Bluegrass Veterans Take Stage Tonight
BY KATHERINE SMITH
Special to The Pilot
Craver, Hicks, Watson and Newberry's songs are like lyrical folk tales.
Today, Wednesday, Dec. 19, the four will be playing at The Rooster's Wife in Aberdeen. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the show starts at 6:45 p.m. Tickets are $17 at the door.
The first half of the show will be string band music, mostly from their latest album, "You've Been a Friend to Me."
The second half will feature Christmas music, much of which comes from Watson's album "Christmas at the Cave." Their group's album, as well as the members' solo albums, will be available for purchase.
The group includes Mike Craver on piano, Bill Hicks on fiddle, Jim Watson on mandolin, and Joe Newberry on banjo.
Craver, Hicks and Watson, along with founder Tommy Thompson, began the prolific and resoundingly creative Red Clay Ramblers band in 1972.
The band's notoriety began after their performance in the Chapel Hill play "Diamond Studs," after which they quit their day jobs and traveled on the old time, bluegrass and folk circuit of the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
The group split in the mid-1980s, and not until their 20-year reunion at the Festival for the Eno, in July 2001, did they play together again.
"We decided it would be fun to start doing more together and realized we needed a banjo player," Watson says. "It was a pretty unanimous decision that Joe would be our man."
Joe Newberry joined the band in 2003. Nine years of infrequent practices and "inspiring each other" have culminated with the album "You've Been a Friend to Me." Released in July, the album is a vibrant revitalization of the Ramblers' sideshow performance showcasing the members' distinct personalities.
The 15-track album features classic tracks as well as original songs. Hicks wrote "Uncle Charlie's Revenge"; Newberry wrote "Missouri Borderland"; Craig Johnson wrote "Piney Mountains"; and Craver wrote "How Does a Glass Eye Work?"
Jim Watson's 13-year-old introduction to mandolin quickly took him to Virginia fiddlers conventions. The Durham native grew up in a bluegrass-inclined community. It was not until his frequent experiences at Duke University fiddlers conventions that he discovered the bones of bluegrass and old-time music.
"I heard a lot of early bluegrass of people, like Monroe Stanley, who played really hard and sang hard and put a lot of themselves into the presentation of their music," he says.
The artists who resurrected classics and mountaineer music had a "spirit" that Watson quickly uncovered. He has played with three other groups and continues to tour playing upright bass with Robin and Linda Williams. He has written three solo albums - "Don't Tell Me I Don't Know," "Willie's Redemption" and "This World Would be All Sunshine." The content of his solo albums and classics were the buttresses of his beginnings with Craver, Hicks, Watson and Newberry.
Mike Craver has composed, acted in and commissioned many off-Broadway theater performances. As with many children, his introduction to music came in the form of classical piano.
"The guitar became sort of the devil's instrument," he says. "I went to Carolina because I knew people played guitars down there, and I had this dream of becoming a New York folksinger."
Instead, he became involved in Raleigh's theater, "natural" because he could fill the theater's "need for 88 keys" and "you can be so creative," he says.
That is where he met Thompson, Hicks and Watson, who were playing rustic music for some of the theater productions.
"I would go hear them and I thought they were a really good band," he says. "They approached it really seriously and with commitment."
Now in the band, Craver plays with a educated but Gypsy piano style that animates the groups' songs. The late '60s "creative atmosphere" helped incite a string of Craver's three solo albums - "Fishing for Amour," Wagoner's Lad" and "Shining Down."
Newberry plays solo, in a duo with mandolin master Mike Compton, in the band Big Medicine as well as in this quartet.
"To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, I'm an old man but a young banjo player," he says.
When Newberry plays, he rattles out past mentors, he says.
"And people everywhere respond to it, because there are country people everywhere," he says. "Those barriers go down. People can spot a phony from the back row."
Newberry grew up in Malden, Mo. His grandfather was a hunting and fishing buddy of Vance Randolph, an Ozark folk song collector. He says that he was the son of a "singing family," and grew up singing those songs for recreation.
He released his solo album, "Two Hands," in 2005. His song "Singing as We Rise" was covered by the Gibson Brothers and Ricky Skaggs. Their piece is nominated for Gospel Recorded Performance and Recorded Event in the upcoming International Bluegrass Music Festival.
Hicks is the founding fiddler of the Red Clay Ramblers. Book-ending his involvement in the Ramblers is his appearance on two of The Fuzzy Mountain String Band's Rounder LPs and a 2002 live solo CD of his songs, "The Perfect Gig."
After he left the Ramblers, "I've felt I needed to make this CD just to make it known that I am a songwriter and singer as well as an instrumentalist," he says.
He began playing music with his wife, Libby, in 1982, and they produced the album "South of Nowhere." The two played for seven years in the cajun-zydeco band Unknown Tongues.
His involvement in Craver, Hicks, Watson and Newberry is referred to as cranking "up the old model T yet again" for its reminiscent Ramblers old-time style.
For more information on the band, visit craverhickswatsonnewberry.com.
To order tickets for the concert, visit theroosterswife.org.
Katherine Smith, a former Pilot intern, is a student at Appalachian State University, in Boone.
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