New Bern, NC – The Red Clay Rambler's latest CD "Old North State" could be viewed as a disc 40 years in the making.
"It was Ed Freeman who produced American Pie and was a folkie from Boston, a good friend of John Fahey, Ed took me aside one evening during the spring of 1972, he said why don't you move back to NC? Everything you write is somehow connected to it. Why don't why are you still hanging around the city when you clearly would rather be there? I hadn't really thought about it in such simple terms."
Bland Simpson, who shortly thereafter took Ed Freeman's advice and left New York City and his songwriting contract to return to North Carolina where he soon became a part of the Red Clay Ramblers as a vocalist, keyboardist and songwriter. That desire to return to North Carolina now takes physical form in the band's most recent CD "Old North State" and its 13 songs about-and-inspired-by North Carolina. The original songs emanate from a variety of the theatre and dance productions the Ramblers have taken part in over the last four decades "Kudzu," "Carolina Jamboree" and "Tar Heel Voices," amongst others. The centerpiece on the disc however is a more recent collaboration "The Old North State Ramble" the band performed with the North Carolina Symphony during a 2007 New Year's Eve performance and again in 2009.
"The composition on that is really Jack Herrick's work, our artistic director who plays trumpet and bass and bouzouki and about a dozen other things. The idea was to take those two fiddle tunes and somewhere in between them to place a couple of verses of William Gaston's Old North State, the state song, and tie them together with orchestral support and flights of fancy."
The old-time fiddle tunes were at the core of the band when it originally formed in the 1970s and that old-time sound remains a part of the group today despite its branching out into theatre, dance and symphony performances. One of the examples of that on the "Old North State" disc is the Red Clay Rambler's take on a song by a 1920s era group the original Red Clay Ramblers were partially inspired by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and their rough take on the standard "Frankie and Johnny."
"It has a lilting melody to it, sort of a parlor song. (sings a bit) And Charlie Poole says I'm not going to sing a melody like that. He sings it like a piledriver. (sings a bit) Just slams it out. That's the version you hear string bands do. I remember being struck by it because it has the bridge that did not go with the old bluesy parlor song. It was always a challenge to learn it and then get it out at sort of jackhammer speed. (sings a bit) That's the kind of performing challenge that musicians love. I'm going to show you. I can do it and I can do it even faster than that."
Charlie Poole is somewhat forgotten nowadays despite performing "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down," a song some describe as the first country mega-hit. "Old North State" also notes another musical figure likewise somewhat obscure today despite his prominence in his own time Kay Kyser despite his 11 number one records between 1939 and 1946 and his having what was once perhaps the most popular radio show in the nation.
"He was certainly the biggest show business figure to come out of North Carolina until Andy Griffith and then until James Taylor. We've had lots of great actors and great musicians come out of North Carolina but it's a little hard for a younger generation now to leapfrog all the way back to my parent's generation. When you take the long view and do even a little bit of reading and listening its pretty apparent what a sizable figure he was especially in the 1930s and 1940s."
But "Old North State" also looks at figures outside the musical realm of importance in North Carolina. Given Bland Simpson's literary background he teaches creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill and has authored half-a-dozen books himself recognizing the story of Thomas Wolfe is perhaps not too surprising though his song "Literary Giant" composed for the "Tar Heel Voices" production doesn't look so much at the writer but at the UNC-Chapel Hill student who one day would become a celebrated author.
"You know the great writer he became, but it's interesting to see him as a young man and what he was like. He was initially he was too big, he was bigger than anybody, he grew out of his clothes so there was a kind of scarecrow quality about him, I'm talking about when he was a freshman. He was this big gawky guy from the hills and had phenomenal energy and phenomenal ambitions, and initially he was a figure of fun, subject to ridicule, but he became a very beloved comrade to his fellow students. We wanted to capture some of that."
The disc closes with the song "Home" written for the theatrical version of the comic strip "Kudzu" which got its initial run back in 1997. Though a song written for the play's title character its message bears a resemblance to Bland Simpson's own story of the writer who left his Southern roots to try life in the big city.
"It's when the town sends Kudzu off for the summer to be a writer in New York, try and make his mark, and they're all saying you carry us with you and you come home whenever you want to. That's really been our story as a band. We've carried North Carolina with us all over creation and we've always been happily welcomed and given all kinds of very good and strong support here at home which enables us to go out and make a racket elsewhere."
"Old North State" is self-released by the Triangle-based Red Clay Ramblers. They perform Saturday the 17th at Croatan High School in Ocean in a show sponsored in part by the North Carolina Coastal Federation. I'm George Olsen.