The Living Tradition
John Wright Band
- by Dave Dewar Issue 28 August/September '98
So what's so special about this musical creation from the Borders area? Well, they're different from most groups on the folk scene. Singer-songwriter Brian McNeill recently remarked that it was very difficult to pigeon-hole the band. Would you go along and see the John Wright Band for the first time if you knew that they include songs from Mary-Chapin Carpenter, Joan Armatrading and Willie Nelson? At a folk club? I did for the first time six months ago, only because their UK agent assured me that this would be a memorable experience. Well she would say that wouldn't she? But I was mesmerised by what I heard that night. It must have been because I bought all their CDs ... and I wasn't the only one.
You just have to see a live performance of this trio. A cheekily smiling fiddler begins playing. You can tell immediately that he is a master craftsman. John told me that when he auditioned for the group, he chose Stewart within three minutes ... "but don't tell him that", he added. Next Kenny joins in on guitar, blending smoothly with the fiddle. From the rear appears a man dressed completely in black. What is immediately noticeable is the muscular arms. I suppose you get that by lifting sheep? John starts with a fairly fast number, the "Queen of all Argyll", composed by Andy M. Stewart. There is something about that voice. A few more fast numbers and then it began. The magic. John comes into his own when he sings the slow ones. "What's the Use of Wings" is a beautiful song written by Brian Bedford. A song gently preaching of the need to give people space. The delivery is frankly superb - total vocal control, gentle phrasing and sympathetic musical backing. And so it continued. I would love Joan Armatrading to listen to John's rendition of her song "Weakness in Me". I am convinced that she would have been impressed. I looked around the audience. Tonight it was Irvine Folk Club. No-one spoke or even rustled a crisp packet. Total absorption. And so it continued. One wonderful song after the other. John has this knack of finding such songs.
I asked John, Stewart and Kenny why they feel that the band is so popular. "We touch people," says John. That is certainly true. An emotional nerve is being jarred. Many folk artists sing about love, death, joy and sadness. Somehow, this band can deliver the same message but with such stunning impact. The song "Blue Old Saturday Night" by Julie Matthews, tells of one woman's fight against domestic violence and her eventual triumph. John says that when he is singing, he has to identify with the subject matter. "I can't sing the song unless I'm thinking about what it's about." Kenny reckons that "folk music is all about communicating with people." Stuart elaborated on this from his position as the fiddle player. "When we are on stage, I'm not playing notes, and it's not guitar chords or singing chords. You are trying to communicate. And the means of communication is the music." John makes the point, however, that it's a two way process. "Audiences are good ... they're giving you back loads of stuff ... our emotions are going out and we meet a lot of goodwill ... and you can push it back."
The band's history is interesting. John's life has been very varied. He was born in the south of England, but his heart lies in the North Country. His schooling occurred in Manchester's Moss Side, nowadays infamous for its drug and gang violence. His early working days were spent as a sales rep. in the North of England, but on a sudden decision applied to the army. A long spell in the Mounted Regiments of the Household Cavalry in London followed and thus began his love affair with horses. This led eventually to a desire for country living and John became a shepherd in the Scottish Borders.
Musically, his development is interesting. Originally, these roots can be traced to his choirboy days, but in the heydays of the 60s it was the rock bands that attracted him in the Manchester area. He became lead singer in a number of outfits. Later in his army years he displayed his vocal talents in clubs and bars around London. It was material like Sinatra and Nat King Cole which was his niche. Slowly, however, his musical interests moved towards folk music.
"I shared a room when in the Cavalry, with a Scot and an Irishman and they were an influence on what I was singing in the 1970s. The first traditional song I learned was 'The Kerry Recruit.' I could sing traditional songs but they were different to what I'd been singing. After the army, my singing was confined to the North of England because I was shepherding there. I moved across the border in 1980 to the Newcastleton area ... been there ever since. When I crossed the Border it was then that I got noticed, for example at Common Riding events. I sang songs about the Border towns and was accepted into their scene."
John might have remained at this. It was a pleasant life. But for a man who takes such a delight in singing, he wanted to progress.
"I bought and sold a horse and used the money to make a tape in Wigton, Cumbria. 200 were produced, for friends and family. It was called 'Border Crossings' and was mostly unaccompanied singing. I placed an advert in the paper and sold all 200 in three days. More were pressed and sold ... over two and a half years this amounted to 3,500! It seemed like a good idea to make another. I wanted, however, some instrumental backing." And so arrived Kenny Speirs into John's musical life.
Kenny now takes over the tale.
"I first met John in 1990 at a session in the Borders. John had built up a reputation as a solo ballad singer, not so much in the folk scene but at ceilidhs and at after dinner functions etc. He'd already got around to making a tape privately, and was thinking about making another one. He approached me and asked me if I would play guitar on it. So we made that tape eventually. Gradually we started to do some folk work around the area. Through that, John's singing came to the attention of Paul Adams of Fellside Records, and he was offered a recording contract. He needed backing musicians for a CD and through that the band was formed in 1993, really just to promote that CD. This comprised of John, myself and a fiddle player called Wattie Robson. For the next year or so we played round and about and called ourselves John Wright. We sent the CD to various agents. The first big one to bite was an agent in Holland called Dave Tearney who offered us a cancellation of the Old Blind Dogs tour. Could we come over at short notice? For a European audience they would have to know that it was a band so we now became the John Wright Band. Our first proper tour, in December 1994, grew from there."
Kenny's musical career had begun early, "dragged to piano lessons at gunpoint at aged six." Eventually, he graduated to pop bands and eventually the folk scene. Living for much of the time in the Borders area, he ran the Peebles Folk Club and then the Denholm Folk Club, which he still runs. He is also formerly the presenter of the folk programme on Radio Borders.
"In 1995 we toured Germany and Holland and a few people began to hear about us in this country. We were all still working full time at that period. I was a learning support teacher, John a shepherd and Wattie a mechanic. We were just working it round my school holidays. By 1995 we were ready to make the next CD. Just after that recording was made, Wattie left the band and that was when Stewart joined. He was looking for work and we needed someone to go to Germany. After the album came out and with the German tour, more people began to get to know us. Should we now go full time? John had boarding kennels and trained sheepdogs, did farming work and contract shepherding. He decided to give up the kennels and move to a smaller cottage. Not to give up the shepherding but to shift the balance towards the music." It was November 1996. It is always difficult for any artists to decide whether to go full time, but to them, it seemed the right decision to go for it. This would give them so much more musical freedom. Now they were free to tour whenever they liked, resulting in six trips to Europe in 1997 ... Switzerland, Holland and Germany.
Stewart Hardy had a more conventional musical upbringing. He learned the violin at school and played in youth orchestras. At aged 19, he gave up playing music. "I didn't know that there was anything left to do on the violin so I went off to university to study history. One day after leaving university and living in Essex, I heard a folk group called Thud and Blunder. Great! This inspired me to go to folk clubs and sessions where I was stunned at what I discovered. I tried to imitate and learn the musical styles and ultimately to learn my own. Loads of people helped me out. That's the thing that hit me about the folk scene, this helpfulness. People even ran me to concerts."
"At this time, Folkworks, the Newcastle based folk development agency, was just beginning. I later moved to that area and decided to enrol at their fiddle summer school with tutor Chuck Fleming. I had a fantastic time. The people were brilliant and we exchanged so many musical ideas. I now knew that I wanted to work full time as a musician. Funny thing about Folkworks ... I now teach there! Originally, I joined the Government's Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which was set up to encourage people to start their own business. Nowadays musicians are banned from the scheme. They are classed the same as prostitutes, fortune tellers and gamblers ... not worthy of state help!"
During 1997, the band met Roseann Gilchrist who runs the Oscar Music Agency with the help of her husband, both of whom run two Scottish folk clubs. She explains. "The John Wright Band played at the Milngavie Folk Club which we run. They were an unknown group in this part of Scotland but we were so impressed with them. They seemed to be sprinkled with stardust. And they were as nice off stage as on it." That same night, Roseann, with Bob willing to help, offered to try and get them some work. This was to lead to the Oscar Music Agency becoming the group's U.K. agent. John expressed his gratefulness at the arrangement. "It is really thanks to Roseann that we've got so much work in this country."
In the same year, the band made a third album, produced by Stewart. Entitled "Other Roads", it was a great leap forward for them. John believes that the new album was an important milestone. "It really got us to the attention of a lot more people. Soon after, we became Fellside's top selling artist and still are. This album is more representative of what the band is doing today."
Since then the three band members are happy with the way things have developed. "We are getting offers from all over ... Denmark, the States, Norway, Switzerland and Austria. In July, we are off to Italy."
Any change in direction, I asked? "Yes," replied John. "We hope to play in larger venues like arts centres and do more festivals." Economically, this makes sense, but I wondered if folk clubs would continue to see the John Wright Band. Stewart gave me this assurance. "If we play at a folk club that only holds ten people and they have really made an effort to make it as nice as possible, then I'll get a great night out of it. We'll always return to where we've been well treated."
The band ended their night at the friendly Irvine Folk Club with the most powerful song in the group's repertoire, "Reconciliation", written by Irish singer-songwriter Ron Kavana. Originally written about a love affair, the song has become an anthem for peace in Northern Ireland. John gently encourages the audience to join in. They do.
I think everyone at that point in time was thinking about the Irish troubles. The last time I heard the band doing this, there were tears all around me. That's what the John Wright Band does to people.
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