"The Red Clay Ramblers (circa 1973)"

by John Rosenthal

Back then, back in 1973 when there were no leash laws in Chapel Hill and the flower ladies were still allowed to sell their pansies and snapdragons and briefly beautiful sunflowers on Franklin Street, back then. in that very different time and very different town, there was Friday night at the Cat’s Cradle. That was the night The Red Clay Ramblers performed. In present day America where people practically collapse in the presence of second-hand smoke, it seems almost irreligious to remember those beer-soaked Friday nights with the reverence they deserve. But I do.

There were a few dozen of us, Rambler loyalists, who had fallen in love with this playful, half-demented Appalachian string band with a piano player, and, come hell or high water, we’d be at the Cradle every Friday night, sitting on broken chairs under a slow drifting fog of smoke and sweating in the almost wavering heat of that stinking room. This was the original Red Clay Ramblers -- with Tommy Thompson on the banjo, Jim Watson on mandolin and guitar, Mike Craver on the piano, and Bill Hicks on the fiddle, and they made the sweetest music I’d ever heard. They sang weird old-time country ballads about prodigal sons who missed their mothers, and rubes who fell into the traps of city slickers, they sang Irish drinking songs and country gospel, and sometimes they’d just play straight out, hornpipes and reels and you’d sit there in the smoke and heat, a cold beer in your hand, and think you were on the road to heaven. The songs had wonderful titles like "Kissing Is A Crime," "The Girl Behind The Bar," "I Got The Whisky," and "The House of David Blues." In those years Tommy Thompson was the leader of the group, if such a crew of idiosyncratic musicians could be said to have a leader. A big spirited bearded guy with a powerful stage presence, he possessed a kind of startling high wit you didn’t associate with old-time Appalchian music. He played the clawhammer banjo and sang the deeper notes. He was one of those rare musicians whose playing was both ferocious and sweet.

Eventually we pay a price for evenings like that, but in retrospect the price was right. In a world full of television sets and polite conversation, joy must be taken seriously. The real thing comes around only once in awhile and it doesn’t last very long. If it did, it would kill you.

The Ramblers knew it too. In a very few years they had transformed themselves from a bar band to a concert band, and Broadway was just around the corner. Ten years later, when Tommy was a close friend of mine, he was 100 pounds lighter and drank fine wine. And the rest of us went on our way too, drinking less and listening to CD’s in our living-rooms with new spouses. Good for us.

Nevertheless, the poet William Blake wasn’t wrong when he wrote, "The soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d." At least I don’t think he was wrong. Because whenever I recall those exuberant nights at the old Cat’s Cradle, I experience my own maturity as a kind of loss. For when the Ramblers closed down the show singing either "The Year of Jubelo" or "Traveling That Highway Home," and we rose out of our chairs applauding and singing, our very souls filled with laughter, we were cheering for ourselves -- for our loose and easy ways, for the beauty of the music, for our own good luck, and for our young, careless lives, which, in just a few years, would be the lives middle-aged people who dress warmly and drink lots of water.

copyright 2003 John Rosenthal