The Red Clay Ramblers have been playing what’s now known as “new old-time” music since the early 1970s, and it’s entirely possible that they invented the genre, or at least played a part in its birth. They’ve put out more than a dozen albums over the years (including a live self-released disc in the late 1990s), on Folkways, Sugar Hill, Rykodisc and mostly Flying Fish labels. Now that Rounder has acquired the Flying Fish imprint, they’ve re-released It Ain’t Right from 1986.
As with most or all of the Ramblers’ albums, this one is a mix of musical styles, blending hot jazz, ragtime, old-time, blues, bluegrass and others with sweet harmonies and impressive instrumental chops.
Anyone who thinks the Squirrel Nut Zippers were doing something original with their swing revival acoustic jazz in the 1990s should check out the Ramblers. The title track features Clay Buckner on hot fiddle and lead vocals, combining early 20th century music and late 20th-century lyrics. “Merchant’s Lunch,” “Way Long Gone” and “Jim Canaan’s” effectively blend boogie blues with vaudeville lyrics, Holy Modal Rounders-type acid folk and gospel. In “Regions of Rain” Tommy Thompson gives a Middle Eastern twist to a French Canadian tune.
Covering traditional songs, the Ramblers give “Valley of the Dry Bones” a straightforward gospel treatment, with only bass, brushed drums and finger snaps for accompaniment; they put a Celtic spin to the sweetheart-murder ballad “Willow Garden,” and play it straight on the bluegrass “The Wandering Boy.”
“Dust and Nothing Else,” the Tin Pan Alley-style “Old Fashioned Girl” and “Life’s a Mystery” all are pretty sappy ballads that seriously impair the flow of the album as a whole. If anything, the record lacks focus as the Ramblers try to mix too many styles on one disc. The 1980s-style production also sounds dated.
But overall, It Ain’t Right is a good example of why the Red Clay Ramblers have been a successful act for a quarter century: good singing, good playing and honest Americana music.
(Flying Fish/Rounder, 1986, 2001)