Now in their 44th year, the Tony Award-winning Red Clay Ramblers are a North Carolina string band whose repertoire reflects their roots in old-time mountain music, as well as bluegrass, country rock, New Orleans jazz, gospel, and the American musical.
In 1993, the Irwin-Shiner-Ramblers hit Fool Moon on Broadway earned the Ramblers their second Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Music in a Play, and Fool Moon in Los Angeles set box-office records; Fool Moon went on to run abroad in Vienna and Munich, returned to Broadway for a second success in late 1995, and had a third Broadway run (Brooks Atkinson Theater, Nov. ’98-Jan. ’99). Fool Moon enjoyed a 5-week run at the Kennedy Center, DC, Feb.-Mar. ’99, and received a Special Tony Award, Gershwin Theater, New York, NY, on June 6th, 1999.
The Ramblers’ long association with music and theater also includes the original New York productions of Diamond Studs (1975) and Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind (1985). In 1988, the Red Clay Ramblers scored Mr. Shepard’s film Far North, and they perform and appear in his second feature, Silent Tongue (Tri-Mark, 1994). The Ramblers also scored Nick Searcy’s Paradise Falls [Best Feature Under $1M, Hollywood Film Festival, Aug. ’98].
The Ramblers have been guests numerous times on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” and have appeared nationally with Jay Leno (NBC-TV “Tonight”), Harry Smith (CBS-TV “This Morning”) and Candice Bergen (ABC-TV “AM-America”). They have toured extensively in North America and in Europe, and have made four USIA concert tours, to eastern Europe, sub-Sahara Africa, North Africa and the Middle East. The Ramblers developed Kudzu: A Southern Musical, in collaboration with Pulitzer-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette, and staged the show at Duke in Durham, NC (Feb. ’98) and Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC (Mar.-June ’98).
Over the years, the Ramblers have performed with such figures as ’98 Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin (a Red Clay Rambler for most of ’87), Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Eugene Chadbourn, Ireland’s Boys of the Lough, Randy Newman (recorded “Ride, Gambler, Ride” with him for the film Maverick), and Michele Shocked (who brought the Eagles’ Bernie Leadon and a mobile studio to North Carolina to record “Contest Coming” with the Ramblers). All along, members of the Ramblers have been involved separately in diverse creative projects, including children’s works for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the celebratory Carolina musicals King Mackerel, Cool Spring, and Tar Heel Voices.
The Ramblers’ show Fool Moon ran at the Geary Theater, San Francisco (Summer ’01) and their musical Lone Star Love: or, the Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas ran at the Ohio Theater, Cleveland, (Fall ’01). Their album Yonder was released August ’01, and the Ramblers made a national radio appearance on “Mountain Stage” (NPR) in 2002. They premiered Ramblin’ Suite with the Atlanta Ballet (Fall ’02); toured Rambleshoe nationally with Dayton’s Rhythm in Shoes (Spring ’03, Spring ’04); and released on CD the scores to both Rambleshoe and Kudzu.
The Ramblers’ ’04-’05 Off Broadway run of Lone Star Love earned Outstanding Musical nominations from both the Lucille Lortel Awards and the NY Outer Critics’ Circle, and the Original Cast Recording of the show was released January 2006 by PS Classics of New York. Their recording Fool Moon, the Music was released September 2007. The Red Clay Ramblers appeared with the North Carolina Symphony New Year’s Eve 2007, and Carolina Jamboree, their second ballet, launched by the Carolina Ballet in 2005, was reprised June 2008 and April 2013, and has been broadcast statewide numerous times over UNC Public Television. A CD of the Carolina Jamboree score was released in September 2014.
The Daily Advance calls the Ramblers’ CD Old North State “North Carolina culture at its best.” Premier acoustic music station WNCW salutes The Red Clay Ramblers as “the house band of North Carolina.” All over North Carolina, as well as from New York City to St. Louis to Vancouver Island, The Ramblers continue to carry the banner of string-band music far and wide, and with great joy and zest.
TIMELINE 1972 – 2015
1972: The Red Clay Ramblers form in the fall as a trio. The original lineup is Tommy Thompson on banjo and Jim Watson on guitar (both of them veterans from the Hollow Rock String Band) and the Fuzzy Mountain String Band’s Bill Hicks on fiddle.
1973: Pianist Mike Craver joins the band, and the Ramblers take their first road trips, to Columbia University (NYC) and Café Lena upstate, and to the Kent State Folk Festival, Kent, Ohio. They are also recorded surreptitiously at the Galax Fiddlers Convention and appear on a bootleg record with other musicians released on the Tennvale label.
1974: The Red Clay Ramblers team up with the Southern States Fidelity Choir and Broadway “Grease” choreographer Patricia Birch to present “Diamond Studs, The Life of Jesse James,” which runs at the Ranch House, Chapel Hill, NC, in October. This two-act musical is co-authored by two Southern States Fidelity Choir members, Jim Wann and Bland Simpson, and directed by John Haber. “The Red Clay Ramblers With Fiddlin’ Al McCanless” is released on Folkways Records.
1975: “Diamond Studs” moves to New York in January for a highly-acclaimed eight-month Off-Broadway run, with a short side-trip production at ArtPark amphitheater, Niagara Falls, NY, and a tour from Florida to Boston thereafter. The New York Times review of the show begins “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!” They release “Stolen Love” (Flying Fish Records).
1976: Trumpeter/bassist Jack Herrick, a cast member of “Diamond Studs,” joins the band early in the year. They release “Twisted Laurel” and record “Debby McClatchy with the Red Clay Ramblers.” The Ramblers play the first Eno Festival in Durham, are the first band ever at the legendary Down Home Pickin’ Parlor in Johnson City, Tennessee, and meet The Carter Family’s Sara Carter when they perform at the Carter Family Store in Hiltons, Virginia, for the first time.
1977: The Ramblers undertake their first overseas tour, from Scotland to Switzerland, from Sweden to Romania, then tour with Ralph Stanley on the West Coast and in Canada. First appearance on “Prairie Home Companion,” a local Minnesota Public Radio show at the time, broadcast from the sculpture garden at the Art Museum in the Twin Cities.
1978: “Merchant’s Lunch” is released. The Ramblers play the Winnipeg Folk Festival, then return to Europe and make some eight Channel crossings in two weeks. The Ramblers play the Nyon Festival (Switzerland), the Cambridge Folk Festival (UK), and the Frasnes Folk Festival (with Tom Paxton). Vancouver (BC) and Wheatland (Remus, MI) festivals present the Ramblers.
1979: The Ramblers’ “Chuckin’ the Frizz” (Flying Fish) is recorded live at the Cat’s Cradle nightclub in Chapel Hill. Tommy Thompson, Jim Watson, and Mike Craver sing at Sara Carter’s funeral service, Hiltons, Virginia.
1980: Thompson, Craver, and Watson release “Meeting in the Air,” an album of Carter Family songs. The Ramblers tour Belgium and France with Steve Goodman and Tom Paxton. Fiddler Clay Buckner signs on in November and doubles with Bill Hicks for a three-month transition, after which Hicks departs the band.
1981: The Ramblers tour 11 weeks through sub-Saharan Africa under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. “Hard Times” CD is released.
1982: Bland Simpson and Tommy Thompson’s adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” sets box-office records at PlayMakers Repertory Company’s Paul Green Theatre in Chapel Hill, with a featured appearance by the Red Clay Ramblers. Tours take the Ramblers to Alaska and Norway.
1983: The Ramblers embark on an extensive tour through Canada in a 1948 GMC bus with 3 million miles on it.
1984: Tommy Thompson’s one-man show, “The Last Song of John Proffit,” runs at Historic Playmakers Theatre in Chapel Hill. The Ramblers appear in the pre-Broadway run of Bill Hauptman and Roger Miller’s “Big River” at the La Jolla Playhouse in California over the summer. Mike Craver releases a solo LP, “Fishing For Amour.”
1985: The Ramblers’ 2nd State Department tour, to Jordan. Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” featuring the Ramblers, begins an Off-Broadway run at the Promenade Theatre in New York City. The Ramblers record “Medley in C” with Eugene Chadbourne, the 11-minute highlight of his album “Country Protest.”
1986: Two albums are released: “A Lie of the Mind” (Sugar Hill) and “It Ain’t Right” (Flying Fish). Mike Craver and Jim Watson depart the band; pianist Bland Simpson joins.
1987: Guitarist Shawn Colvin tours with the Ramblers from New England (January) through the Philadelphia Folk Festival (August), where guitarist Chris Frank joins the band, replacing Ms. Colvin. The group marks its 15-year anniversary with a Nov. 22nd show at Memorial Hall, UNC-Chapel Hill, featuring onstage all who have been Ramblers, except Mike Craver, who joins by telephone connection from New York City, where his musical “Oil City Symphony” is in the works.
1988: Sam Shepard taps the Ramblers to do the music for his movie “Far North,” starring Jessica Lange, Charles Durning and Tess Harper (Durham-based Sugar Hill releases the soundtrack album). The Ramblers also stage “The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas” (soundtrack album released on Snappy Records), which plays at the Alley Theatre, Houston, Texas.
1989: “The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas” tours all fall, playing at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis; at Players Theatre, Columbus, Ohio, and at Duke University in Durham, NC.
1990: The Red Clay Ramblers headline at the international Festivale Interceltique in L’Orient, Brittany, France.
1991: In April, Michelle Shocked records her song “Contest Coming” with the Ramblers released on Shocked’s 1992 “Arkansas Traveler” album on Mercury) and appears onstage with the Ramblers at MerleFest. Other concert dates this year include appearances in Minneapolis, Marquette (Mich.), Saranac Lake (NY), Maine Festival (Brunswick, ME), as well as NC Symphony Series (Cary, NC) and Seawell Elementary School (Chapel Hill, NC).
1992: The Ramblers spend March and April in and near Roswell, New Mexico, playing a medicine-show band in Sam Shepard’s movie “Silent Tongue,” where they work with Alan Bates, Dermot Mulroney, Bill Irwin and David Shiner. They tour for five weeks for the U.S. State Department’s “Arts America” program, from Syria and Jordan across North Africa (Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco), and release the CD “Rambler” (Sugar Hill). The Ramblers appear at Alice Tully Hall (Lincoln Center, NYC) with Irwin and Shiner as part of the Serious Fun Festival (July).
1993: The Bill Irwin-David Shiner-Ramblers comedy “Fool Moon” opens at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. The Ramblers, joined by drummer Rob Ladd for this show, win a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Music in a Play. Appearance on “Prairie Home Companion,” Town Hall, New York City, in December.
1994: The massive Northridge earthquake delays by several days the opening of “Fool Moon” at Hollywood’s Doolittle Theater, where the show sets box-office records in a three-month run. “Fool Moon” then runs in Vienna and Munich. “The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas” runs at Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati. Founding member Tommy Thompson retires, due to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
1995: The Ramblers perform music from their nascent show “Kudzu,” a collaboration with Pulitizer-winning cartoonist Doug Marlette, at the Conference on the Book, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Oxford, Mississippi, in April, and tour widely this year: from Atlantic Beach, NC, to Virginia Beach, VA; Black Mountain and Boone, NC; Bliss, Michigan; Baltimore and New York City. Dodger Theatricals produces the Bland Simpson-Jim Wann-Don Dixon musical “King Mackerel & The Blues Are Running” Off-Off-Broadway, and Clive Barnes dubs the genre “musicians’ theatre.” “Fool Moon” has a second run on Broadway.
1996: The Ramblers give a featured performance at the Drama Desk Awards, New Victory Theatre, New York, NY, and appear on “Prairie Home Companion,” both in May. They tour New England later in summer.
1997: The Ramblers appear in “Kudzu” at the Goodspeed Opera House’s Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Connecticut, joined by percussionist Ed Butler. The band releases its “Live” CD.
1998: “Kudzu, A Southern Musical” runs at Duke University, then moves to Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C., for a three-month+ run. “Fool Moon” returns to Broadway for its third run after productions in San Francisco and Seattle.
1999: “Fool Moon” continues on Broadway then moves to the Eisenhower Theatre (Kennedy Center, Washingon, DC). In April, the Ramblers return to New York for “Lone Star Love: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas,” with Jim Belushi. The Theater Wing awards the show “Fool Moon” and its creators — Bill Irwin, David Shiner, and The Red Clay Ramblers — a Special Tony Award at the Gershwin Theatre (June).
2000: The Red Clay Ramblers receive an Indies Arts Award from the Durham Independent Weekly “for enhancing the cultural life of our community.” Workshop presentations of “Lone Star Love” are staged in NYC.
2001: In August, the Red Clay Ramblers release the album “Yonder,” produced by Don Dixon and recorded at Jerry Brown’s Chapel Hill studio, the Rubber Room. “Lone Star Love” runs at Playhouse Square in Cleveland, Ohio.
2002: The Ramblers appear at the West Bank Cafe Theatre (NYC) and at the Montgomery Jubilee (Alabama). They collaborate in Haywood County (NC) and at the Fox Theatre (Atlanta, GA) with the Atlanta Ballet and choreographer Diane Coburn-Bruning on “Ramblin’ Suite.” The band turns 30.
2003: Tommy Thompson passes away in January. All Red Clay Ramblers present and past reunite in June at the North Carolina Museum of Art for a show in honor and memory of Thompson, where they are honored as the WUNC FM Back Porch Music Artists of the Year. The Red Clay Ramblers collaborate with Rhythm in Shoes, a Dayton (Ohio) dance company, on “Rambleshoe,” which tours from Virginia to Alaska, New England to Nebraska, in the winter and spring. Jack Herrick and Mike Craver collaborate with Erin Cressida Wilson on “Wilder” Off-Broadway.
2004: The show “Rambleshoe” tours again early in the the year. “Lone Star Love” opens at the Houseman Theatre Off-Broadway in December and runs into February, 2005. The “Kudzu” original cast recording is released.
2005: The Carolina Ballet teams with the Red Clay Ramblers and choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett on “Carolina Jamboree” in Raleigh in February, a show later broadcast statewide by the UNC Center for Public Television. “Lone Star Love” receives nominations for both Outer Critics Circle and Lortel awards and the cast recording is underway. Rambler Bland Simpson receives 2005 North Carolina Award for Fine Arts.
2006: In January, the Red Clay Ramblers share the stage with Ralph Stanley again, nearly 30 years after the bands toured together, and the cast recording of “Lone Star Love” is released. Rounder Archives releases “Hard Times” and “Chuckin’ the Frizz” on CD.
2007: “Lone Star Love” is staged in Seattle, with Jack Herrick and Chris Frank representing the Red Clay Ramblers. “Fool Moon: The Music” CD is released. The Red Clay Ramblers appear in Meymandi Concert Hall (Raleigh, NC) on New Year’s Eve in a joint performance with the North Carolina Symphony, premiering their original symphonic work “Old North State Ramble.”
2008: The Carolina Ballet again teams with the Red Clay Ramblers on “Carolina Jamboree” in Raleigh in June. The Ramblers perform in the historic Newberry Opera House (Newberry, SC) and Turnage Theatre (Washington, NC), and play for the National Fragile X Gene Conference in Cary (NC).
2009: The Red Clay Ramblers perform at the historic Troy (NY) Savings Bank Concert Hall, at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in New York City, appear twice with the North Carolina Symphony, and release their North Caroliniana CD “Old North State” in October.
2010: The Red Clay Ramblers tour widely, with shows at Celebrate Brooklyn (Prospect Park, NYC), Vancouver Island Music Festival (BC), Elkins, WV, and around and about North Carolina (Boykin Theatre, Wilson; Thalian Hall, Wilmington; Blumenthal Center’s Spirit Square, Charlotte, &c.).
2011: PlayMakers Repertory Company, UNC Chapel Hill, presents the Huck Finn musical “Big River,” featuring the Red Clay Ramblers, in a sell-out run during April. The Ramblers appear at the Tang Theatre, Andover, Mass.; the Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis, Missouri; and at the West Virginia Culture Center, Charleston, WV, where on October 15th they perform at the posthumous induction of Tommy Thompson into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame. The next day the Ramblers return to the nationally syndicated Charleston radio show “Mountain Stage.”
2012: The Red Clay Ramblers receive PRC’s Distinguished Achievement Award in February (UNC Chapel Hill), play Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival, Chatham County, NC, and return to the LEAF Festival in Black Mountain, NC. Performances also include the Philadelphia Folk Festival, WUNC FM’s “Back Porch Music Series” in Durham, and Kent State Folk Festival (Kent, Ohio).
2013: The Ramblers tour of California (L.A., Palm Desert, Livermore, Berkeley) in March, present a third staging of Carolina Jamboree in Raleigh and Durham in April, and record that ballet’s score over the summer. Performances also include The Rooster’s Wife (Aberdeen), Joy Theatre (Kings Mountain), and Carolina Theatre (Durham).
2014: The Ramblers perform in support of the NC House Democratic Caucus, and at NC bookstores McIntyre’s, Quail Ridge and Flyleaf on the occasion of the CD release of Carolina Jamboree score.
SELECTED VENUES, 1972 – 2015
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York, New York
Alley Theater, Houston, Texas
Ambassador Theatre, Broadway, New York, New York
Appalachian Festival, Coney Island of the West, Cincinnati, Ohio
ArtsCenter, Carrboro, NC
The Barn, Fearrington, Pittsboro, NC
The Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna, VA
Be Here Now, Asheville, NC
Beaver Falls Bluegrass Festival, Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania
Birchmere Music Hall, Alexandria, Virginia
Black Mountain Folk Festival, Black Mountain, NC
Bluemont Festival, Leesburg, Virginia
Briarfields Bluegrass Festival, Briarfields, Alabama
Brooks Atkinson Theater, Broadway, New York, New York
Broyhill Center, Lenoir, NC
Cape Fear Botanical Garden, Fayetteville, NC
Carolina Theatre, Durham, NC
Cat’s Cradle, Chapel Hill, NC
Celebrate Brooklyn Festival, Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY
Center for the Study of Southern Culture, Oxford, Mississippi
Center for Advancement of Teaching, Atlantic Beach, NC and Pinehurst, NC
Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Center Stage, Baltimore, Maryland
Champlain Valley Festival, Vergennes, Vermont
Cheboygan Opera House, Cheboygan, Michigan
City Winery, New York, NY
Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area, Cuyahoga, Ohio
Denver Botanical Garden, Denver, Colorado
Down Home Pickin’ Parlor, Johnson City, Tennessee
Drama Desk Awards, New Victory Theatre, New York, NY
Edgecombe County Community College, Tarboro, NC
Festival Interceltique, L’Orient, Brittany, France
Fifth Avenue Theatre, Seattle, Washington
First Night, Raleigh, NC (1993, 1999)
Fishtowne Alley, Beaufort, NC
Ford’s Theatre, Washington, DC
Fox Theater, Atlanta, Georgia
Franklin Pierce College, Rindge, New Hampshire
Gerstcircus, Utrecht, Holland
Goodspeed Opera House’s Norma Terris Theatre, Chester, CT
Gordon Center for the Performing Arts, Owings Mills, MD
Great American Music Hall, San Francisco, California
Grove Park Inn, Asheville, North Carolina
Hampton Pier, Hampton, Virginia
Haywood Arts Repertory Theatre, Waynesville, NC
Hiawatha Festival, Marquette, Michigan
High Point Theater, High Point, NC (NC Presenters Consortium)
James Doolittle Theatre, Hollywood, California
John Houseman Theater, New York, NY
Joy Theatre, Kings Mountain, NC
Jubilee Hall, Knoxville, Tennessee
Kentucky Performing Arts Center, Louisville, KY
Kerrville Folk Festival, Kerrville, Texas
Koka Booth Amphitheatre, Regency Park, Cary, NC
Kiva Auditorium, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Lime Kiln Arts, Lexington, Virginia
Life of Virginia Concert Series, Richmond, Virginia
McCabe’s, Santa Monica, California
Maine Festival, Brunswick, Maine
Manhattan Square Park, Rochester, New York
Memorial Hall, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Memphis-Cooke County Convention Center, Memphis, TN
Meymandi Concert Hall, Raleigh, NC
Mr. Whitekeys, Anchorage, Alaska
Moore Square, Raleigh, NC (with NC Symphony)
Morris County Parks, Morrisville, New Jersey
Mountain Stage, Charleston, West Virginia
National Flatpicking Championship, Winfield, Kansas
National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s Festival of New Musicals, New York City, NY
Newberry Opera House, Newberry, SC
North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching, Atlantic Beach, NC, and Pinehurst, NC
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC
Ohio Theater, Playhouse Square, Cleveland, Ohio
Old Town Music Hall, Chicago, Illinois
Opera House, Mitchell, Indiana
Opera House, Woodstock, Illinois
Painted Bride, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Palace Theatre, Cleveland, Ohio
Paramount Theater, Burlington, NC
Peter Britt Festival, Medford, Oregon
Philadelphia Folk Festival, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
Piccolo Spoleto Festival, Charleston, SC
Playhouse Theater, Rocky Mount, NC
Paul Green Theatre, PlayMakers Repertory Company, Chapel Hill, NC
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh, NC
Regency Park, Cary, NC (with NC Symphony)
Reynolds Theatre, Duke University, Durham, NC
Richard Rodgers Theatre, Broadway, New York, New York
Rocky Gap Music Festival, Rocky Gap, Maryland
Rooster’s Wife, Aberdeen, NC
San Diego State University, San Diego, California
Seafoodfest in Ballard, Seattle, Washington
Concert Sundaes, Souderton Park, Souderton, Pennsylvania
Spirit Square, Charlotte, NC
Splendor of the Seas, cruise ship, Mediterranean Sea
State Theatre, Kalamazoo, Michigan
Station Inn, Nashville, Tennessee
Stevens Center, Winston-Salem, NC
Stewart Theatre, NC State University, Raleigh, NC
Strawberry Festival, Yosemite National Park, California
Sunrise Theater, Southern Pines, NC
SUNY-Stonybrook, Long Island, New York
Tall Stacks Festival, Cincinnati, Ohio
Temple Theatre, Sanford, NC
Thalian Hall, Wilmington, NC
The Barns, Wolf Trap, McLean, Virginia
The Palms, Davis, California
Tonder Folk and Jazz Festival, Tonder, Denmark
Towne Crier Cafe, Beacon, NY
Town Hall, New York, NY
Turnage Theater, Washington, NC
Under the Street, Durham, NC
University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alabama
University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon
Vancouver Folk Festival, Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Vancouver Island Music Festival
Virginia Film Festival, Charlottesville, Virginia
Walton Art Gallery, Baltimore, Maryland
Water Street Cafe, Wilmington, NC
Westside Theater, New York, New York
Weymouth Festival, Southern Pines, NC
Wheatlands Festival, Remus, Michigan
Wilson Arts Council, Wilson, NC
Winnipeg Folk Festival, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Winterfest, Frederick, Maryland
World Theatre, St. Paul, Minnesota
Four US State Department tours: of Rumania; Jordan (twice); Sub-Sahara Africa; Syria, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco
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