still listen to -- featured traditional old-time string songs, original tunes by Thompson, which sounded like old southern Appalachian ballads, and original tunes by Craver, which didn't:

"Byron and Shelley and Goethe
Were finishing up their desert
When the garcon came to reckon
Byron to Shelley did beckon
You stall the waiter, I'll give the slip
Goethe for certain will hide in the curtain
And think up a jolly good quip"

I loved the old-time music but also the winking wit of Craver's lyrics, which seemed of a pod with Dylan's or John Prine's. He has continued to make songs at an impressive clip, putting out a total of 28 originals on his solo albums, Wagner's Lad and Shining Down ("a programme of comic novelties and pensive ballades sung and played upon the pianoforte").
It's surprising that Craver leaned less toward bluegrass roots than the other Ramblers, given that he is every bit as much Southern born and Southern bred.

He grew up in Reeds Crossroads west of Lexington, the youngest of five children. His father, Homer, played the violin. His mother, Kathleen, played the piano.

"My parents both loved classical music," he said. Classical, not country, was always playing in the home. "That and church music was what I listened to."

His father was serious about the violin. He had a studio in Salisbury and aspired to be a full-time musician and teacher. "Then the Depression came along and people couldn't afford music lessons," Craver said. "He took the civil service exam and became a mail carrier."

His mom, who was a Mock before she married, taught eighth grade and wrote stories about Davidson County history that were printed in the Lexington Dispatch. He's turned some of them into songs.

The Red Clay Ramblers wound up in New York City in 1985 when they performed in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind.

When the band left, Craver stayed behind. He lived in New York for about 10 years, writing Oil City Symphony and Radio Gals. His co-writer and musical collaborator, Mark Hardwick, died in 1993. "Our whole lives were like totally intertwined," he says. Craver lost some enthusiasm for the city and moved home to Lexington.

He lives in the house he grew up in, where he wrties, plays and records music, spinning new "comic novelties and pensive ballades".

The old Red Clay Ramblers have just re-released Meeting in the Air, their l980 recording of original Carter Family songs, and original Ramblers Watson, Hicks and Craver plan a tour next month. (Tommy Thompson dies in January 2003 of complications from Alzheimer's disease.)

Craver is working on a new project with novelist Clyde Edgerton, a Durham native who once wrote a song called A Quiche Man in a Barbeque Town. Edgerton wants to put his novel Lunch at the Piccadilly on stage as a musical.

Reprising his Oil City role is never out of the question for Craver.

At 56, the actor/lyricist/musician has aged 17 years since the play debuted. Yet because the Oil City concert is a reunion, he figures age doesn't matter.

"I'll probably be able to do this 10 years from now," he says, with a grin of wonderment.

Bill Moss is the editor of the Hendersonville News