They brought the sound down from the mountains and marched it through the streets of New Orleans. They never made it to Hawaii, but it sounded like they had visited it in their dreams. Mixing hokum, Western swing, Hawaiian steel, New Orleans jazz and old-time music for nearly two decades, The Swamp Cats strolled through a wayback machine that enabled them to span musical eras and genres with ease.
The Cats were spawned in New York City, brought down to the mountains of North Carolina by old-time music aficionado Dick Tarrier. Tarrier relocated to the N.C. mountains to be closer to the music he loved, first playing with old-time band the Corklickers, then a Greensboro-based version of the Swamp Cats.
Cats bassist Ben Moore, a Brevard native, and his roommate at the time, future Red Clay Rambler Clay Buckner, started up the Coffee Gap Corklickers around ‘73. Moore left for a good spell but now plays with them again. Moore says that he left because some of the members were more interested in skiing down the mountains than playing tunes from them.
“Those guys got to where they worked up on Beech Mountain Ski Patrol, and we were getting all these jobs wanting to pay us $100 apiece in ‘76. Hell, that’s what I make now if I’m lucky,” Moore says. “I was relying on those guys to play some tunes, pay the rent, but we were turning down jobs, because they were working up there.”
Moore quit the band, relocating to Greenville, S.C., and was called back a few months later by by Tarrier, who was starting a new version of the Swamp Cats with local players.
Paul Fribush and Chuck and Gary Silverstein were students at Guilford College when they met Tarrier and Moore in ‘76 at the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention. The Swamp Cats’ focus was old-time, but the members had eclectic tastes in music that eventually not only stirred the pot but later tipped it over, spilling out a muddy torrent of roots music from all over. Guitarist/harpist/clarinetist Paul “Doc Bush” Fribush says he came from a typical psychedelic ‘60-’70s background: “Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Commander Cody, that kind of stuff. When I got to Guilford College in ‘74, I was not a musician. First thing I did, I bought a pedal steel guitar. That was like trying to drive an 18-wheeler before you could ride a tricycle,” he says. Fribush started noodling around with it and got somewhat proficient on it before switching to Hawaiian steel guitar. He later taught himself clarinet and harp, influenced by old-time, Western swing and Hawaiian music.
The band spread seasonal and unseasonal cheer with their music at first, as evidenced in their 1980 self-titled vinyl release, but morphed into an outfit that nestled up neighborly to the music of Bob Wills, rubbing shoulders with Hawaiian steel guitar gods Gabby Pahinui and Sol Ho’opi’i, standing beside the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and dancing in the streets with New Orleans jazz.
The band got a smoothness infusion when multi-instrumentalist Scott Manring joined up after guitarist Chuck Silverstein and banjoist Tarrier left. Manring crooned a passel of ‘30s- and 40s-era tunes the Cats presented on their ‘88 cassette release “Catfish For Super,” with Manring singing lead on the title cut, as well as “In little Gypsy Tea Room,” “Baby I’m Cuttin’ Out, “Your Guess is Just as Good As Mine” and featured on their 1990 CD “Chasing Shadows.”
The band featured a rotating cast of horns and drummers. David Licht kicked off the first wave, replaced by Greeson and then taken on by Garry Collins, who spent 13 years from ‘83 to ‘96 behind the Cats kit. Collins had been playing with Treva Spontaine and the Graphic when he got a call from Fribush. “(He) said, ‘Can you go to Johnson City, Tennessee?’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll ride with you.’ It just kinda happened like that,” Collins says. “There wasn’t any auditions or anything like that, just get in the car! Went to Johnson City, played two or three nights, and they gave me some tapes to listen to. Never any rehearsal, so I swung by the seat of my pants from day one.”
Horns included trumpeters Dorsey Worthy and the screaming Harry James-style renderings of Jay Lineberry. Nancy McCracken provided trombone and vocals on the final touring leg of the Cats’ career. The Cats never met a gig they wouldn’t try, from blasting away in the stands at Greensboro Bats games to prancing proudly in the fourth of July parade. They also had a year-long residency on the patio at Crocodiles on Tate Street that attracted plenty of sit-ins on horns, including cornet bleating from yours truly at sporadic intervals.
The Cats also attracted attention from the Neville Brothers when they appeared in town, and Art Neville and drummer Willie Green went with the Cats back to Fribush’s house for some late-night socializing after the gig. Collins attempted to seize the occasion to acquire some musical tips from Green. I said, ‘I’m gonna get a secret outta him.’ I figured he was gonna mention some drummer from the ninth ward I’d never heard of, turn me on to a piece of info nobody else had, and he goes, ‘Man, I love Zeppelin. I got all that stuff from John Bonham.’”
But outrageous flashing and bashing is not what attracted the Cats to the music they loved to reproduce. “It’s really appealing and fun and doesn’t take itself too serious, always liked that,” says Silverstein. “I kinda shy away from all that music that people are kinda spilling their guts out. I haven’t got to that. It really evokes real feelings albeit maybe sometimes indirectly. And the sort of thing that anybody can pick up an instrument and join in, that was appealing as well. And lots of good people, making lots of friends. That was a big part of it, just all the friendships that surrounded it as well.”
The Cats are no longer officially together, but Fribush says they can still conjure up a reunion on occasion.
“We can’t make a living playing music, but we all love it,” Fribush says. “We still get together. We’re all friends, we can still play. Got our set list, can play our tunes and not ever practice a lick, ‘cause it’s in our blood.”