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April 17, 2009

Red Clay Ramblers - Twisted Laurel

Joe from Dublin recently left a comment on the Mike Auldridge post:

Thank you very much for this. I have Dobro on vinyl, but no way of playing it any more (familiar story!) I also have the Mike Auldridge album on Flying Fish records from 1976 - does anyone have this album? In fact, thinking about it, wouldn't it be ideal if all the great but unavailable music on the Flying Fish label (Don Lange, The Red Clay Ramblers, Peter Rowan, Bryan Bowers, Mary McCaslin, Lorraine Duisit, Guy Carawan, Peter Alsop, Steve Lyon, Si Khan, Sweet Honey In The Rock, Anne Romaine, Norman Blake, Freeman and Lange, all in my own collection) was available somewhere as good quality downloads.

Well, as it happens, you're in luck Joe! IncaRoads, another blogreader who has been diligently keeping us stocked with Flying Fish titles uploaded a Red Clay Ramblers album a while back, but I never got around to posting it. And I've already posted his contribution of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Most of the other names I haven't heard of there (excepting Peter Rowan, Norman Blake, & Si Khan). So any other blog readers are more than welcome to educate me!

Personally, I'm kind of ambivalent about what I've heard of the Red Clay Ramblers. They're not bad at all, just not completely to my taste. Sometimes I listen and enjoy it, sometimes it grates on my ears, I suppose it depends on my mood. I just re-listened and actually liked it quite a bit, so maybe it's growing on me. Kind of a Kweskin-style treatment of hillbilly music. The review below pretty much sums it up, both my ambivalence and all the good points to their music.

"I've often found it puzzling why so many folks who consider themselves bluegrass fans tend to hold the ever-versatile Red Clay Ramblers at arm's length. True, the Ramblers, with that confounded piano and occasional kazoo, don't stick strictly to the banjo-fiddle-mandolin template of Bill Monroe and his acolytes, but their mastery of Antebellum and Gilded Age pop places them squarely in the same sentimentalist traditions as the truegrass forefathers. But where many 'grass fans see the Carter Family, say, as the wellspring of the style, on the Ramblers timeline, they are just one more great band in a legacy that spans back well before the 20th Century. Twisted Laurel ably showcases their diverse strengths: they pick and plunk along with the best of them, veer into vaudevillian vocal ditties, traditional tunes with a Stephen Foster lilt, as well as goofy original novelty tunes like "The Ace," which have a distinct air of Cheap Suit Seranaders zaniness. And, of course, a Carter Family tune or two, along with Jimmie Rodgers' "Mississippi Delta Blues," which is completely in line with their old-timely leanings. Fun stuff, though certainly not your standard-issue stringband material."

A review of the album Twisted Laurel from 1976 in The Unicorn Times
By Terence Winch
The Red Clay Ramblers’ last album, Stolen Love, was one of the best recordings in years by a string band. Their versions of “Kingdom Coming,” “Staten Island Hornpipe,” and “Keep the Home Fires Burning” are a joy to listen to. But their newest LP Twisted Laurel, on Flying Fish, one of the best independent labels in the country, outdoes any of their previous work. The Ramblers are more and more becoming a band in a class by itself, setting a standard of excellence that is inspirational.

They are a “traditional” group insofar as the instrumentation and material for their music follows in the tradition of such performers as Charlie Pool, The Carter Family, and Jimmie Rodgers. But this is not to say that they are not an innovative band. Their arrangements are complex and tight without being pretentious. The blend of sound, vocal and instrumental, that the Ramblers can produce is distinctive. It does what the best music must do: it delights the ear. On this recording they’ve expanded the range and variety of their sound to include trumpet, trombone, tenor guitar, kazoo and organ along with their usual combination of fiddle, banjo, bass, piano and mandolin. They make a kind of music that’s been around for a long time sound newly exciting by stretching its form in experimental ways.

There’s a sense of humor in the spirit of their work that is one of the many pleasures of listening to this band. But the quality most appealing in their music is its intelligence. This is music that sounds bright, not just sonically, but in the attitude the musicians take to their repertoire; they never condescend to the sources of their music.

The Ramblers are from North Carolina, but this new LP was recorded in the D.C. area at Bias Studios by Bill McElroy, one of the most respected engineers in this part of the world. And he deserves his share of credit for the impressive precision and quality of this recording. It takes a gifted pair of ears and some very solid techinical skill for a sound engineer to come up with a recording that is as exact and sensitive as this. All the elements of this band’s music are there, just right. Nothing is mangled or missed.

The original music on the LP is an index to the Ramblers’ range of talent. “Twisted Laurel” by Tommy Thompson, one of the most genial men in the South, may make him the Wordsworth of old-time music. The song is not so much a narrative as an “atmosphere song.” Without sentimentality, it evokes a melancholy place and mood. The language is tight, the images sharp, the melody beautiful. “The Ace” (co-authored by Mike Craver) and “The Corrugated Lady” (written with Johnny Black), also Thompson songs, reveal the comic side of his music. The Ace's hard-luck romantic adventures make him more of a deuce, sometimes even a joker. The music sounds funny too—plenty of kazoo, trumpet and trombone. Jack Herrick, the newest Red Clay Rambler, is the man who blows the horns on this record, providing the band with new musical possibilities that it exploits skillfully. “The Corrugated Lady,” another song in the ridiculous-romance genre, features a countermelody of The Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” produced by McElroy with the metallic sound of an antique recording.

“The Hobo’s Last Letter,” written by fiddler Bill Hicks, is the only non-Thompson original on the album. It’s a frame song—a song within a song—put together with real know-how by Hicks and sung in two parts: a slow opener in Mike Craver’s fragile tenor, followed by Watson’s hard-nosed vocals. Their voices, so completely different, balance perfectly. The Ramblers know precisely how to use their voices. Craver’s solo interpretation of “Will You Miss Me?” and his lead vocal on “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” are a tribute to The Carter Family that comes close to surpassing Mother Maybelle herself. And Watson’s lead vocal on a classic Charlie Poole tune, “The Beale Street Blues” (written by W. C. Handy), is right on target.

Besides fiddling with the speedy clarity of an American Jean Carrignan, Hicks’ sings in a voice so authentic it sounds like it belongs to some 63 year-old moonshiner hiding out in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His double-fiddling on “Ryestraw” is one of the many touches that make this LP so successful. Hicks kicks off “Flying Cloud Cotillion,” a tune that displays the band’s instrumental talents and its ability to play complex traditional music without getting tangled up in it. Herrick’s trumpet and trombone and Craver’s piano give this recording a jazz punctuation that only one other country-music-based band—a new York group called “The Central Park Sheiks” (who have also just released an album on Flying Fish)—uses as effectively. The rest of the material on this record—a medley of “Blue Jay” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me;” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mississippi Delta Blues;” “Rockingham Cindy;” “The Telephone Girl;” and “I Was Only Teasing You”—is all terrific.

Unless the Ramblers are only teasing us, this album was not recorded, as the credits claim, in June of 1967.

Raymond Simone, who designed and illustrated the jacket, has put together a product that is on the same level of quality as the music it contains.

The Ramblers are accomplished entertainers. Tommy Thompson, for example, is one of the best on-stage storytellers around. They’re a working band that frequently plays jobs in this area: at The Red Fox in Bethesda, The Cellar Door, Charlie’s West Side (in Annapolis). But if you can’t get to see them, enjoy their music in the privacy of your own home by buying a copy of Twisted Laurel.

The Red Clay Ramblers - Twisted Laurel

Year: 1976
Label: Flying Fish

Review by Eugene Chadbourne

Standing at a crossroads of old-timey music and the kind of progressive thought patterns and creativity that emerge in college towns such as the band's home base of Chapel Hill, the Red Clay Ramblers created a discography that is as much about making records as it is making music. The two biggest influences on this project seem to be the culturally rich results of pioneer recording efforts in American music in the '20s and '30s and the much later explosion of musical creativity in the '60s, when every garage band got to make a big artistic statement. As much as Twisted Laurel would never have been possible without old-time hillbilly music, it also could not exist without the example of albums such as the Band's Music From Big Pink or the refined album efforts of John Prine. It is a meticulously crafted piece of work which, if anything, could use a bit more looseness and edge in its occasional stuffy moments. Sometimes the good-timey numbers will prompt a listener to turn the volume down; it can be just too much hyper energy, despite the brilliance of the recorded sound. Yet the band seems to know when to pull back, following up the overdone pseudo-swing of "The Corrugated Lady" with a marvelous solo vocal and fiddle tour de force by Bill Hicks. The instrumental numbers such as "Flying Cloud Cotillon" are masterful, the piano playing of Mike Craver an absolute delight. The recording date is listed as 1967 on some copies of the album; however, be assured that even the nervous Flying Fish label wouldn't have waited nearly a decade to release this.

1 Blue Jay/The Girl I Left Behi - Traditional - 1:55
2 Twisted Laurel - Thompson - 2:55
3 The Hobo's Last Letter - Hicks - 3:10
4 Rockingham Cindy - Traditional - 2:15
5 Mississippi Delta Blues - Rodgers - 3:20
6 The Telephone Girl - Reed - 2:35
7 Will You Miss Me - Carter Family - 2:15
8 The Ace - Craver, Thompson - 3:10
9 The Corrugated Lady - Black, Thompson - 2:55
10 When Bacon Was Scarce/Ryestra - Parker, Summers - 2:15
11 I Was Only Teasing You - Traditional - 2:45
12 Fifty Miles of Elbow Room - Carter - 3:00
13 Flying Cloud Cotillion - Traditional - 2:30
14 Beale Street Blues - Handy - 2:40

ramble on.
mp3 320kbps | w/o cover | 72mb

thanks again, IncaRoads!


Duncanmusic said...

I hate to go wildly off topic, but spurred on by your erudite ramblings on the Flying Fish catalog I was wondering whether you or any of your contacts might dig out a copy of one of my favorite LPs from the late 70s, The Central Park Sheiks. I believe the Lp name was Lady Be Good after the song. I loved their ound which sort of tanslates to a swing jazz version of The Notting Hillbillies (the lead vocalists sound almost exactly the same according to my memories. I thought their concept and execution were fantastic and wore the record out. Wish I'd have kept it; now it haunts me. I would also love to find out what ever became of any and all of the players...also, one I still do have, Lew London's Swingtime in Springtime on Philo 1032. He's an ex-Country Cooking member, the same band that Tony Trischka and Andy Statman were from out of the Ithaca NY area.

Bertil said...

Thank you so much, Pirate, for the Twisted Laurel album. "I Was Only Teasing You" fits nicely alongside Loudon Wainwright III's "Mr. Guilty". A keeper. Very much appreciated!

The Irate Pirate said...

i don't have any of the ones you mention, duncan, but i do have some country cooking lp's i could get to in a couple of weeks. i'm in favor of any band with 'sheiks' in their name.

Matt said...

i've been pondering this 'great singer-instrumentalists' question a lot lately and then i read your post. just wanted to pitch in a few thoughts and a couple additions to the list:
-aretha franklin is an underrated piano player.
-charley patton
-yes on nina simone
-memphis minnie; some find her voice annoying, i love it. it is also worth appreciating the level to which she could outplay many of her male contemporaries.
-jelly roll morton had a fantastic voice. i'm sure you are familiar with alan lomax's informal recordings of morton singing, accompanied by only his own piano playing. there is even a very moving a capella track, 'tricks ain't walking no more' included. the four volume set is one of my favorite things to listen to of all time.
-i can never decide which i appreciate more: the incomparable banjo and twelve-string guitar playing or the incomparable singing, of karen dalton. if you haven't yet heard the recently issued recordings of her 1962 live performance taped in a denver bar (effectively doubling the amount of karen dalton material available), i highly recommend it. it's just her, no band, and it is unreal.
-gary davis could be a very effective singer at times.
-it is easy to forget that jack bruce is a phenomenal bassist because his playing is so upstaged by clapton's guitar and by his own singing, though he did need the support of a band.
-dave van ronk, as you mentioned, is a shining example of a great stand alone singer-instrumentalist.
-big mama thornton was a surprisingly virtuoso harmonica player. you can see it on youtube.
-little richard? i'd say he accomplished most in his singing and style innovations, but he's a terrific piano player if you listen for it.
-on the flip side, ray charles' abilities on the piano are clear, but is he a good enough singer to qualify? i do remember van ronk, in his autobiography, praised charles for his phrasing.

now, the question i've arrived at next is whether there are any great singer-instrumentalist-songwriters. with the term songwriter i am talking about the talent for writing lyrics more than for the ability to arrange a composition, make a melody, AND integrate one's own words altogether because good singer-instrumentalists end up doing those other things within the process of interpreting any material. if that makes any sense. maybe i should change it to singer-instrumentalist-lyricist.
anyway, most of the folks on my list and did not write much original material, with the exception of morton, charles, little richard, and some of the blues players.
it is tough to measure the originality of the blues lyric because so much of it is sort of picked and chosen from an existing blues vernacular. i think there is a difference between elaborating on a standard and writing your own new song. after all, the idea of the songwriter is a fairly modern concept. also, in blues many of the lines are throwaway, some totally indiscernible. in my opinion the expressive power and artistry of the blues lies within the sound of the music more than its lyrical content.
morton's words pretty much follow blues and minstrel show formats, but i'd say he is pretty original. many of his songs even start to have topical references (i.e. 'i heard buddy bolden say').
ray charles wrote some good songs, but i hesitate to call them great. for me, he lapses in and out of an overwrought sentimentality and/or preachiness.
we all know that little richard's words are hardly poetic masterpieces. although, considering it, 'a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-wop-bam-boom' is a pretty awesome construction.
back to blues.. i was saying that the lyrics are sometimes rather indistinct from one artist to the next and fail to match the music in expressiveness. however, there are certain songs where the words alone do send a chill to your toes-- geeshie wiley's 'last kind word blues' come to mind. son house and skip james were both extremely adept with imagery. charley patton stands out to me as someone who did awesomely strange and interesting things with words, which taken with his crazy ass singing, creates one of the most unique marriages of form and content around. so it's a tricky question.
in my opinion, in general, it wasn't the early blues masters who did the best writing, but the later 'new negro' and harlem renaissance poets who used the form to arrive at some truly great works. then, somebody like taj mahal comes along and sets a langston houghes poem to music, bringing it back full circle.
back to the question at hand.. is there anybody who can equal, say, leonard cohen in lyrical content, match the imagination and mastery of the instrument achieved by gary davis, and sing as evocatively as billie holiday? i can't think of anyone, but who knows what the future holds?
i guess it's unrealistic to have an everything-man. afterall, culture is a shared thing.

i'm no scholar, just a young and an enthusiastic listener, and this is my personal take on things. i didn't set out to write such a long and sprawling comment, so excuse my somewhat scatterbrained notes..


also, i just want to say that i really, really like your journal. the actual download links definitely take a backseat to the extensive content and photos you share. keep it up.

Rick said...

A great favorite of mine from the 70s, long ago lent out on vinyl and never recovered. Thanks for the chance to hear it again.