I first started listening to the Red Clay Ramblers when vinyl albums weren’t antiques. I was hooked upon first hearing their infectious string band sound, blended with Dixieland, early 20th century pop, Irish, and blues. All of the members were talented musicians, but to my ear, the core of the band’s sound was the driving banjo and hearty voice of Tommy Thompson. He retired in 1994, due to Alzheimer’s Disease, and passed away in 2003. Yonder is the Ramblers’ first release since Thompson’s retirement. I was both curious and hesitant to listen a Red Clay Ramblers CD without Tommy Thompson.
I’ll be honest, after a first listen, I didn’t want to like this one. There is a drum kit on most of the cuts. Banjo, when it’s used, is mixed down, and little more than an effect. The old-time string band sound is gone, except for a couple of tunes. In that way, this recording is disappointing.
But it grew on me.
The music is still good, just different. There’s a lot of early jazz and pop sound, with a nod or two toward the old novelty bands. There had always been a little of this on RCR recordings; on this one, there’s much more. Another strong influence is Americana. In particular, Bland Simpson’s piano work reminds me of that of The Band’s Richard Manuel. Free reeds and brass, played by Chris Frank and Jack Herrick, also contribute to the Americana feel (but the presence of a tuba on an Uncle Dave Macon song is just plain weird!). Herrick and Simpson prove to be an able songwriting team, especially on songs like “Way Down Yonder,” and “Churchill And Roosevelt,” both lively tracks with catchy choruses. A couple of the songs seem to deal with local issues, though, so the significance is all but lost on anyone not living in the same area. Clay Buckner plays some smoking fiddle (and sings nicely, too) on old jazz pieces like “Snuffdipper” and “Root, Hog, Or Die,” yet still plays in a sweet old-time style on the Georgia Crackers’ tune, “Diamond Joe.” That last one is paired with the Dylan song of the same name; unfortunately, Herrick’s Dylan-esque singing makes that part of it an ordeal.
A band’s sound evolves, as new interests and new personnel enter. The Ramblers were no exception. It’s the degree of change that makes this album such a surprise. If you want to hear an old-time string band, you won’t hear it on this recording. You might, though, find that the band’s new sound grows on you.
The Red Clay Ramblers’ Web site can be found over yonder. Other GMR reviews of albums by the RCR can be found here, here, over here and here.