Mike Craver, Bill Hicks, Jim Watson and Joe Newberry play old-time music in Harrisburg, April 12

Take three original members of the legendary Red Clay Ramblers, add the talents of an Ozark Mountains native, and you have an ensemble that delights audiences with their solo selections and ensemble songs and fiddle and dance tunes from the classic Red Clay Ramblers repertoire (a highly original Stringband from the 70s and 80s) . The original Ramblers are Mike Craver, Bill Hicks, and Jim Watson, and they’re joining forces with Joe Newberry for an April 12, 2015, Susquehanna Folk Music Society concert at 4 p.m, at the Appalachian Brewing Company, 50 N. Cameron Street, Harrisburg.

Bill Hicks and Jim Watson founded the Ramblers in 1972 with the late Tommy Thompson, and Mike Craver came aboard the following year. For the next decade they toured extensively through the U.S., Canada, Europe, Scandinavia, and Africa. They appeared frequently on Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show, played in two off-Broadway shows, and released nine recordings.

They are joined in ensemble performances by Joe Newberry, who grew up singing the old songs he learned from his family in the Ozarks. He is known for his powerful and innovative banjo playing, plays and sings with the group Big Medicine and is a frequent guest on “A Prairie Home Companion”.

Concert tickets are $24 General Admission, $20 for SFMS members and $10 for students ages 3-22. Advance tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com or toll-free (800) 838-3006.


I had the opportunity to speak to Mike Craver, one of the former members of the Red Clay Ramblers and keyboardist for Craver/Hicks/Watson and Newbery about their current band and about their beginnings with the Red Clay Ramblers

FOLKMAMA: Describe the music that Craver/Hicks/Watson and Newbery plays?

MIKE: We’re a quartet, first of all. We have a fiddle player, a banjo player, a mandolin/guitar player and a keyboard player. We do old time music and we do songs in that genre. We do some original material too. We do all sing, a lot of harmony singing. That’s it in a nutshell.

FOLKMAMA: Is it more like the Southern Appalachian music, bluegrass…maybe parlor music? Or something in between?

MIKE: I think we are a glorious hybrid of all that. We started out long, long ago calling ourselves a stringband and being called a stringband by other people. But we always kind of wandered past that boundary. We were always a little bit of an anomaly. We do a lot of harmony singing. Someone will take the lead, but there is usually a chorus. That’s always been something that we’ve done, even when we started doing this back in the early 70s.

FOLKMAMA: So what is the history of the old time string band tradition?

MIKE: For me it all began back in the 20s. That’s when it was first recorded. And in the 20s and 30s and 40s it developed and bluegrass came in in the later part of that chunk of time. We (the Red Clay Ramblers) came a long in the 70s and we were of another generation and so a group like sort of put their own spin on that old time music. We couldn’t be old-time because we were from a different generation. We maybe modernized it a little bit although I hate to use that word. That’s probably what ended up happening.

And we wanted to write too—some of us did. That was the thing you did back then—in the 60s and the 70s. People wanted to be a songwriter—they wanted to be like their peers, their contemporaries. We added that element of original songwriting. Not every song. We’d throw some in just to season it up a little bit. We tried to be ourselves as opposed to just copying a style and redoing songs that we found on old records.

FOLKMAMA: How unusual was the Red Clay Ramblers at that time? Did some of the unusual instruments that the band used cause a sensation?

MIKE: The band started out as a trio and then we added a fourth person and a fifth person and we just used the talents of the people that we had to enhance the instrumentation. I was a piano play and I played bass and guitar a lot until we had a fellow join and he played the bass but he also played the trumpet and we started using the trumpet and the piano and that might have been a little different for string bands up to that point.

FOLKMAMA: What were some of the influential groups that were around during that time period?

MIKE: Definitely the Carter Family because they were so well distributed. A lot of people had heard them because they made a lot of records. And people learned their songs and did their songs and I heard people doing their songs before I heard them. And finally when I was in college I finally heard a Carter Family record. I had heard about them for years. if you took Sing Out Magazine there would be a Carter Family song in the Sing Out magazine and I would read about the Carter Family without even knowing what they sounded like. Their sheer distribution meant that they were guaranteed an audience. It was a little bit harder to hear more obscure people who weren’t as well recorded. But they were definitely a big influence. They were a big influence in sensibility and instrumentation and vocalization too.

FOLKMAMA: Who else?

MIKE: I know when I got into the band the guys were doing songs by Charlie Pool, the North Carolina Ramblers and  the Georgia Yellow Hammers. The guys in the band were really into that kind of music and it worked its way into the repertoire.

FOLKMAMA: What are the members of group doing when you are not on the road performing together?

MIKE: Jim Watson has been playing with Robin and Linda Williams as part of their band and Bill has kept playing the fiddle although he has had some non-musical occupations. Joe Newberry—we picked him up because we had first gotten back together again in 2001 and we worked as a trio for awhile and then we decided that we needed a banjo player so we kinda tagged him to fill that slot. He was living in Chapel Hill. Chapel Hill was where we all kind of got together.

FOLKMAMA: How often do you perform together?

MIKE: It’s not that often. We have two people with day jobs and we have another person who is on the road a lot and then we have me and I’m just a lay-about so I don’t count! So anyway it’s hard to carve out a period of time when everyone is available. That’s the main challenge so it’s kind of something we do for fun and not for necessity. And actually, I kind of like that! It’s kind of a good way for it to be.

We really like being on stage together. We try to make people happy. We do up-tempo, happy, goodtime, rousing music. W  e like to have fun and make fun for people to hear.Ramblers


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