The Red Clay Ramblers

Bluegrass, Folk, Old Time

The Red Clay Ramblers are one of the most influential string bands to come out of the Piedmont of North Carolina in the last half-century. They were at the center of the local music scene that inspired PineCone’s founders to create this nonprofit organization and continue to be an inspiration.

“What was nifty about the Red Clay Ramblers was how they adapted the old and brought in the new,” said the late UNC professor Townsend Ludington in an interview with PineCone’s David Brower. “You know what they were doing is celebrating and bringing recognition to the South and the South needed that.”

In the early days the band played nearly every week at Cat’s Cradle. They were raucous nights that writer and photographer John Rosenthal wrote about in a 2003 piece later republished by the Ramblers.

“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.”

Chef Bill Smith was a part of that scene in the early 70s. He was one of the first owners of the Cat’s Cradle. “I didn’t realize I was in the presence of genius all the time. It’s remarkable,” said Bill in an interview with WUNC about the Red Clay Ramblers. “It just made me realize how lucky I am to live here in a place where there are so many fabulous musicians.”

“The Red Clay Ramblers would not exist were it not for a man named Tommy Thompson,” said fiddler Clay Buckner at a PineCone concert. “He was a dear friend to all of us in the band. We miss him still.”

“We think about Tommy every day,” echoed Jack Herrick at the same PineCone Concert. Tommy Thompson led the band for the first couple decades and was the ring leader of those exuberant nights John Rosenthal remembers at the Cat’s Cradle.

“When the Ramblers closed down the show singing either ‘The Year of Jubilo’ 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,” writes Rosenthal.

In those early days the Red Clay Ramblers was essentially a traditional string band. They focused on fiddle tunes and songs collected from elders in the mountains. Over the years the band evolved into an ensemble that played bluegrass festivals, in rock clubs, prestigious concert halls, with the North Carolina Symphony, Carolina Ballet, on and off Broadway and on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion.

“This was never a band that intended to go out and tour 300 dates a year or anything like that, said Bland Simpson in an interview with IndyWeek. “The special projects have helped keep it going.”

The band is known for their versatility, showmanship and humor. Their concerts feature a mix of old time and Celtic tunes and original songs that are topical, historic and really funny. Their song “Half a Life” tells the story of a time in Chapel Hill after World War Two when a rule was passed outlawing dogs from a neighborhood of veterans. “We wrote a protest song, about 60 years later,” said Bland Simpson before playing the song at a PineCone concert. “We’re slow to anger,” laughed Jack Herrick.

After a near 20-year hiatus from formal concerts the Red Clay Ramblers reunited on May 3rd, 2024 for a 50th Anniversary Show produced by PineCone. The band for the show featured Bland Simpson, Clay Buckner, Jack Herrick, Chris Frank, Mark Roberts and Rob Ladd.

“We’re going to play tunes and sing songs, and then we’re going to go home,” deadpanned Clay Buckner when he walked on stage. The concert was entirely sold out and after two hours of two-tapping, laughs and jubilant singing the audience went home, happy.