Ramblers headline concert for ill Earl Scruggs


The Red Clay Ramblers perform in the Beasley-Curtis Auditorium at Memorial Hall on Wednesday night. The band changed from the opening act to the main event when Earl Scruggs became too ill to perform. Refunds were offered as a result of the change. DTH/Allison Russell

A lively mix of gray hair and budding youth filled Memorial Hall for the sold-out performance of legendary banjoist Earl Scruggs.

The only person not in attendance? Scruggs himself.

An anxious crowd applauded for Emil Kang, executive director for the arts, who was thought to be giving an introduction for the bluegrass banjoist. Instead, he broke the news that Scruggs had fallen ill and would not be able to play.

Concert Review

The Red Clay Ramblers
Memorial Hall
Wednedsay, Sept. 15
Arts verdict: 4 of 5 stars

But, as has always been said, the show must go on.

The Red Clay Ramblers, on the bill as Scruggs’ special guests, took over the show. The North Carolina natives quickly won over the audience with their foot-tapping mountain bluegrass.

Clay Buckner began the show with a soulful solo on the fiddle, bringing in the other five players to kick off their signature round sound. With roars of applause from the crowd, the group carried on, easily making the show their own.

Jack Herrick, on bass and mandolin among other instruments, introduced another piece as an unguided sing-along.

“It’s kind of an anarchy thing,” he explained to laughs.

The laughs continued to roll, perfectly complementing the down-home atmosphere of the night. At times, the crystal harmonies of chord and voice made the performance feel like standing in line at Walt Disney World­ — the happiest place on Earth.

Chancellor Holden Thorp, known for his regular appearances with the Clef Hangers, joined the Ramblers on stage for a ballad to the Old North State. Seven voices on stage melded together in a melodious chord, dedicating heart and soul to their home state of North Carolina.

Though the arrangements were superb ­— at one point, the group announced a quick change of program and proceeded to turn out a flawless gospel a cappella — the conversation seemed to distance the group from the audience.

After the show’s head-scratching opening threw the audience into a state of separation from the performance, the Ramblers’ alienated the audience further with their exclusive between-song banter.

But with the music, the Ramblers came back to life.

By playing songs about a hungry man with only 15 cents or a group of country men at a Pal-Yat-Chee opera, laughs and cheering praise came to redeem them.

And when a group plays as superbly as the Ramblers’ did, they can sing about anything. Four of the six men rotated through the stage’s supply of instruments, one moving from stand-up bass to trumpet, another trading his accordion for a trombone.

Before the show’s standing-ovation finale, the Ramblers sent out good thoughts for a healthy Scruggs — and for their own good business.

“Buy our record,” Herrick said — “or we’ll have to drown our dogs.”

Contact the Arts Editor at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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