GARETH OWEN – Rolling By (own label)

Rollng ByWhen I first moved to South Shropshire a few years ago, I found myself living just a couple of doors away from writer and broadcaster Gareth Owen. And then I realized that I was also living by country legend-in-his-own-mind Virg Clenthills, Gareth’s country-singing alter ego. I even played guitar for Virg occasionally, and even acting as body double – well, picking-hand double –on a Virg video. So when Gareth’s CD Rolling By rolled by my mailbox, I was expecting at the very least a collection of excellent songs, and I wasn’t disappointed.

All the songs and lead vocals here are Gareth’s, ably backed by producer Ed Begley on keyboards and backing vocals, Ruby Turner on backing vocals, James Kitchman on guitars, Matt Park on pedal steel, Ruth Goller on basses and backing vocals, and Tony Bianco on drums and percussion.

  1. ‘Lady Whiskey’ is a desperate story of a man in the process of losing everything to alcoholism.
  2. ‘Ashes And Diamonds’ is a quintessential country and western ballad. Nicely done.
  3. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently reviewed Forever Words that ‘Nowhere’ reminds me a little of Johnny Cash, both the song and the delivery. But it’s an excellent song and performance in its own right.
  4. ‘Walk Out The Door’ has some of the feel of early country/rock and roll crossover songs like Hank Williams’s ‘Move It On Over’. I particularly like the pedal steel here.
  5. ‘Jesse James And The Barber’ is very much in the Virg Clenthills mould, quirky and facetious, much of it spoken rather than sung. Thematically it might remind you of ‘I’ve Danced With A Man Who’s Danced With A Girl, Who’s Danced With The Prince Of Wales’, yet it has a serious undertone that Farjeon’s 1927 song never aspired to.
  6. ‘Nothing Better To Do’ is one of those femme fatale/Jezebel/devil-woman songs, performed effectively enough.
  7. ‘Dream River’ is another heart-tugging country ballad.
  8. ‘Telling Lies Like This’ is a little rockier, a little reminiscent of Dylan on recent albums like Together Through Life.
  9. ‘Before I Get To Heaven’ is, for me, the best song on the CD, telling the story of the last hours of Hank Williams set against sparse keyboards and acoustic bass.
  10. ‘Rolling By’ is a song of reminiscence with a catchy chorus. A good end to the album.

It’s no surprise that one of Gareth’s influences was Tom T. Hall, a country singer noted for his storytelling in song. That said, some of his lighter material – such as ‘Jesse James And The Barber’ here – is also somewhat reminiscent of Shel Silverstein, though Gareth’s vocals are nearer to a lighter-toned Johnny Cash than Silverstein’s off-the-wall vocalizing.

While the CD is issued under Gareth’s real name, there’s a lot of Virg here, in both the repertoire and the vocal delivery. Without Virg’s patter, the darkness behind some of these stories has more of the impact they deserve. Perhaps the slightly OTT vocal delivery here and there hints at the parodic drama that makes Gareth’s alter ego’s stagecraft so entertaining, though. Which makes me wonder whether Virg should get a CD of his own, rather than selfie-bombing Gareth’s. Nevertheless, this would be a worthy souvenir of a Virg/Gareth gig. And a wider range of country lovers might be enthralled to hear what sometimes comes out of the hills of South Shropshire.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.garethowen.com

It’s hard to find videos of Gareth so here’s Virg Clenthills with ‘A Song For Hank Williams’:

Gareth Owen releases debut album at 81

At 81 years of age, prize-winning poet, novelist, BBC broadcaster and playwright, Gareth Owen released an album of his own country songs last month.

Gareth Owen

Gareth Owen has published some seven volumes of poetry, of which over a hundred have appeared in various anthologies. For a number of years he was the popular presenter of the BBC’s long-running Poetry Please! He was playing Othello in Birmingham when he met the 16 year-old Ruby Turner in the theatre and for a time managed her career. Reading The New Musical Express one day, looking for angles to help her career, he came across an article about the country singer, Tom T. Hall and was sufficiently intrigued to buy his album; became a convert to country music and began writing songs, mostly until now unheard except by close friends. Many years later, Ed Begley, the M.D. of Shakespeare miscellany he was part of, heard the songs and was impressed enough to put together a band and get Gareth into a studio to record them and Rolling By is the happy result. It’s pure Americana, with Owen’s poetic talents and his gift for a catchy tune, lifting the varied story-songs in a novel and beguiling fashion. Musicians on the album include the afore mentioned Ruby Turner, esteemed pedal-steel player Matt Park, bassist Ruth Goller, James Kitchman on guitars and percussionist Tony Bianco. Keyboards are provided by Ed Begley who also producer the album which was recorded at Giant Wafer studios in Wales.

Artist’s website: www.garethowen.com

Trailer:

JOSIENNE CLARKE & BEN WALKER – Seedlings All (Rough Trade RTRADCD898)

Seedlings AllIt’s long been the case that you don’t come to Clarke and Walker for background music or cheeriness. Their music is sparse but intricate and you have to work at it. It is also almost inevitably suffused with melancholia, delivered at a pace and tempo to suit the mood. But they always deliver and the effort always pays off.

That said, the opening track here is, in their terms, positively thrash, the electric guitar riding a rolling melody and even breaking out into a reflective solo on a lyric littered with images of failure and struggle, but then, having talked about looking foolish and how “no one came to see me play” (a reference to an actual gig while touring in America), there’s an unexpected last verse refusal to give in as Clarke sings “you wouldn’t trade it for all they’d offer you. You sing and play and make things for that is all that you can do”.

The album’s highly autobiographical in addressing the highs and lows of following music as a career, the costs it exacts and the precariousness off it all, and the sentiment of that final line is echoed in the last line of the next song, ‘Bells Ring’, an otherwordly ambience of tinkling bells, piano (courtesy Kit Downes) and jazzy muted brass in a song that uses the alternate rings of two bells as a metaphor for a relationship, the pull and the longing, the sweet and sad, but ultimately “all we have.”

The jazzy tones here permeate the album, particularly evident in Walker’s meditative guitar work on the hope and potential-themed title track, the smoky late night vibe of ‘Tender Heart’ built around Downes’ piano and Ruth Goller’s double bass, the weary relationship breaking apart sway Ghost Light and the classic jazz trio feel of the mortality imbued ‘Sad Day’, Clarke’s vocals taking on a breathy torch-like quality like a young, more innocent Billie Holiday.

Not that the folk colours are any thinner. The simple slow piano waltz ‘Maybe I Won’t’, a song addressing the possibility or not of motherhood, conjures the plaintive ache of Sandy Denny circa Like An Old Fashioned Waltz while the existential crisis of ‘All Is Myth’ is simple voice and guitar, gently caressed by violin in the final seconds.

But, the point is that this finds them painting using an altogether bigger canvas, flexing rather than forsaking their palette. Inspired by Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘The Calvary Cross’, ‘Things Of No Use’, one of only two co-written numbers, takes on a more expansive production with powerful drums making their presence felt behind the sax, guitars and backing vocals, while, with its wearied waltz notes, ‘Bathed In Light’ has a minimalist, retro, almost early 50s feel to it, as she returns to the musician’s nightmare that “I’ll write everyday but no one cares what I say. That I’ll stand and I’ll sing but no one will be moved to join in.” The final crushing realisation “that I’ve lost all I’ve got”, deliberately counterpoints the closing words of the opening number.

Nonetheless, it ends on a final more resolved refusnik note with the folkier strains of ‘Only Me Only’, strings, bass and piano the waves on which Clarke’s carried on an introspective songwriter’s confessional lyric about being “ever to burrow but never to hide”, of “the left of the living in suffering song” and “the scratching thorn in my side” , and how, when the dawn is done and the birds have taken wing “it’s only me singing the only one.”

Clarke says that, after the disappointing and disillusioning commercial success of the last album and the experience of playing to an empty room in Chicago, she and Walker approached this as if it might prove their last album, taking soul searching chances both musically and lyrically. Far from the end, this feels just like it’s just the beginning.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.josienneandben.com

‘Chicago’ – official video: