INTRO – The Triangle’s Red Clay Ramblers have been involved in a number of artistic collaborations … with Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright and actor Sam Shepard for two of his films and one off-Broadway play and with the late Doug Marlette on the musical based on his comic strip Kudzu, amongst others. Another collaboration took the band away from stage and screen into a different realm, and about nine years after its debut the music is now available on CD. George Olsen talked with Bland Simpson of the Red Clay Ramblers and has this.
The latest CD from the Triangle’s Red Clay Ramblers “Carolina Jamboree” plays out as somewhat of a “greatest hits” CD … the bulk of the material spans the band’s 40+ career from the early 1970s to present day. And the band has performed the entirety of the “Carolina Jamboree” CD multiple times for multiple audiences. But the likelihood that the crowd was laser-focused on the band is doubtful … given all else that was going on.
“And when they do a full company turn and come toward the band, romping and stomping to a fiddle tune, that’s big. There were times at which I thought they’re just going to mow us down, cause they did their big turn back to the audience in the grand finale of the piece about a foot-and-a-half downstage of the piano, so they were marching upon us. It was big.”
The music on the “Carolina Jamboree” CD was pieced together to accompany choreography by Lynne Taylor Corbett and performed by the Carolina Ballet. The band’s keyboardist and one of its songwriters Bland Simpson recalls about 28 dancers sharing their stage during peak traffic periods so if the band recessed into the background, it’s understandable. And to some degree, they were in the background as “Carolina Jamboree” came together back in 2005 … the music was all Red Clay Ramblers but the final pick on the music… and whether a collaboration was to happen… fell to choreographer Lynne Taylor Corbett
“Lynne Taylor Corbett said something like send me everything you’d like me to listen to, and she already knew about the Ramblers, some older material, but she didn’t much know what we’d done in the 90s so we got with her and sent her stuff and met with her when she was down here doing another show with the Carolina Ballet, played her things, demos we’d recorded, and gave her a lot of things to think about, and she said let me see what I can organize and I’ll be in touch.”
The Tony-nominated Taylor-Corbett did in fact get in touch with the Ramblers and their collaboration brought “Carolina Jamboree” to the stage in 2005, 2008 and 2013 with the Carolina Ballet performing. But even with a discography that dates back to the early 1970s, Taylor-Corbett was looking for something else, and found it in the original section of “Carolina Jamboree” … a musical re-telling of a non-fiction novel Bland Simpson had written in 1993 “The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey.”
“I had, years ago, I thought could I make a small, dramatic piece, not a musical at all, but a play with music with 3 characters and 3 voices that I employed in my version of the story. The lover Jim Wilcox, Nell Cropsey herself and editor/journalist W.O. Saunders… but all I did was wonder. I never did anything about it. I certainly had never, ever thought of it as a topic for dramatic dance the way Lynne staged it, but we had a great time writing the songs and a great time envisioning what it could be.”
The Nell Cropsey segment of the ballet comprises five songs, highlighted by a jaunty “Muddy Water, Hollow Log” penned by Simpson and bandmate Jack Herrick … fun music to listen to on CD, but on stage a stark counterpoint to stage action of the death of the piece’s title character.
“I believe we were in pretty close conference with Lynne T-C at that point and I think she suggested “let’s not have a lugubrious, doleful murder ballad. There’s going to be a lot of action here… pacing and an argument and thrashing and ultimately a violent confrontation,” so she said give me something lively, and it doesn’t have to spell out the events that are actually occurring.”
“The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey” was sandwiched by two other dance pieces comprised of music from the Red Clay Rambler’s history. The first section “Appalachian Stories” opens with a piece that … appropriately enough for a collaborative work … was originally featured in the Red Clay Rambler’s score for the soundtrack to the 1988 Sam Shepard film “Far North.”
“The piece of music, it’s a traditional piece of music, we heard it in a movie, a documentary about a big game hunt in Africa that we looked at and were considering scoring this about 25 years ago, a project that did not come to pass, but we looked at the rough cut several times, and there was this one passage where a man is walking down a lane in Africa, out in the bush, and he’s whistling, and he was whistling that melody. It was just a snatch of melody kind of tossed off by this man in Africa, and we liked that piece and enlarged on it.”
Simpson described the action taking place on stage during Appalachian Stories as quite often “rough and tough.” That’s followed by the tale of murder in “The Mystery of Beautiful Nell Cropsey,” so you’re about two-thirds through an evening of dance without a whole lot of uplift. That changes with the final third of “Carolina Jamboree” … how much of a downer can a section entitled “Fiddlesticks” be?
“Lynne as a dramatist in dance said, they’ve stuck with us through this impressionistic piece and then an old-timey dramatic piece with Nell Cropsey, and now, let’s have some fun, because life is funny too.”
And “Fiddlesticks” is funny. After a heavy dose of melancholia, here’s where everyone involved with “Carolina Jamboree” got to lighten up and step out
“So she took the Can’t live without ‘em and Snuffdipper, which is an R-and-B song from the 1950s and CHICKEN, which, we’re used to seeing people attempt to spell out YMCA. These dancers are so lithe they can actually spell out Chicken. They really did create those letters as the chorus went by, and it was a marvel.”
To share the stage with up to 28 dancers to my mind would seem distracting but you can’t allow that to happen when you’re essentially a pit orchestra… though in this case not in a pit but right up on stage for all the world to see. But coming to the end of a rather complex performance, it’s only natural that some relief ensues. Bland Simpson couldn’t afford to sneak a peak and get lost in events, but as the night’s event wound down during “Fiddlesticks” with a quartet of traditional tunes every so often he would, and nine years after the original performance the moment still resonates in his mind.
“They were in that case throwing their elbows back and forth and rocking from side to side, so the picture is, the dancers are in the hoedown and they’re turned away from us now as far as the audience goes but for us they know they’re nearing the last 16 bars of the whole evening and very jolly and some are making faces at the band because they can’t be seen by the audience, so that was kind of a heightened moment of we’ve done it … it was complex, and that’s part of the glory of it, and that’s why there’s so much joy in that grand finale, is, wow, we got through all that.”
Bland Simpson of the Red Clay Ramblers. The music from the Rambler’s collaboration with the Carolina Ballet “Carolina Jamboree” is available on the Rambler’s own label. I’m George Olsen.