Two years on from their ‘children’s album’, When I Was A Lad, Teesside husband and wife duo, Stu and Debbie Hanna, get back to what might be termed grown up concerns, addressing birth, death, love and the passing of time with their customary mix of self-penned and traditional as well as a lyrical smattering of C19th Tyneside songwriters.
The album gets under way on a downbeat note with their stark arrangement of ‘Clifton Hall Mine’, the pair alternating verses on the traditional mining ballad about the tragic explosion at a pit near Salford that claimed 178 lives. Joined by Seth Lakeman on fiddle, like all the songs here, ‘Bet Beesley & Her Wooden Man’ has its roots in their native North East, a spritely traditional arrangement of Newcastle writer J.P. Robson’s tale of a sailor’s widow marrying a well to do Nabob only to find, on the wedding night, that he had two wooden legs. Written by Tyneside poet Thomas Wilson, Debbie takes lead and plays whistle on ‘Charlie The Newsmonger’, a sober celebration of a renowed Gateshead stonemason and gossip that has Stu backing on scratchy mandolin.
Starting in 1941 and taking in notable events of each decade up to the 90s, ‘The River Never Dies’ is the first of the wholly original numbers, Stu up front for a tradition-rich song that traces the connection between the featured events and the River Tees and its people. Also by the duo, the lullabying ‘Songs To Soothe A Tired Heart’ strikes a different, warmer and more yearning musical note, doubtless because it was originally intended for the previous album, a song about the connection between parent and child that showcases the duo’s harmonies and features three members of local outfit The Willows on dobro, fiddle and backing vocals.
Previous albums have featured the writings of Tommy Armstrong, aka The Pitman poet, and this one is no exception, here represented by ‘Old Folks Tea’, a lilting account of an old folks tea party (plenty of jelly) in West Stanley, County Durham that comes with an added sting of mortality in the tail. There’s one further traditional number in the shape of ‘Still I Love Him’, another mining song, with Debbie in plaintive, aching form to a backdrop of bluesy guitar.
The remaining tracks are all originals; ‘Dirty Clothes’ a mandolin strummed reflection on childhood, of growing old, but not growing up, that calls to mind fellow Northerners Lindisfarne; ‘Moses Carpenter’ recounting the story and funeral of a Native American who, somewhat ironically, died of a fever while visiting Middlesbrough in 1889 as part of a travelling medicine show; and, finally, the title song, a lovely, six minute duet meditation on the things we accumulate in a lifetime, memories “stuck up in the loft in a box”.
It is, perhaps, not as immediate as some of their previous offerings, but, for those who have followed their steady career, it will prove no less enduring.
Artist website: www.megsonmusic.co.uk
Twelve minutes of Megson live to whet your appetite: