Dean Owens brings the spirit of Johnny Cash back to Fife

cashback posterCash Back In Fife is the latest addition to the Scottish roots music calendar, a weekend of music celebrating Johnny Cash’s links with the Kingdom of Fife. It’s the brainchild of Dean Owens who has always acknowledged his debt to the man in black. Taking place at The Woodside Hotel in Aberdour, Fife, the weekend extends the spirit of Owens’ album Cash Back (Songs I Learned From Johnny) and his resulting show which was a hit at the Edinburgh festival.  Aside from Owens, the weekend will feature musicians (many from Fife) who were equally inspired by the giant of country music.

Owens’ a busy man these days. So far, in 2020 he’s been to Tucson to record with Calexico for his next solo release,  appeared at Folk Alliance in New Orleans and then jetted back to the UK to play with his latest line-up, The Southerners, at the AMAUK awards in February, revisiting his triumph of 2019 when he won song of the year for Southern Wind. He’s now gearing up to tour with The Southerners to promote the release of The Man From Leith, his career spanning collection which is released in March with a sold out launch gig in Leith. Before that however, there’s the simple task of curating Cash Back In Fife. In the midst of this whirlwind of activity, Dean took some time to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke on a wet and windy afternoon. We kicked off proceedings by asking him how he came up with the idea for this weekend of Cash inspired music.

Really, it all started when I played a gig at The Woodside Hotel in Aberdour last May. I’d never been there before even though when I was a kid we used to holiday further along the Fife coast. After my sound check I went for a short walk and was really impressed by this quaint little village and so after that I kept coming back just to enjoy the place. I’d take my dog, Alfie, there for long walks and both my wife and I just fell in love with the village. Anyhow, I came across an article about Johnny Cash’s association with the area, how he discovered that one of his ancestors came from Fife and so he became a regular visitor and even recorded one of his TV shows in Fife. Something clicked and I thought it would be nice to celebrate Cash’s connection with the area so initially I spoke to John McTaggart who owns The Woodside Hotel about it. He’s a passionate music fan and has been putting on some great shows at the hotel and he was up for it so, along with Morag, my manager, we started to see if we could get folk interested in playing.


I suppose we should make it clear that it’s not going to be a tribute weekend of people playing and singing Johnny Cash songs.

No. We thought quite a bit about this. We wanted folk who had links with Fife but we also wanted to widen it out to others who just were appreciative of Cash in their own writings. It’s not a tribute band weekend, instead I’m hoping that it will just show that Cash’s influence reached out to so many performers over here but with many of the artists coming from Fife we’re going to highlight that specific connection.


I rooted around YouTube and saw some clips of Cash in Scotland and he seemed quite chuffed to have discovered that he might have some Scottish blood in him.

Yeah, it’s quite funny I suppose but it’s more that we Scots like to grab folk for our own  and claim them as Scottish so the idea of having Johnny Cash as an honorary Scot makes me smile.

So, who can we expect to see and hear over the weekend?

There are several folk who actually come from Fife, Rab Noakes, Ian Rankin, Fay Fife of The Rezillos (who is fae Dunfermline), David Latto and The Marriage featuring Stuart Adamson’s daughter, Kirsten. But we reached out a little further afield to people who have a fondness for Cash’s music so we have Hannah Rose Platt coming up from England and there’s Martha Healy and obviously I’m doing a couple of things. It’s small but as it’s the first time we’re doing it we wanted to keep it that way. It’s all under the one roof which is nice and it should be a fun weekend. People in the area are quite proud of the Cash Connection so we’re expecting a lot of local folk will be attending especially as John has been building up the hotel’s reputation by booking a lot of well-regarded acts.

On Friday night I’ll be playing with The Celtabilly Allstars who are people I’ve played with over the years including Amy Geddes on fiddle and Kevin McGuire, my old bass mate from The Felsons. We’ll also have Martha Healy playing. It’s a nice and easy way to open the weekend and there’ll definitely be a few Cash songs sung as it ties in with my album and show about Cash. On Saturday afternoon, Ian Rankin will present a talk about his favourite album by one of Fife’s greatest artists, Jackie Leven, the album being Elegy To Johnny Cash. It was actually Ian’s idea to do this and and I’m really happy that it’s happening. If Jackie were still with us I’d have definitely asked him to play. Then that evening we have a Nashville styled songwriter’s circle with me, Hannah Rose Platt and the legendary Rab Noakes. I’ve known Rab for a long time and of course he’s one of these guys who has been around for ever and is still making great music. He’s got a lot of knowledge of growing up in Fife just as Cash and these guys were starting out and it will be interesting to hear his stories on the night. Finally, there’s what we are calling Sunday Afternoon Coming Down with David Latto, Fay Fife with her country rock band The Countess of Fife, and The Marriage. I’ll just be hanging around and lending my support but it’s a lazy brunch in a lovely place so it should be great fun.

Cash back In Fife runs from 6th -8th March at The Woodside Hotel in Aberdour. Weekend tickets and tickets for individual shows are available here.

Sounds in The South Part 2 – Martha L Healy, Al Shields & David Starr. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. 16th May 2019

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There was an undeniable sense of déjà vu around as this talented trio of singer songwriters reconvened for a night of storytelling and song singing,  almost exactly one year since they last appeared at The Glad Cafe. Aside from the three familiar faces onstage much of the audience seemed to have been at the last show and, on a night where Hayes Carll was also appearing in Glasgow, the trio pulled in a handsome crowd, filling the back room auditorium.

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Playing “in the round,” each performer singing and then passing the baton on, the show was not however a retread of last year’s performance. Sure enough, some songs were repeated but a quick perusal of a review of last year’s performance showed that much of the evening was fresh and, with as much attention given to the dialogue preceding a performance (an essential element of a songwriters’ in the round experience), there were anecdotes and stories galore. So, aside from insights into their songs’ gestations from all three, we were given a glimpse into the “back stage” manoeuvrings which assist in setting up shows such as this with sound files flying over the Atlantic in advance allowing, for example, Ms. Healy to sing harmonies on a new song by Starr. There were also laughs in abundance throughout the night, most of them instigated through the droll humour of Shields although Healy gave as good as she got with the pair of them bickering in the best fashion of The Handsome family with Healy’s driving ability questioned. Shields also had the funniest story of the night when explaining why several expected audience members hadn’t turned up; note to self: check your Facebook privacy settings.

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Aside from that, the trio were in top form musically. Starr had just stepped off his ‘plane from Colorado the day before and had only sound checked with his Glasgow and Leith based collaborators that afternoon, the first time they had played in a year. While the roundtable presentation is suited for solo performances, each musician was able to join in on songs be it on vocal harmonies or adding guitar with Shields and Starr both taking solos on many of the songs of the night. Shields sang the excellent Boys In The Band from his most recent EP but also reminded us that he’s been ploughing a bittersweet strain of Americana for several years with renditions of Way Back When and Johanna. There was a pin drop silence in the room as he sang the lonesome Counting The Hours with Starr commenting at the end on how good a song it was. Healy featured several numbers from her highly acclaimed album, Keep The Flame Alight, with the title song and Falling In Love Again resonating with the audience who hung on to every word. Her mini melodrama, Woman With No Shame, was preceded by some sparring with Shields whose interpretation of the song”s protagonist differed somewhat from Healy’s. The song itself is a masterpiece of social observation. Starr, with no evidence of jet lag, proved again that he is well versed in the grand traditions of American song writing kicking off with the deep romance of Edge Of The World and then dedicating No Time Like The Present to his wife Cindy who was in the audience. He unveiled some new songs, one from an ongoing project based on a novel written by his grandfather, Fred Starr. The novel, Beauty And Ruin, is set in late nineteenth century Arkansas and Starr is collaborating with John Oates, Dana Cooper and Jim Lauderdale among others to produce an album based on the book and tonight we were introduced to the title song. Another collaboration with Oates is the song, Rise Up, written by Starr after a post -op “morphine dream” which featured his father and grandfather. It’s another swell song which has a hint of classic Laurel Canyon singer songwriter in its bones reminding one of JD Souther.

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The trio concluded their two hour set with a nod to one of the foremost singer songwriters of our time as they delivered a sublime rendition of John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery. A great ending, but the crowd were hooting and hollering for more so our three intrepid songsters huddled up before launching into the Eagles’ Take It Easy, Starr piloting with Shields and Healy as his wingmen. The crowd loved it.



Glasgow Americana Festival opens today

ga-and-creative-scotland-logo-2018-webThe 12th Glasgow Americana Festival kicks off today as Bristol based Yola Carter brings her hi-energy mix of soul and country to Cottiers Theatre. Carter, winner of UK artist of the year and Song of the Year at the AMA UK awards is just the curtain raiser for a splendid roster of acts pouring into Glasgow over the next five days. Emily Barker, well known to many for her theme song for the BBC drama Wallander and for her spot in the opening ceremony at the London Olympics, will be showcasing her Memphis influenced soulful blues album Sweet Kind of Blue while Kimmie Rhodes, a true red dirt Texan legend is also coming along.

Nathan Bell, winner of the performer of the year award in 2017 by the influential website Americana UK returns to the city which he took by storm at Celtic Connections some 18 months ago and another singular performer, Anthony D’Amato is at the HIP place to be on the south side, The Glad Cafe. Also coming to the Glad Cafe are the UK “supergroup” Bennett Wilson Poole for their first Scottish appearance. This trio of seasoned and bloody brilliant musicians have dominated the UK roots Americana scene ever since their album came out earlier this year and this gig is definitely worthy of “bucket list” attention.

There’s plenty of home grown talent on show as Martha L Healy and Starry Skies both have album launch shows (with Healy’s show apparently sold out, sorry folks) while The Hellfire Club’s show at The Hug & Pint promises to be a hot and sweaty intimate shindig. And for an interesting mix of local and American acts there’s the ever popular Hazy Recollections revue which includes Woody Pines and Adriana Spina on the bill which this year is being hosted by Glasgow’s answer to Whispering Bob Harris, our very own Mike Ritchie.  In addition to the main acts there are some great supports adding to the experience and the whole line up can be found here.

Check the links above for Blabber’n’Smoke’s thoughts on some of the acts and see some video evidence of the avalanche of talent coming this week. Get thee down there.


Martha L. Healy. Keep The Flame Alight.

a3471169611_16For her second album Scottish singer songwriter Martha L. Healy returned to Nashville where her first album Better Days was recorded. Three years on from that release and it’s evident that Ms. Healy has moved on from the primarily country influences heard on that album as Keep The Flame Alight is a much more personal and introspective collection of songs although there still dashes of country sass as on the excellent Woman With No Shame and the swampy Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream. Some of this progress was evident on her EP, To Be Free, where Healy paid tribute to Hank Williams and Patsy Cline but also showed on her song Too Much Time that she was developing her writing chops as we compared her to the likes of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Gretchen Peters at the time.

Much of Keep The Flame Alight maintains this direction as Healy digs into her own conflicts and also delivers some powerful songs which address the fickleness of human relationships. With excellent support from a cast of Nashville players the songs flow beautifully whether it be the metronomic percussion, delicate piano and fiddle on the title song or the slight Celtic influences on Unmade Bed and Mickey. Meanwhile Healy sings wonderfully, clear as a bell with Wendy Newcomer adding fine harmonies.

The album opens with the haunting melody of No Place Like Home with Healy expressing the sense of homesickness she experienced in Nashville, the place of her dreams perhaps but also miles away from her familiar haunts and her family. There’s a fine sense of longing in her voice as she sings of the rainy days and warm fires she misses as the band offer some comfort with a sweet fiddle solo over a muted blend of twangy guitar and accordion. The title song finds Healy in an almost existential dilemma as she worries about the march of time, counting the lines on her face in the mirror and fearful of the darkness which she fears could envelope her. The chorus is a strong declaration that she can fight this and welcome each day as a new beginning and this ultimately uplifting song is bolstered by the magnificent playing on show which is polished to a sheen with Rory Hoffman’s piano playing of particular note.

Elsewhere Healy shows that she has a firm grasp on storytelling with Fall In Love Again narrated by a woman still longing for an old paramour. Woman With No Shame meanwhile portrays the doubts of a woman who is looking for love but who ends up in a series of one night stands and Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream is basically the diary of a bored housewife. All of these are delivered with an unashamed American sounding backing with Dobro leading the way through Woman With No Shame while Livin’ Someone Else’s Dream visits a southern swampy morass. Unmade Bed  is another story song but here there’s a fine Celtic lilt to the song as Healy inhabits the mind of a woman who has a fling with a childhood sweetheart. The Celtic folk influence is heard again on the mantra of We Will Be Okay which seems bound to be an audience sing-along when played live. Healy closes the album with a fine homily on Don’t Give Up which revisits some of the themes of the title song, strength in the face of adversity and again it’s delivered with a wonderfully played combination of piano, accordion and fiddle over pitter pattering percussion as she sings with true conviction.

On Keep The Flame Alive Healy has delivered a mature and immersive set of songs superbly played by her Nashville cats. One misses the exuberance of some of her earlier songs perhaps but as a statement it’s a defiant one proclaiming that she has moved on.


Martha L Healy. To Be Free EP


Glaswegian Martha L Healy recorded her fine debut album Better Days  in Nashville and is soon heading back over there for an extended stay in anticipation of album No. 2. In the meantime she has brought a little bit of Nashville over to Glasgow in the form of this four song EP which was recorded “on a cold January weekend” at La Chunky Studios with producer Johnny Smillie. The EP, two original songs and two covers, features Healy in fine voice, gutsy and with just the right amount of high and lonesome yearning, accompanied by Rebecca Brown on fiddle, Sean Thompson, banjo and David O’Neill on double bass with backing vocals from Paul Healy.

The acoustic set up (and excellent playing) allows Healy’s voice to shine, tackling the Patsy Cline standard Walkin’ After Midnight excellently, her bluesy inflections mirrored well by Brown’s fine fiddle. Likewise on Hank Williams’ I Saw The Light where she and the band sound as if they’re veterans of The Grand Ole Opry, Healy in effervescent Gospel mode over the string band jubilations.  Of her own songs, Too Much Time (co-written with Paul Healy) is a reflective piece that recalls the likes of Gretchen Peters or Mary Chapin Carpenter with the band creating a sumptuous and sweetly flowing backdrop. Speaking of Gretchen Peters we know that Healy was a participant in the recent song writing workshops held by the award-winning songstress recently in Edinburgh. Hearing a song like Too Much Time one wonders why as Ms. Healy here manages to encapsulate an artist’s dilemma wonderfully, melody and hooks and all. Joking aside the EP’s title song, To Be Free,  does portray Healy as an excellent writer and performer with the song able to stand tall alongside creations from Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Here the band head into Appalachian Carter Family territory as Healy rails devotional and defiant, her voice as vibrant as her Nashville heroines, a staggeringly good song.

As we said earlier Ms. Healy is heading back to Nashville for a while but there’s a chance to catch her in concert this Thursday at the EP launch at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe. On this form it’s sure to be a great night. Tickets here




Martha L. Healy. Better Days.

More home grown Americana in the form of Martha L. Healy, a Glaswegian who grew up in a musical atmosphere with Celtic music sharing space with classic American folk and country. As she puts it, “Everyone was listening to Nirvana, rap or dance music, and then there was me, buried in my bedroom, listening to Bonnie Raitt, Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow and Patsy Cline.” In 2014 she went to Nashville, utilising contacts made on a previous trip and recorded Better Days with a cast of local sidemen (all with the sort of pedigree one would expect from Nashville) before coming back and polishing it off in Glasgow with some overdubs from local musicians. The result is an album that belies her evident youth with several of the songs (in the main penned by Healy and Phil Ferns) sounding assured as she delves into classic country sounds along with some received wisdom from her ancestral Irish background. She’s got a grand voice which owes more to her professed American heroines with little to suggest that she’s Scottish but when you can sound like a honky tonk angel on the ballsy swing of Too Much Vodka why go down The Proclaimers route. The Celtic connections are to be heard in the lilting balladry of Enough and Shame, Shame, Shame but are foremost on the autobiographical Burtonport, a song that celebrates her Irish heritage with some aplomb, fiddle and accordion wheezing away over martial drumming.

The album opens with the title song which could easily have come from a Dixie Chicks album, a defiant celebration of living for the now it’s uplifted by some feisty accordion and harmonica. The Lovin’ Kind has a mild mariachi touch and to our ears is reminiscent of vintage Linda Ronstadt. Shame, Shame, Shame is a wonderful hurt love song with the band in very fine form with spare pedal steel (from Tommy Hannum) and mournful harmonica (Rory Hoffman) supporting Healy’s pained vocal. State Of Blue is an excellent slice of pure Americana, a pot pouri of harmonies and country rock stylings, trumpet and curling guitars all driving Healy’s gutsy vocals while the murky swamp blues of Nobody’s Dead allows her free range on the vocal front. Healy breezes through the mandolin dappled 13 Hours and closes the album with a spare rendition of Healin’ Wind. Armed only with her guitar it’s a powerful redemption song allowing her voice to ring clear.