If there's a silhouette of your child's profile hanging somewhere in your house, chances are Clay Rice cut it. The Isle of Palms-based artist inherited and developed his talent under the guidance of his grandfather, Carew, and between them, the Rice family is responsible for most of the cut-paper and metalwork silhouettes found throughout Charleston.
Three years ago, this writer answered a classified ad for a job traveling the East coast with an artist — it paid well, expenses were covered, and all I had to do was frame the pictures, schmooze with mothers, and help drive the truck to the next town in the evening. It was during those drives that Clay introduced me to the music I still consider the best there is — Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Patty Griffin, to name a few.
Clay also told stories about growing up on his family's land on the Chehaw River in the ACE Basin, about fishing far off the coast at dawn, and about the summer he spent working the fields on Johns Island when he was 11.
"It was me and this old black fella' named Sip, hoeing 40 acres of watermelons," says Rice. "He never said anything but cuss words all day. After a week I knew what he meant."
Before dawn, a peacock woke them up every morning with its bloodcurdling scream, and they'd sit down to "mounds and mounds of eggs, bacon, biscuits, and gravy," before heading out into the early light. At lunch they'd load up on fried chicken, mashed potatoes, squash, and okra, then eat the leftovers after a sunset ride in the pickup back to the farm house. "It was ritual," says Rice. "That was an old Lowcountry summer." He was never paid a dime, but at the end of August the farmer, Julian Limehouse, unexpectedly gave him a horse and saddle — an 11-year-old boy's dream.
Rice just finished applying polish to his new album, Songs from the Jon Boat, a collection of 13 tale-spinning tunes that all reflect his pluff mud roots. Local singer/songwriter Carroll Brown lends guitar, banjitar, and vocals (and production duties) to the album, and jazz diva Ann Caldwell croons sweetly on "RC Colas 'n' Moonpies."
"Frogmore Standard Time" is perhaps the album's quintessential song, a recollection of sitting at the turn in the Cheehaw River and watching the boll weevil train cross the old trestle. "It was the only thing that broke the silence all day," says Rice. "The kids would spend the days working in the garden and swimming in the river. The only thing you'd have on when you came out was a mud mustache. That's how I grew up."
Back in my silhouette framing days, after a particularly dismal meal of Pizza Hut's lunch buffet in Orangeburg, S.C., Clay sighed and quipped, "This is a good place to sit with a beer in a bar and wish you were somewhere else." When his new CD arrived on our desk, I saw "Beer in a Bar" on the track list and knew exactly what it was.
At this Friday's show, Rice will be backed by a Charleston musical who's-who that includes Bob Sachs (mandolin), Margaret Coleman (piano), Frank Cothran (drums), Rodney Stone (bass), Bob Tobin (harmonica), and Carroll Brown, with other special guests on hand.
Clay Rice can weave a story as intricately as he cuts the profile of an ancient live oak dripping with Spanish moss, and his songs are a portrait of an authentic Lowcountry life. "Carry me back through old fields of rice," he sings in "Frogmore." "You can take your clothes off and dance around naked, but there are mosquitoes in Paradise."