KINGS HEATHENS – Old Tall Stories (own label)

Old Tall StoriesRespectively from Milton Keynes and Texas, busker David Fisher and barber Evan Ritchie are now based in the Birmingham suburb from which they take their duo name, bonding over a shared love of Celtic and transatlantic folk, shanties and ballads. And that’s what fuels their debut album, Old Tall Stories, a hearty collection of both familiar and obscure traditional numbers as well as originals and covers that kicks off in their adopted backyard with ‘Lovett and Collins’, Fisher on lead, banjo, bouzouki and harmonica, a broadside that was distributed around Birmingham on the 25th July 1840 to mark the release of Chartists John Collins and WM Lovett from prison and, set to a tune by Fisher, comes with a timely post-election resonance in the lines “Ye British Reformers with triumph rejoice/Undaunted and free has proved our own choice….By the Whigs and the Tories we’ve long been oppressed/Crushed down by taxation and drove to distress”.

Ritchie taking lusty lead with Fisher on harmonies, sung accompanied, ‘General Taylor’ is more familiar, a celebratory funeral shanty that dates back to the Mexican-American War and the victory of General Zachary Taylor over Santa Anna at the Battle of Molina D, their version inspired by that of Canadian outfit Great Big Sea.

The first of the originals is Fisher’s ‘Road Scholar’, a frisky banjo, harmonica and guitar number written about his experiences hitchhiking around Eastern Europe (“I get my education/By going from nation to each nation/Hitch my way from town to town/Without much of a route or plan”) and inspired by a sign seen in a campervan window, starting with a lengthy wait on the border between Romania and Bulgaria which somehow manages to slip in a reference to actor Trevor Eve and moving to a  journey through a Kosovo valley with four of them in the back of a windowless van “with a crazy-driving Kosovan man” who “thinks he’s in the Dakar rally”. It’s back then to evergreens with Ritchie singing lead on the Irish swayalong night visiting song ‘I’m A Rover’, popularised of course by Ewan MacColl and The Dubliners.

Up next is, Fisher on lead and bouzouki, is the gently swaying and salty ‘Cornwall My Home’, written by renowned Cornish poet and songwriter Harry Glasson as a love song to his native county with its nods to its tin mining heritage. Written for his wife on their engagement and about feeling a little lost in the unfamiliar Newcastle-under-Lyme, Ritchie’s first contribution is the exuberantly staccato banjo rhythm ‘Clocktower’, the title actually a reference to the Clock House, the old stable in the grounds of Keele University, the lyrics “Don’t let your ringing bells remind me that I’m gone” taking some dramatic licence in that they don’t actually chime.

Not traditional as such but as near as dammit, Fisher takes lead and provides the driving banjo for Robert Burns’ much recorded ‘Ye Jacobites’, the last from the canon being Ritchie taking lead on an stridently unaccompanied take on end of voyage shanty ‘Leave Her, Johnny’, the lyrics here mostly taken from the singing of Stan Rogers and the first song the pair sang together following Fisher’s haircut.

All bar one of the remaining numbers are self-penned, two each, Ritchie up first with melodically tumbling deliberate tempo of the banjo and percussion ‘Farewell To Cyfarthfa’, a tale of suicide inspired by stories of iron workers who used to throw themselves from Pontsarn bridge near Merthyr Tydfil and the grave of Thompson Crawshay, the ironmaster who closed down the foundries to spite the unions and spurred the suicide of the song’s protagonist’s father (“That old bastard Crawshay asked God to forgive him/But try as I might boys, you know I could not”).

Again with a clear Stan Rogers influence, Ritchie’s final contribution, ‘Lifelong Traveller’, is another about roaming (“I left my home and chased her call/To Iceland’s shale and Holland’s halls/I shipped on board those silver wings/And left behind my wood and strings/But wood and strings are all the same/On an English coast or a Texas plain/And a man’s a man whate’er his patch/Whether wooden frame or stone and thatch”), being happy with where it takes you and trying to leave people a little better off than you found them (“always leave a merry heart/When from a brother you must part”).

Fisher’s remaining numbers line up as, arranged for banjo, bouzouki and harmonica, firstly ‘Rose Of Turaida’, the lyrics are based on a 400-year-old Latvian folk tale about the murder of Maija, the titular rose, by a jealous suitor who tried to pin the blame on her actual gardener lover, only to ratted out by a friend and hung, the track ending with lively Irish reel ‘The Musical Priest’. The other is the repeated rippling banjo riff ‘Far Across The Sea’, penned while away from his partner for three months travelling through South America (“When I’m hiking in the hills of Patagonia/With thoughts of you I’ll not feel alone/If you think of me/When I’m far across the sea/Then think of how we won’t be long apart…For I’ll return just for our summertime to start”) and comes with the parochial line “All I want is to dance with a Harborne girl”.

The closing track is, sung quiveringly a capella by Fisher with Ritchie’s harmonies, another evergreen end of voyage shanty, the ‘Mingulay Boat Song’, not traditional as such as it was written in the 1930s by the choral master and composer Hugh S Robertson but set to the traditional Gaelic tune of ‘Creag Ghuanach’, rounding off with a brief guitar and harmonica instrumental reprise of ‘Leave Her, Johnny’.

Like fellow (native) Brummie Jon Wilks, they’re a vital force in not only keeping the tradition alive but contributing to it with their own authentic-sounding material that could have come from lost volumes in the Child and Roud collections, this being a hugely impressive debut that should comfortably see club and festival invitations swamping their inboxes.

Mike Davies

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‘Forever I’ll Stay’  – live: