Former Rambler Craver finds niche all his own

By WAYNE BLEDSOE, April 2, 2004

Mike Craver was a Rambler - a Red Clay Rambler. But in a band where nothing quite seemed in kilter, Craver may have been the oddest man out.

The Ramblers are at heart an old-time string band (occasionally augmented by brass instruments), and Craver plays piano. He brought a combination of Carter Family and Cole Porter to the band. Since leaving the Ramblers in the 1980s, Craver has carried on his blend with some strikingly original solo albums and in musicals that he wrote or co-wrote, including the acclaimed "Radio Gals," "Oil City Symphony " and "Bosh and Moonshine."

"Some people felt that my stuff just didn't fit in the Ramblers," says Craver from his home in Lexington, N.C.

Actually, it may have been the perfect fit for a band where nothing was easy to define.

"We were booked at a lot of bluegrass festivals," he says. "I'm not exactly sure why."

Bluegrass fans didn't quite know what to make of the group's unpredictable mix, nor did old-time fans unaccustomed to hearing new songs. At one gig, an angry bluegrass fan hurled a snow cone at the trumpeter.

"We used to call them folk Nazis," says Craver with a chuckle.

Yet the Ramblers were allies in eclecticism against an axis of conformity, and their fans from the Carolinas to New York City were happy for the musical liberation. By the late 1980s Craver had left the band to live in New York and write musicals.

It wasn't until the late 1990s, when Craver had returned to North Carolina and was invited to perform a solo concert, that he resumed recording music that was not intended for theater.

"I felt like I had to have something to show for those 10 or 15 years that had passed," says Craver.

The result was "Wagoner's Lad," which he recorded at his home on his computer, overdubbing himself on all of the instruments. Many of the songs were dramatic tales that focused on life in western North Carolina in the early 1900s.

"A lot of that stuff was already there," he says. "It was based on characters in my family, and then I fictionalized some of it."

While the scenes were often dramatic, it is the depth of Craver's characters that set the songs apart - it was the common element that crossed from his theatrical songs to his non-theatrical material. "Wagoner's Lad" met with critical acclaim, and Craver's follow-up, 2002's "Shining Down," met with even more praise, landing on several "Best of the Year" lists.

His profile appears to be on the rise. He has performed several shows with fellow ex-Ramblers Bill Hicks and Jim Watson (Tommy Thompson died in 2003) and co-wrote songs with current Rambler leader (and original member) Jack Herrick for the play "Wilder." Craver is currently working on a new musical project with North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton, and Craver's long out-of-print 1984 disc "Fishing for Amour" will finally be re-released later this year.

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