Has British Folk Music gained any traction during this American Invasion, John Davy looks back at 2010 and asks the question
No new music through the letterbox in the last couple of weeks – very little post altogether, thanks to the snow – so it’s been a chance to revisit some of the recent new stuff, indulge in some old favourites and re-discover forgotten gems that never seem to get played normally.
Of the music that’s new in the last twelve months or so, there’s a small handful that stand out as having become favourites. Will Kimbrough’s ‘Wings’ is probably top of the list, mostly for two songs that are guaranteed to put a smile on my face. The title track, co-written with Jimmy Buffet, is one and the other is ‘Three Angels’ a song Will Kimbrough wrote about his wife and daughters. Unashamedly sentimental, it’s also as sweet and true an expression of love and affection as you’ll ever find; there’s a lovely little video to go with it, made in the style of a home movie and with bucketloads of good humour.
Then there’s Cousti; I’m absolutely in love with their music and only care what other people think of ‘Strings to Tracks’ inasfar as I want Cousti to have as much success as they could hope for with it. Like your family or your football team, favourite bands are beyond critcism or rational appraisal, and that’s just where Cousti are with me. If I had to pick a couple of tracks to recommend, it would be ‘Mallaig’ – (listen below) one of the sweetest sad songs I’ve ever heard with a glorious guitar outro – and ‘Without You’, six minutes of soulful beauty.
Number three in the top three of the year is The Doghouse Roses’ ‘Broken Key’. I raved about it when I reviewed it and was worried that it wouldn’t stand up too well when I came back to it. I was wrong to worry. It’s a great album, easily the most enjoyable British folk album I’ve heard in a while and sounding very much like the breathing of fresh life into old forms.
Other than that, it’s been anything with Eric Brace on it, most especially the recent ‘Master Sessions’ with his regular musical partner, Peter Cooper. That album in particular reminds me of old favourites like ‘Old And In The Way’ or a Peter Rowan album I have somewhere: great songs that are not over-familiar married to the very best playing and singing; no posing, no concept, no attitude, just joyful music making. Earlier in the year, the new Carolina Chocolate Drops album was jaw-droppingly good and Viper Central, from Vancouver, were as impressive in the flesh as they were on disc. Honourable mentions, too to the Wynntown Marshalls, a really good new Scottish country rock band, and Kacey Cubero from California : it’s pretty straight modern country music, but hugely enjoyable.
So that’s the new stuff I’ve been listening to again recently but even more interesting was to delve into the dusty corners of the collection. In particular, I’ve been trying to find my way back into British folk music – Scottish, English or Irish. There is Welsh folk music too, but none that’s come my way recently. I’ve been pretty obsessive about American music in the last ten years or so, exploring country, bluegrass, western swing and folk but settling finally in singer-songwriter territory where the country/folk roots show through. I guess John Prine would epitomise that, but so do Will Kimbrough and my personal trinity of favourites, Drew Nelson, Nels Andrews and AJ Roach.
The thing is, any musical form develops a language that communicates its message in a particular way for the afficianados. Instrumentation, arrangements, singing style and lyrical reference points are all used to to tell us, the audience, that this is where we want to be. As with spoken language this has to be reinvigorated by frequent innovation, partly to embrace a new generation of performers and audience, partly because the audience will drift away if the language becomes stale with repetition. The musical language of the guys I mentioned above feels comfortable to me, it just feels emotionally ‘right’, and my difficulty with a lot of British folk music, especially English folk music, is that it has seemed too imprisoned by notions of authenticity, of sticking strictly to the tradition so that it just doesn’t seem alive to the world in which it’s being made.
Now I know there’s plenty of examples from the last half century of folk songs with modern preoccupations but it’s only really recently that there seems to have been a whole wave of new performers that have found a way of sounding true to the tradition and yet thoroughly now. I have a good friend whose family is totally immersed in the highland folk scene and she keeps sending me music to drag my ears back to this side of the Atlantic. There’s lots of really good stuff amongst all that but it’s a Kris Drever album, Blackwater, that’s really switched me on to the great music being made in these parts. So hooray for that and hooray also for the chance to revisit some old favourites from a few years ago : Kris Delmhorst, Joe West, Stacey Earle and Guy Clark to name a few. And now the backlog of post has finally arrived and I see there’s a lot of new stuff to wrap my ears around…