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Q&A with Bland Simpson of the Red Clay Ramblers

It’s hard to think of a band that better embodies the sound of North Carolina than the Red Clay Ramblers. The bluegrass group celebrates the state in its 2009 album, Old North State, but its fiddle-driven folk and songs about barbecue have been oozing the traditional sound for 40 years.

Pianist, Elizabeth City native and UNC-Chapel Hill creative writing professor Bland Simpson joined the band in the ‘80s and talked to Diversions writer Kelly Poe about the band’s newest endeavors and its show at the ArtsCenter next Wednesday.
DIVERSIONS:* It’s been a couple of years since the latest album was released. Do you have anything new in the works?

BLAND SIMPSON: We’re working on a new one. I would guess it’d be out sometime in the first half of 2012. We bring a lot of rhythm to the repertoire and I hope the freshness that we aspire to is in the wit that goes into the arrangements.

We try to make really interesting, witty arrangements and illustrate and express the kind of wonderful, lively, joyous qualities of American music as best we can.
DIVE:* How long have you taught at UNC?

BS: I started in the spring of ’82 and taught through the fall semester of ’86. I was involved with a show that was supposed to go run off Broadway in the late spring of ’87, and that was when Tommy Thompson and Jack Herrick asked me to join the Ramblers.

It was about six or eight weeks of touring. Originally, I thought we were only going to be doing that for a couple of months, but then the piano player, Mike Craver, who had left supposedly temporarily, stayed with the show he went off with.

The show I was to do did not materialize, so I stuck with the band. We had quite a bit of touring work and some movie work in ’87 and ’88, but as ’89 went on, I thought I wanted to get back in the teaching line-up at Carolina, and luckily I was able to do that.

DIVE: Do you ever get students who try to take your classes because of the Ramblers?

BS: Occasionally somebody will say “I know that you work with the Red Clay Ramblers,” or something like that, but by and large, no.

Usually I try to get a stack of CD’s and hand them out, particularly since we did Old North State, because there’s “Caroliniana” involved in that. I tell students the kinds of things that I’ve worked on in the past both in terms of books and in music.

I taught a lyric writing course in the spring of ’10 and I’m going to try to bring that back in the next year or so, and try to get creative writing to make that a component of what we do.

There’s plenty of interest in lyric and song writing among the student body. I’m well aware of that. Joseph Terrell was a student in the first lyrics course, and since then he’s co-formed Mipso Trio.

DIVE: Your songs drip North Carolina — is this a result of writing what you know, or is there more to it than that?

BS: Well, what we’re working on right now is not Old North State 2. There’s no reason to do that.

It’s a great big state with a long history, a lot of great creative people and tremendously varied landscapes — there’s a lot to talk about.

Going out into the world, another thing that people say after a show is “I’ve never been to North Carolina, hearing this music, I’ve got to go.” That to me says that we have been effective in presenting the joyous quality of where we come from and how we feel about it.

DIVE: What’s the biggest difference in your music between when you joined and what you play now?

BS: I think we’ve been pretty consistent. I don’t think there is a radical difference. The core four of the band are the same now as we were in early ‘87.

Some of the songs have changed out, but what we do has been pretty consistent. It’s a mix of fiddle tunes, mountain tunes, Celtic tunes that are frequently done in medleys of two or three and original songs, frequently from musical shows that we’ve written.

Something we’ve done in this last decade that we haven’t really done before is get involved in a big way in the world of dance.

That was something different. We were contacted by a wonderful choreographer named Diane Coburn Bruning 10 years ago, and she asked us to put together a show with her and we did.

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That show was called “Ramblin’ Suite,” it ran in Atlanta in ‘02, then again in ‘05 and this past spring in the Milwaukee Ballet.
Not too long after we first did that we got a call from the Carolina Ballet over in Raleigh, and they put us together with Lynn Taylor-Corbett, a very fine choreographer, and we did a show called “Carolina Jamboree.” Both “Ramblin’ Suite” and “Carolina Jamboree” were one-sets, which were 45 minutes to an hour, so not a complete evening, but half an evening in dance theatre.