Gene Clark Sings for You/The Rose Garden – A Trip Through The Garden. Omnivore Recordings

clark-sings-for-you-ov-280The past couple of years have been a bit of a bonanza for fans of Gene Clark as previously unheard recordings have crept out of hiding, songs which have been discussed and analysed in print and on the net but always tantalisingly out of reach unless one was connected. Sings for You, an acetate of eight songs recorded in 1967, is described in the liner notes (by Clark’s biographer John Einarson) as the holy grail of lost Clark songs and they are accompanied here by a further five songs from the same year which Clark wrote for an LA combo, The Rose Garden, along with one other song he offered to them.

So 14 Gene Clark songs, recorded at the height of his post Byrds fame and none of them released elsewhere or refashioned on any of his albums. Whew! However it’s important to emphasise that these songs are sketches which were never polished for general release. The eight song acetate was recorded by Clark after he was let go by Columbia Records after his album with the Gosdin Brothers failed to sell as well as they expected and seemingly was intended to be sent to various labels as Clark looked for a new recording contract. He’s joined in the studio by bass and drums and occasional keyboards including a chamberlin (which was somewhat akin to a mellotron). Stripped of the baroque folk embellishments which embroidered the album with the Gosdins, Clark is in fine fettle here with the songs pointing in several future directions. On Her Own, Yesterday Am I Right and That’s Alright with Me are prime Clark melancholia, one can imagine them gracing White Light a few years later if one strips out the somewhat overenthusiastic drummer who is somewhat obtrusive. There’s a more balanced band sound on the other songs. Down on the Pier is a fantastic song which is only let down by its similarity to Dylan’s 4th Time Around (which of course was influenced by The Beatles’ Norwegian Wood) but the addition of calliope  makes it one of the more realised songs here. Past My Door and One Way Road meanwhile offer a glimpse into Clark’s next venture with the Dillards as they venture into early country rock territory.

It’s hard to believe but the next five songs, all recorded by Clark to offer to The Rose Garden, are even better than the fabled Sings For You songs. On Tenth Street and A Long Time are just Clark and his guitar in true 60’s troubadour mode, slightly Dylanish but totally Gene and totally brilliant while Understand Me Too would have made a brilliant Byrds song in the manner of Here Without You. The addition of a band on the Jimmy Reed like Big City Girl is great fun and the band also appear on the excellent Doctor Doctor which finds Clark in proto psychedelic mode sounding like a cross between the early Jefferson Airplane and indeed the Younger Than Yesterday Byrds. The band wig out as if they were shimmying in the background of a Roger Corman film scene and the guitar solo is pure Nuggets.

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It goes without saying that Sings For You is essential for any Gene Clark fan but Omnivore Records have a neat tie in which is The Rose Garden’s album, the band for whom Gene offered several of the songs above. Despite his interest they didn’t set the charts ablaze although they had some minor hits. A typical 60’s psychedelic pop sound, the album does have a period charm as the band channel Byrds’ like jangled guitar, folk rock and Mamas and Papas vocal harmonies on various songs. They do a great version of the traditional CC Rider (here just called Rider) with glorious harmonies and Flower Town just drips with psychedelic whimsy. The original 10 song album is enhanced by the addition of a further 16 songs culled from single releases and live cuts with some of them eclipsing the album songs as on If My World Falls Through, a song which approaches Brill building pop brilliance. It’s a curio but one which, for anyone who digs the more harmonic side of 60s psychedelia, is well worth getting.

Omnivore Recordings webpage

 

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Dan Stuart. The Unfortunate Demise of Marlowe Billings. Cadiz Music

danDan Stuart finally kills off his alter ego and supposedly his recording career with this third instalment of the strange and troubled tale of Marlowe Billings. Billings, the suicidal expat who travelled to Mexico to kill himself after his marital breakup and subsequent incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, has served Stuart well over three albums and two novels (the second book published to tie in with this album release and sharing its name). The origin of Billings’ himself is somewhat foggy but is believed to be associated with the writer B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and whose own identity is still something of a mystery these days. It’s a smoke and mirrors trick allowing Stuart to stand apart from himself as he entertains, releasing his records and touring, his profession surely but one which he has often debunked as when he wrote this regarding the response to an earlier album, “…some grudging critical respect, really a sympathy fuck for days gone by… well the planet could get along without Stuart’s morbidly self-righteous world view just fine. His inability to lighten-up and endure life’s little insults like the rest of us had grown old and tired, like Stuart himself.”

Who knows if this is part shtick or really how Stuart sees himself? He said in an interview some years back that, “the creative process is largely about trust and deception… two sides of the same coin,” What we do know is that since his arrival in Mexico he’s appeared, to fans at least, as revitalised, with the Marlowe recordings welcomed and acclaimed and on The Unfortunate Demise of Marlowe Billings he delivers what may be his best effort yet. The themes are familiar but they are delivered in a variety of styles – low key confessionals, pedal steel laced laments, sixties rock’n’roll rumbles and punchy Tex-Mex blues –  his stellar accomplices playing their hearts out.

Stuart/Billings is still hurting from his cuckolding and several songs relate to this. He is despondent on Why I Ever Married You and then sneering on the Dragnet styled Joke’s on Me while You Were The Flower glistens with low slung guitar twangs recalling Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man. The latter song introduces the one salvation of Stuart’s ruined relationship, his son, with whom he has remained in contact. The cycle of birth and death tops and tails the album. The opening March 5, 1961 is Stuart’s birth date and the song is a tender rumination on the emotions engendered when a child arrives (he later radiates a father’s pride on Here Comes My Boy). The closing song, Upon a Father’s Death is Stuart’s most nakedly autobiographical song to date as he reminisces about his own father and muses on the tangled twists of father/son relationships singing, “Just look at Jesus trying to live up to all that shit, impossible.”  His troubled adolesence  colours Tucson which is a splendid Tex-Mex riff of a song with parping Farfisa organ a la Doug Sahm which eventually disappears into its own rabbit hole.

In the midst of these rueful snippets of autobiography Stuart throws in some superb songs which are allied in the sounds but which roam further afield. Last Century Blues finds him singing of a Zelig like character who dodged the draft, roomed with Manson and Jim Jones and who ended up running coke for the Contras and selling it to the Crips. The Day William Holden Died is a sensitive bonding with the late actor and his sad demise while The Disappeared is an evil sounding song with rattlesnake percussion and Peter Green like Manalishi guitar solos as Stuart salutes the armies of South American mothers who still rally to this day to find the fate of their beloved long after the turbulent wars and coups which scarred the sub continent for far too many years.

Gathering this album together Stuart has relied on friends old and new. His Italian buddies Antonio Gramentieri and Christian Ravaglioli are present and correct while J. D. Foster and Tom Heyman also contribute with Heyman’s pedal steel an essential ingredient on many of the songs. However it’s producer, Danny Amis, a founding member of Los Straitjackets who is his right hand man here, co-writing several of the songs and adding guitar, bass and keyboards throughout.

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Stuart says this will be his last ever album citing the current preference for digital streaming and such as the death knell for this tradition. Again one hopes this is part of his mythologising but if not it’s a glorious swan song. The accompanying book is a more straightforward affair than his previous “false memoir” The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings. Whereas that came across like a collection of weird flashbacks to Stuart’s early days The Unfortunate Demise of Marlowe Billings is a conventional narrative for the most part with our hero escaping to Mexico and getting caught up in the murky and deadly intrigues of the cartels. While parts of it coincide with the album it stands on its own two feet, hardboiled fiction, akin to the current fascination with Narcos and El Chapo and even Breaking Bad although Stuart weaves his own story into the pages and allows himself some sweet mental revenge in the epilogue.  He says the story is 65% true and there are several episodes which offer an insight into his thoughts as when he describes himself as, “a lazy writer, songs came easy and he didn’t take them too seriously. He didn’t have the courage or stamina to write serious fiction.” Well, he has done here. The novel has an introduction by Stewart Lee, the comedian, which suggests that the book is sufficient  recompense for the lack of further songs from Stuart. We would respectfully disagree and hope that this is not the last we here from Stuart or even Billings.

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Talkin’ to Mr. Jukebox : Joshua Hedley

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They call him Mr. Jukebox and apparently if you catch him playing in downtown Nashville he more than lives up to his nickname. But right now Joshua Hedley is in the international spotlight following the success of his debut album which is called, surprisingly enough, Mr. Jukebox. Hedley is the latest of what one might call a new wave of country stars – Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Austin Lucas and Jason Isbell – who are exploring country music’s roots and restating them in their own particular fashions.

Hedley’s album is a bona fide country album which is steeped in the traditions of the 1960’s Nashville sound with its strings and backing singers along with a healthy dose of honky tonk numbers. It’s music he’s been listening to and performing for years and after a lifetime of playing in local bars in Nashville along with being an in demand fiddle player, touring with Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz, Hedley has stepped into the limelight with a sure grasp of what makes a true country song. Possessed of a fine lugubrious voice and able to wring out all the emotion from a broken heart on a song such as Counting All My Tears, he nails the glory days of Nashville before the country outlaws opened the doors to a more raucous scene. And while he told Rolling Stone magazine that  he writes, “sad songs for sad people,” there are some more upbeat moments on the album as on the honky tonkin’ title song while Weird Thought Thinker is a fantastic amalgam of syrupy strings and hard bitten lifestyle lyrics.

Those of us in the UK will have a chance to see and hear Hedley bring these songs to life as he sets out on his first headlining tour of Europe in September ending with a slot at The Long Road Festival. Just back from a lengthy tour of Australia last week he took some time out to speak to Blabber’n’Smoke and we kicked things off by asking him about his preparations for the upcoming tour.

Well right now I’m just chilling, taking some rest time as I’m just back from Australia and we had some travel mishaps on the way home. But I’m looking forward to the tour, the next few months are going to be crazy as we’re doing Europe and then back to the States for shows up until November but you guys will get me at my freshest as we start off with you. We’ll be working hard at putting the set together. I like to say that it’s the set which makes the show. Any Joe Shmoe can get up there and sing songs but you got to give the people a show. Anybody can listen to the record at home so I like to give them something to watch as well so we’re working on making it a really good show so it will be something to see along with a great bunch of country music.

I see you call your songs country music. You don’t like any of the labels that are thrown around these days such as Ameripolitan.

It’s just country music to me. That’s what is was called when I was growing up and when people first started to take notice of me when I was singing Ray Price songs, they all said I was singing country music. All I’m doing now is write songs that I would pitch to Ray Price if he was still alive. If he was still alive I wouldn’t be a performing artist, I’d just be writing for him.

You’ve really honed in on that Nashville sound on the album without falling into a nostalgia trap as it’s really fresh and vibrant.

Definitely. I think the sound of my record was heavily influenced by what I was listening to at the time and I was listening to a lot of mid sixties music, I’ve already mentioned Ray Price but also early Willie Nelson, Billy Sherrill, Tammy Wynette and stuff like that. As a result I had that string section sort of in my head. The next album should be interesting because I’ve been listening to all kinds of  stuff. I think it’s a product really of how long I’ve been learning all these songs all my life. When I started to write that was just what I knew how to write.

I was wanting to ask you about your reputation as a human jukebox, Mr. Jukebox in fact. Is it true you can play just about any request that’s thrown at you?

Yeah, pretty much. I’ve got my touring band but I also have a band that I’ve been playing with downtown for a long while in Nashville. We do a honky tonk thing at Robert’s Western World, basically a covers show. I love to do it and in fact I’d be doing it today if they weren’t closed for renovations. We have three singers, me, my guitar player Kevin and our bass player Bill and between the three of us on a Monday night we can pretty much sing you any pre Garth Brookes song.

Has anyone requested a song you couldn’t do?

Not at Roberts but sometimes I like to do it when I’m on tour. I’ll go on stage by myself and ask, “Who’s your favourite country singer? ” and normally I’ll get someone like George Jones or Merle Haggard shouted back but over there in Australia recently they were shouting out all kinds of crazy shit that isn’t in my repertoire. I mean stuff that really is a bit too new for me, things like Steve Earle and Lucinda Williams, the eighties and nineties harder edged stuff. I reckon I’m going to have to learn how to do Guitar Town.

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Up until now most folk would probably know you as the fiddle player for Justin Townes Earle and Jonny Fritz amongst others while when you’re in Nashville as you say you’re a fixture at Robert’s Western World playing for the locals and tourists in what presumably is an excellent bar band. So what set you off on writing your own songs?

It’s a weird story really, it all just kind of fell into my lap. I’d written some pretty shitty songs when I was younger and a little bit angstier. I thought of myself as some kind of Ryan Adams character and I’d a lot to say for someone who hadn’t done too much living. Later on I was pretty content being a fiddle player and touring around, that life was kind of tailor made for me to pretty much skate through as easily as possible. It’s there in the words to Weird Thought Thinker where I sing, “I’m a little bit lazy,” I mean that’s true.  I liked that life a lot but then I just had this idea for a song and I wrote Weird Thought Thinker and I played it for Jonny and he really liked it. He liked it so much he started having me sing it at his shows and so I found out that other people liked it too. So I thought, well, maybe I’ll try writing songs again and see what happens. I wrote a couple more which were alright but once I quit drinking that changed everything, it really opened up everything. It was like it opened a part of my brain which had been locked up and I just suddenly could write songs and they just kept on coming. I must have written 20 songs in two months whereas usually I would write a couple of songs in 20 months.

The album’s released on Jack White’s record label, Third Man, their second country signing after Margo Price.

I’ve been working with Jack for a long time, I’d played fiddle on a couple of their Blue Series records and then I sang harmony on Hurtin’ on a Bottle on Margo’s first album. I’ve know Margo for years and she called me and asked if I wanted to sing on her record. It took me longer to drive to the studio than it did to play the session and I didn’t think any more of it but next thing there she is playing on Saturday Night Live!

Well Margo’s done really well but I believe that you have also had some special achievements such as playing at the Grand Ole Opry.

Yeah, I’ve played it four times now. It’s been incredible. The first time I can hardly remember, it was just a blur. They say you’ll always remember your first time there but for me it was the second time. At the back of your mind you’re thinking, “Well I got to play at the Opry, they might not call me again but at least I got to play it once,” so when I got that second call it meant that they liked me and that was special getting asking again. To do it four times is just amazing. It’s just something I hadn’t ever thought would happen.

Finally I just wanted to ask, given that you said that you’d be happy just writing songs for singers such as Ray Price, is there any particular song from back then that you wish you had written?

Well if we’re talking about Ray Price there’s a song which Bill Anderson wrote for him, City Lights. Bill was like only 17 or 18 years old when he wrote that and to be able to write a song like that at that age is pretty enviable. So yeah, that’s the song I’d have liked to have written.

Here are the UK tour dates including an appearance in Glasgow courtesy of The Fallen Angels Club. All other dates are here

MON 3 SEPTEMBER  – The Old Blue Last London, UK
TUE 4 SEPTEMBER – The Crofters Rights Bristol, UK
THU 6 SEPTEMBER – Admiral Bar Glasgow, UK
FRI 7 SEPTEMBER – The Sage Gateshead, Hall 2 Gateshead, UK
SUN 9 SEPTEMBER – The Long Road Festival Lutterworth, UK

And here’s that Ray Price/Bill Anderson song…

photography by Jamie Goodsell

Hadley McCall Thackston. Wolfe Island Records

hmt-coverSome albums just take root on first listening and so it is with Hadley McCall Thackston’s debut offering. From the first flutterings of the opening song, Butterflies, to the closing Last Mountain Waltz the album springs, fully formed, from Miss Thackston’s imaginative mind and the excellent arrangement and production skills of Hugh Christopher Brown. A Georgia native, Thackston began writing many of these songs on her front porch and one can imagine she could have delivered a fine album of unadorned simplicity given that she is a fine writer and excellent singer (and you can see her singing in such a manner on a YouTube video here). In a serendipitous manner however a friend of her mother’s saw one such video and alerted his producer chum who invited her to make an album with him. Thus it was that David Corley introduced her to Brown and pretty soon Thackston was in Canada’s Wolfe Island recording with the musical community who seem to infest the island.

It’s no disrespect to Thackston to say that the musical accompaniment and arrangements are half the delight here. Her songs are elevated throughout whether it be glorious country embellishments or poppier retro sounds which come across as if Amy Whitehouse and her producer, Mark Ronson, had decided to ditch the horn section and replace it with banjos, fiddle and accordion. This element is most pronounced on the driving beat of Ellipsis which stomps along with a sassy strut and finger popping chorus. They repeat the trick on Somehow where Thackston really channels Whitehouse vocally over a gypsy fiddle and on the dramatic No which has Thackston’s vocals multitracked and where a horn does parp up, both songs incidentally having lyrics which one could easily imagine Whitehouse singing.

A couple of songs retain a porch like simplicity within the arrangements. The opening Butterfly is a charming breeze of a song which recalls a more innocent time when the likes of Julie Felix were popular entertainers although lyrically it’s a timely call to arms for women and girls setting out on life to set their sights high. Last Mountain Waltz is more traditional with rippling mandolin and weeping strings although again there’s a powerful undertow of being shackled by society’s expectations. Elsewhere Redbird is a meditation on the power of belief wafted aloft by sonorous strings and hazy guitars and Devil or Angel finds Thackston in a vampish mood, an Eve tempting her Adam as she sings, “I’m a devil dressed in angel’s wings, man, did I have you fooled. If I did, I’m not sorry,” as the band slope along in Weimar cabaret style.

Two songs stand out. Change is a deceptively pretty country song replete with weeping pedal steel and rippling mandolin with Thackston speaking out on the #blacklivesmatter theme as she describes watching yet another news item on an unarmed black man shot dead by police, “Each death sewn into life’s tapestry, each stitch a blemish on our history that time cannot erase.” It’s a powerful song. Wallace’s Song (Sage Bush) is the opposite in that it’s an excellent uptempo country love song with a clever chorus referencing one of country music’s enduring duos. It’s a good enough song to get Ms. Thackston up onto that Grand Ole Opry stage.

Website

Luke Winslow King. Blue Mesa. Bloodshot Records

blue20mesaMore commonly associated with blues and New Orleans styled music, Luke Winslow King’s latest album for Bloodshot Records finds him reaching out a bit into the currently fashionable country soul genre. For sure he can still batter up a fine bluesy mess as on the Hooker ‘n Heat boogie of Thought I Heard You and the Albert King like guitar strutting Leghorn Women. Meanwhile the Big Easy is summoned up on the syncopated rhythms of Chicken Dinner adorned as they are by a fine horn section.

The majority of the album however is more laid back with Mike Lynch’s organ playing as prominent as Roberto Luti’s fiery rattlesnake guitar licks. While Born To Roam wanders somewhat uncomfortably into the rockier side of Eagles territory, elsewhere Winslow King settles into a comfortable groove which suits his slightly careworn vocal delivery just perfectly. The title song is enlivened with south of the border guitar arabesques while there’s a very fine slide guitar solo mid way through. Several songs sound as if he is mashing up Z Z Hill and Sam Cooke with Better for Knowing You the best example and After the Rain is an upbeat number which has a similar jauntiness to that of Van Morrison’s Cleaning Windows and which again has some very dandy slide guitar playing. The closing song, Farewell Blues,  written while his father was dying (The album is dedicated to his late father) is a simple homily to saying goodbye delivered in a country blues fashion with Gary Davis like guitar picking as a fiddle saws away also. A fine close to a very nice album.

Luke Winslow King plays several dates in England in September, dates here.

Website

 

 

Rab Noakes: It all joins up in the end

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Photograph by Carole Peacock

Blabber’n’Smoke recently reviewed Rab Noakes‘ latest album, Welcome to Anniversaryville, an album which celebrates his 50 years as a performer and which was recorded with the band he assembled for his 70/500 concert at last year’s Celtic Connections. It’s a wonderful disc featuring old and new songs, originals and interpretations with many of them having some connection with landmark events in Noakes’ life while stylistically it roams around with folk and rock rubbing shoulders while there are Gaelic deliveries of traditional songs and a dash of old time tin pan alley songs.

In the midst of preparing for the official launch of the album in Lochgelly in his native Fife on the 29th August, a show which will see the concert band reconvene for the first time, Mr. Noakes was kind enough to take some time out to  speak to Blabber’n’Smoke. It was a fascinating conversation as he spoke about his career and about the new album,  displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of folk music along with a fierce and proud sense of his working class heritage. Now well after treatment for tonsillar cancer he can look back on a career which, while never achieving chart success, nevertheless saw him at the forefront of Scottish folk music along with the likes of Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly back in the late sixties and early seventies while recording albums in Nashville and having several of his songs covered by Lindisfarne when they were hitting the charts. With around 20 albums to his name he also carved out a second career as a highly successful radio producer working with the BBC before going independent.

We started off by asking him about the album which, as its title indicates, celebrates a host of anniversaries but often in unexpected ways.

Well, it did start off with the concert I did for Celtic Connections which we called 70/50 as I was turning 70 and had been performing for 50 years. The album is a reflection of that but I don’t really like to look back in an indulgent way, I prefer to embrace the past and use it, it’s an information source but I always want to do things in the here and now. The 70/50 title just came to me, I didn’t plan it but it seemed like a good idea although of course it’s branding in its most crass sense but there you go. On the album I tried to create a narrative of sorts which made some sort of sense. I’m old enough to remember that when you made an album that you sequenced two sets of songs, about 20 minutes for each side of the album but nowadays with CDs you’re looking at maybe putting together an hour’s worth of songs and I like to think that if you want people to invest in the album and stay interested for a whole hour then it’s worthwhile spending time on the sequencing and not treating it as just a bunch of unrelated tracks. So it was a case of using what I call “landmark songs,” I never had any hits so I can’t do a greatest hits album but I can celebrate songs which have some significance to me. The inclusion of a song such as Gently Does It (written in 1985 and available on the 2004 album Standing Up) is a fine example as one of the musicians in the band, Lisbee Stainton, was someone I met back in 2014 when I did the Red Pump Special show at Celtic Connections. I was invited to do a Radio 2 show and she was there playing banjo for Seth Lakeman banjo and I quite liked her playing and thought we could do some things together. Anyway she really liked Gently Does It although she had no connection with the song or its history, she didn’t know anything about Alex Campbell for instance, but it was interesting to me as a songwriter that it could resonate with her despite her not having any specific reference point for the song. Later on Lisbee was on a Bob Harris show and was asked to pick some favourite albums and she chose an album of mine, Standing Up, so when I got the opportunity to put the band together for the show she was one of the musicians I asked along.

I was going to ask you about the band. How did you decide on whom to invite?

Once Donald Shaw gave the go ahead for the show and we agreed on a budget I was able to select the band. I consider Celtic Connections  as a patron of the arts because for an artist like me having the wherewithal to hire a large group of musicians doesn’t really happen often. I wouldn’t be able to manage that financially so when Celtic Connections gave me the go ahead it was an opportunity to put a big band together. Initially I asked people I’d worked with before such as Jill Jackson, Kathleen MacInnes, Una McGlone and Stuart Brown to join in. I’d been watching Innes Watson for some time after playing with him in the Grit Orchestra and I really wanted another female singer so I asked Lisbee who of course could also bring in her banjo along with her really interesting eight string guitar playing. Christine Hanson kind of invited herself as she was at Celtic Connections anyway and asked if she contribute and of course I jumped at that and her cello turned out to be a really nice addition to the line up. It’s a bigger band than usual but it’s not a massive or flashy sound and it worked well on stage and then in the studio an attempt to get a full band sound without me layering vocals and guitars to flesh it out and I think that we captured that. Anyone who makes records will know how elusive it can be to get that specific sound and feel that you want that but I think that we managed it. Getting a bunch of people into a room to make music together is great and although I don’t want to evangelise and say that’s the only way to make a record it’s the way I like to do it. We were squeezed into a front room with me singing live and that’s the core of the record. There were a few songs where I did do the vocal afterwards but doing it this way it gets into the groove so to say.

You recorded the majority of the album in the week after the concert.

Yes, of the 17 songs I think about 14 were almost completed in that time. There were a few I hadn’t quite got the lyrics done so I had to revisit them but although the album has taken some time to come out most of it was recorded back then. 

There’s an excellent loose limbed raggle taggle feel to many of the songs which to my mind recalls the likes of Ronnie Lane and his Slim Chance band but on Still in Town, an old Hank Cochran /Harlan Howard song you veer into a classic country rock sound from the mid sixties.

It’s interesting you mention Ronnie Lane as I opened for him many times back in the seventies and I think we plough a similar furrow at times, old timey blues and such although as I recall his starting point was Fats Waller. Still in Town however ties in with the thread in the album which pertains to me back in the sixties when I started out playing professionally with Robin McKidd. Robin was slightly older than me and really well informed and he introduced me to what you could possibly describe as the bohemian life in Dundee in the early sixties. He was a banjo player and we formed a duo and although there were a lot of those around then I always thought we were slightly different because of Robin’s knowledge. He had the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk music and he could do all those Clarence Ashley/Doc Boggs’ like things which added some depth to the music. When we went to London we stayed with a chap called Sandy James who was a big Johnny Cash fan. I was aware of Cash but I had no idea of just how wide and deep his repertoire was. Sandy had all of the themed albums which Cash had recorded about Native Americans, the old west and the working man but there was one  album in particular called Old Golden Throat which had Still on Town on it and it really resonated with me and I’ve carried that with me since then. I really like the song writing from Nashville around that time. People like Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran, The Bryant’s and Cindy Walker. It’s just such a concise way of writing, simple but very effective. Just look at a line such as “I made it to the edge of town and turned around.” It’s so simple but it opens up a whole world of imagery and possibilities.

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So you arrived in London in 1968 but presumably you were listening to and playing music for some time before that.

I have always been a singer even when I was a kid, I loved songs and singing and back then it was a combination of the Scottish home service which would play things like Robert Wilson singing A Gordon For Me along with songs like Westering Home and then on the light programme you started to get some American songs such as Allentown Jail by Jo Stafford which I really loved. And then rock’n’roll and Elvis happened although with Elvis it was his late fifties songs which grabbed me in particular, when folk like Lieber and Stoller were writing for him. I also loved Dion and Cliff Richard and The Shadows but when The Beatles and The Stones came along they were like gatekeepers for the likes of me. The Stones’ first album was full of songs by the likes of Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Marvin Gaye so we got into that and I then read that John Lennon had said that folk should listen to Bob Dylan so I did. That that got me into going to folk clubs and crikey, it opened up this whole repertoire of Scottish songs which had been hidden from us. This was about 1964 and I was fortunate enough to see the likes of Jimmy McBeath and Jeannie Robertson who were still singing on the folk circuit back then, their songs were immensely interesting. And of course there was this other connection with Dylan who was singing Woody Guthrie songs such as The Grand Coulee Dam which we had heard from Lonnie Donegan so things all seemed to start to connect. Dylan has always retained that sort of interest for me because he refers to that European ballad tradition and he’s done so from his first album with Pretty Peggy O, which is essentially the Bonnie Lass of Fyvie, up to the present day.

There are a couple of fine examples of that ballad tradition on the album along with some elements of that cross fertilisation across the Atlantic which you just talked about. I’m thinking in particular of Tramps and Immigrants along with The Twa Corbies/An Dà Fheannaig and Long Black Veil, the first two sung in Scots and the latter more in keeping with versions such as The Band’s.

Well again I’m very interested in Dylan’s use of British and Irish folk songs and melodies. I’ve done a couple of BBC shows looking into his songs which have an identifiable origin in these islands and I Pity The Poor Immigrant, from the John Wesley Harding album, had as its basis the Scots song Tramps and Hawkers. When I started working with Kathleen MacInnes we decided to put those two songs together although we went against expectations as I sing the Scottish part and Kathleen sings the Dylan part. It was a fine creative exercise which was really satisfying to put together and it’s great to perform. When we first met up though the Gaelic initiative, Ceòl’s Craic, I sent Kathleen a bunch of songs which I liked just to give her a sense of where I was coming from and one of them was the Everley’s Down in the Willow Garden and she really liked that one. I found that interesting because it’s a murder ballad of probably Irish origin which found its way to the Blue Ridge mountains so we decided to put murder ballads at the heart of the show we conceived and two of the songs we did are on the album. Long Black Veil might sound like a traditional song but it was written in the fifties. The Twa Corbies is a really interesting one because the theme turns up in lots of cultures although our version probably comes from the borders. It has an interesting narrative which has that cycle of life element in it with the two crows using the dead knight for food and his hair to feather their nest. Kathleen knew the Gaelic version and so we wove that in also and it worked really well.

Going back to the sixties folk scene there was a strong connection to left wing politics and protest songs were all the rage.On the album you sing about the working class on TCB (Working Man and Working Woman) and about immigrants working in a car wash in The Handwash Feein’ Mairket while Jackson Greyhound salutes the civil rights movement in the States. I know you’ve always been a strong advocate for the Trade Union movement and that you sit on the executive committee of the musicians union but I wanted to ask how important is it to you that music has an awareness of politics and do you have any comments on the current state of politics?

I grew up in a political house, my dad was a trade unionist and I’m a product of the practical socialism that came in after the war, the NHS and such, and I’ve never seen why that has had to be devalued to the extent that it is these days in order to preserve a rather ugly form of capitalism. I’m of an age now where I accept that capitalism isn’t going to be overturned and I understand that in situations where it was overturned as in the Soviet Union it had too many dark aspects to it. But I utterly fail to see why we should be in thrall to this rather ugly, avaricious, driven and divisive form of capitalism that we have now. I’m not party political but I am involved with the union movement and that’s where my political activities take place. There’s a way of gently influencing decisions here and there, not in a major way perhaps but I’m still trying to uphold a set of values to do with liberty and equality which are often rubbished and devalued these days. That angers me greatly. As for the state of the western world, and I’m sure I don’t have to name names here, if you pay attention to the news you should be tearing your hair out at the self serving nature of what is going on.

As I said my politics were engendered in the home when I was growing up but when I got into the folk scene in the sixties it was very political and it’s where many of us got to know about things like the civil rights movement while many of the older folk songs themselves were about the conditions of work, both agricultural and industrial, and that was a real education to me. Jackson Greyhound came about when I went back to Nashville in 2013 forty years after recording Red Pump Special there. We toured around several places associated with the civil rights movement and we visited this old bus station where many freedom riders were arrested. It’s a museum now and several words of the song were taken from the information sign outside the building. I’m not one to stand on a soapbox so it’s wrapped up in what I hope is an attractive musical style so there are references in the finger style guitar to Gary Davis and John Hurt so that it’s a bloody good record to listen to and not dependent on its message to have value. I’ve always thought that it’s far more valuable to fling in a strong apposite line rather than having a chorus driving a point home. TCB (Working Man and Working Woman) came about after a visit to the RCA studios in Nashville where Elvis recorded and I was reminded that Taking Care of Business was one of his catchphrases. The concept of the working man is seen as something heroic but I wanted to add working women to the title to be more inclusive. The song is about the concept of being working class. Nowadays class is seen very much as a matter of economics but for me it’s more a set of values. I grew up in a working class culture where the values were that you do your best, the aspirations are of expanding your knowledge and have some meaning to your life. In terms of money I’d be considered middle class these days but I’m not a middle class person because I still adhere to the values I grew up with and in a sense the song is trying to uphold that, a defiant message that I’m not going to be put in a box I don’t fit into while I also wanted to address that gender imbalance which is becoming more apparent these days.

As for The Handwash Feein’ Mairket it was actually a commission from Hands up for Trad who are doing some great work at bringing the song back into focus in the trad world as for a long time instrumental virtuosity has been at the forefront.  There was a brief to use Scots language and to reference Robert Burns which is a difficult thing to do without the song becoming a pastiche. Anyway I was a regular visitor at a local car wash and each time I went it was different men who were working there and one time I saw the gaffer picking out the ones who would be picked for the day which reminded me of the way people were picked for work back in what was called the feein’ mairket and it seemed to me to be a pretty exploitative way of handling workers. So that was the germ of the song and I when I wrote it I tried to use Scots language in the way that I use it everyday with words like thole and thrawn and others put in rather than set it in some archaic fashion.  I even was able to use a line I recalled from a Jimmy Mcbeath song, a bothy ballad, and I was quite proud to be able to slip that in.

You’ve talked earlier about connections and cycles and I thought it was interesting that the album artwork is by Celie Byrne who is the daughter of John Byrne who did album artwork for your buddies Gerry Rafferty and Billy Connolly.

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I knew Celie when she was a wee girl but I became aware of her work as an artist and also a musician through work she did with The Grand Gestures. Anyway, I was thinking about the artwork for the album and I saw a portrait she had done of Emma Pollock which was really striking. Celie lives in Fife and had an exhibition in Lochgelly at the time so we went through there to see her there and that was strange because I’d played a show there years ago with Billy Connolly for the miners and of course as you say her dad had painted covers for Billy and Gerry so it is a bit of a cycle.

So the album’s out and there is an official launch gig at the Lochgelly Arts Centre on the 29th August with the full band line up. Anything else in the offing?

I’ve got some new songs kicking about. I actually did a kickstarter for the end process of the album and that was an interesting process. I just needed that wee bit of money for the pressing of the album and we got the funds but I’ve decided to add a reward to the people who backed it and I’ll send them a download of six new songs. The launch show will have all of the band together apart from Jill Jackson who can’t manage to be there and it will be a one off as we can’t all get together easily. After that I’ll be back on the road doing some more shows with Jill and later in the year with my old pal from Lindisfarne, Rod Clements.

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Rain Reserve. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow, 2nd August 2018

P1090013 copyRain Reserve are a duo comprised of Glasgow’s bluesy purveyor of swampy Americana, John Alexander, and Edinburgh’s mistress of jazzy interpretations of country music, Lorna Reid. “East meets west,” Reid quipped on stage as she introduced Beneath the Blue, a song she claimed was partly inspired by Alexander’s supposed frustration at having to endure the train journey required to write and rehearse with Reid in her native city. It’s much more than that of course as Reid sings of a universal yearning to connect with one another despite supposed differences over an almost languid guitar delivery from her and Alexander. With fine harmonies and a sly guitar solo from Alexander midway through, the song is a fine introduction to the duo’s talents.

The pair have been writing songs together since a meeting at “the hobbit house” at Moniack a few years back and first appeared at the Fringe but now, having recorded some songs, have set out on several live dates. Their songs are not country, blues nor jazz but are set in a classic acoustic duet setting with some of the songs tonight reminding one of Richard and Linda Thompson’s recordings with Drinking Alone in particular capturing some of that ill fated pair’s melancholy. “2am songs,” as Reid called them, flowed from the couple with Alexander’s gravelly voice nicely offset by Reid’s more dulcet tones while most of the songs featured Alexander wringing some notes from his guitar in various fashions, stinging blues runs, Chet Atkins like licks along with some jazzy Barney Kessel like runs. Some of the songs featured Alexander’s gritty southern inspired slopes into gothic Americana while Reid shone on a song she co-write with Darden Smith.

P1090004 copyIona MacDonald of Doghouse Roses played a short opening set which consisted in the main of songs from that acclaimed duo. Having just recently branched out on stage on her own she confessed to being nervous but once her glorious voice reached out to the audience she was home and safe. She opened with Fairground, her tale of a prostitute on her uppers before offering a powerful reading of Feed the Monster. Amid old and newer songs she offered an affectionate cover of Natalie Merchant’s Motherland and closed with the traditional Black is the Colour.

At the end of the night Alexander mentioned a friend who could not attend due to a “conflict of John’s,” Mr. Prine being the other John playing in the city tonight. As a salute to that great man all three musicians joined together for an unplugged rendition of Speed of the Sound of Loneliness with faultless harmonies as the audience sang along. A splendid close to a splendid night.

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