Thursday, October 22, 2009

The 'statriotic' CD 'Old North State'

Politics and public policy get most of the attention on This Old State, but I've got to take notice of notable contributions about the culture of the place when it arrives. And just the other day came a note about the Red Clay Rambler's latest CD of N.C.-centric songs. It's called "Old North State," and like the Rambler's previous works, it's a toe-tappin', finger-poppin' delight.

One reason is the band's cast of musical mavens, including Clay Buckner, Jack Herrick, Chris Frank, Rick Good, Bland Simpson and Rob Ladd, not to mention the backup vocalists. They're all superb musicians with a flair for the kinds of funny send-ups, haunting melodies, rural skits and pulse-quickening pieces they play. Go see one of the performances of the Ramblers' big band, as pianist Bland Simpson calls it when everyone's on stage at once, and you'll see more than two dozen instruments played during the course of the evening. I once saw the drummer tapping out a rhythm on the strings of the fiddle while the fiddler was busy sawing away on a melody. Where do these guys get this stuff?

Well, from their imagination, from nature, from the state's history, from previously penned lyrics and from their own creativity. Simpson, for example, is head of the creative writing program at UNC Chapel Hill, has written books about the state's coastal and sound regions, hosted a public television program about the coastal area and collaborated with his Rambler colleagues and former Charlotte Observer cartoonist Doug Marlette and Pulitzer Prize winner, now deceased, on the musical "Kudzu."

Even the Ramblers' name hearkens to another time in N.C. history: Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers made roots music popular in the 1920s with such songs as "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down." It's often said that the North Carolina Ramblers and Poole paved the way for such popular acts as Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, and the country music of Hank Williams. The original Ramblers have inspired other bands with the name Ramblers, too.

In the new CD, which Simpson calls "statriotic" (a blend of state and patriotic, I do believe) and confesses that the band has wrapped itself in the flag of North Carolina, there are salutes to big band leader Kay Kyser, jazz musician Thelonious Monk, composer Louis Jordan, author Thomas Wolfe, and Charlie Poole's original Ramblers. It also features a Jack Herrick orchestration, first performed with the Red Clay Ramblers and the North Carolina Symphony in 2007, called "The Old North State Rambler." It includes some fiddle tunes as well as "The Old North State," the state song written in 1835 by Judge William Gaston.

I'm partial to "The North Carolina State Toast and Breakdown," which combines the toast (Here's to the Land of the Long Leaf Pine, the Summer Land Where the Son Doth Shine….." and an old Arthur Smith and the Dixieliners' fiddle tune called the "North Carolina Breakdown."

As a historical note, the Ramblers point out, the state toast was first delivered not in North Carolina, but in Richmond, Va., in 1904 when the Rev. Walter Moore, a Charlotte native, closed his speech to the North Carolina Society of Richmond with a recitation of Leonora Martin's toast about this old state. When we're in Virginia and seated at table, we try always to toast the Land of the Long Leaf Pine.

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