John Jones And The Reluctant Ramblers came together roughly six years ago when John first fulfilled his burning idea, “One day I’ll walk to a gig.” Already a committed and enthusiastic walker he set out, with a handful of like-minded souls to play a series of gigs at venues, which rather than sticking to the established circuit, were instead linked to by footpaths. It gave him a valuable, alternative creative outlet and the chance to voice songs that didn’t quite fit with Oysterband. His first solo album, the well received and appropriately named Rising Road, soon followed. It’s taken a while, during which time Oysterband have released two albums and enjoyed considerable success, with the Folk Awards to prove it, but John’s second solo album, the excellent Never Stop Moving, is due at the start of September. It caps what even John admits is an exceptional period of creativity. And he’s not wrong, as Never Stop Moving matches the illustrious and much admired trio of albums that preceded it stride for stride.
I talked to John on the eve of Oysterband’s departure for a tour of Canada and a full transcript of that interview will follow. But he provided some valuable insight into the making of the record that helps set the role of the Reluctant Ramblers in context.
Oysterband have been busy. They followed up the huge success of Ragged Kingdom, their Folk Award dominating collaboration with June Tabor, by touring extensively with her as well. That album needed a strong follow up and duly got it with the excellent Diamonds On The Water. So, John reckons this album has been three years in the making, with Ramblers excursions and studio time grabbed when his schedule allowed. Further delays occurred last year when John found himself gravely ill and requiring surgery, with the necessary lay off for recovery that followed. Thankfully, however, the prognosis is good. He seems keen to downplay the problems, focussing instead on the positives of being back to what he loves best, his twin passions of music and walking.
Thankfully John was able to count on Al Scott to keep things on track, with the album recorded at his Metway studios in Brighton. Al has been Oysterband’s regular producer and a big part of continued success for 20 years or more, also taking charge for John’s two albums.
John credits Al with helping him to find his voice for these solo projects. Having been the lead singer of Oysterband since the early 80s, he has a distinctive and, in folk circles at least, immediately recognisable voice. Whilst that’s still the case here, the arrangements, players and instrumentation are very different and John wanted to use that to his advantage to get closer to the stories these songs contained. Encouraged by Al, John recorded vocal parts with just a drone accompaniment. Without the usual drive of chords and the rhythms of accompanists, subtle changes in pitch and phrasing came to the fore. It’s a technique they pioneered with Rising Road, which has worked well again here. The album’s other key difference vocally is the prominent role of Rowan Gödel, who duets and adds harmony and backing vocals. She’s helped in the latter by John along with a couple of notable guests, and the vocals at times swell to choral levels.
The Reluctant Ramblers include the multi-instrumental skills of Al and the voice of Rowan, fiddler Tim Cottterell, bassist Lindsay Oliver, Oysterband’s drummer Dil Davies and Benji Kirkpatrick and Boff Whalley. Intriguingly John has referred to Al and Tim as the Yin and Yang of the Ramblers as he explains, “Al and Tim are always present, musically and on the journey, Al being the foundation and Tim the flair – not fair on either really, but that is always how it seems. Rowan and Lindsey are musically essential part of it these days and walk when possible. Dil also. Boff and Benji are guests who always walk when they join us. Everyone makes a real contribution to both the album and the live shows. When we’re out with the Ramblers, Rowan, Benji and Boff also perform separately as part of the show and they’re all great in their own right. I am a lucky man to have such people along.”
As well as Dil, John calls on two other Oysterband colleagues for the album, their new cellist Adrian Oxaal and guitarist Alan Prosser, with the latter additionally credited with helping in the early stages of shaping some of these songs.
John reckons that the walking has definitely strengthened the bond between the players and there are certainly some great performances here. There is also the opportunity to road test the songs, play through arrangements and determine what works. Again though, John has put faith in Al’s ability to add harmonic depth, sometimes taking an instrument out of its prescribed role in the mix to make a melodic statement. The interplay between guitars, bouzouki and fiddle is at time quite stunning, resulting in an album packed with subtle details that unfolds slowly over repeated plays, getting stronger and more compelling with each return, in the way that the very best albums do.
Inevitably the album draws breath from the hills and vales of the English landscape, although living in the Welsh borders, his home environment has long proved a source of inspiration for songs. The powerful opener Down By The Lake is one such. John has explained some of the sources for this album, with this one coming from a local tragedy, although he also admits his imagination comes into play.
When I suggest it has a strong vérité feel, but also the drama of a good old murder ballad he concurs, “Well I am a folk singer, so I had to get a gun in there somehow,” he deadpans. But he also likes the way that the lake is a local beauty spot, but also a place of isolation and potential danger. Either way, it’s a compelling tale and the finely detailed arrangement builds tension as the vocal strength sets a high benchmark for what’s to come.
Another local, rather strange tale makes it into The Black And White Bird. It seems someone John knows had been out horse riding and returned to the stables to find a knotted plastic bag that obviously contained something alive. She cautiously opened it, to be startled as a magpie flew out. Quite how and why the bird had been caught and left there remains a mystery. But again John, piqued by the inexplicable, turned his poetic mind to the matter and envisioned a love token, left in heart-rending circumstances, as Tim’s fiddle gets to the heart of the, “One for sorrow,” theme.
He achieves a similar feeling with Ferryman, but this time turns his imagination to his childhood home of Meltham. The, “Diesel river,” gives us the scent of heavy industry, while the song considers those that stay in the place they were born, how they might be solid and dependable, but with that languor of longing that comes from being left behind.
Another bite of reality comes from She Wrote Her Name Today, a stand out track from the album, which has become a firm live favourite. John credits late-night listening to Radio 4 for delivering the story, with the obvious highly emotive payoff of the title. The story concerns a young girl who has fallen victim to drugs and an overdose. It could end there as a gritty tale of urban angst, but instead becomes a poignant celebration of life, as the young lass awakes from her coma.
Pierrepoint’s Farewell offers an equally vivid storyline and updates the folksong favourite themes of murder and retribution through hanging to the C20th, imagining the fateful course that led Ruth Ellis to be the last woman executed in Britain. Pierrepoint, the hangman, expressed no regrets at the time, certainly not in Ellis’ case, but he did perhaps ultimately conclude that hanging served as no deterrent. It’s an emotive subject, especially when brought up to date and the performance gains power when Rowan Joins John half way through the song adding the woman’s voice.
John does dip directly into the folk canon for three songs that the band have enjoyed playing live. Again it shows through as they tackle each with gusto. There’s the seafaring Banks Of Newfoundland, a cautionary tale about selling off your coat for a few readies before setting sail. The motto being that the North Wind doth blow! Jim Jones, John’s near namesake, tells the story of the transports to Australia, an early form of social cleansing, and every bit as appalling as other great injustices, but with a nicely barbed threat of revenge at the end. Rambling Boys Of Pleasure suggests itself as the group’s anthem, although is not quite so surefooted in truth, actually being rather lovelorn. Still it seems a good choice, well sung and probably makes for a fine rabble-rouser.
Three of John’s own songs get closer to the Reluctant Ramblers rationale. Again however the messages are mixed. Certainly the title track and Ghosts Of The Village both suggest the problems of rural England. I Will Never Stop Moving walks the quiet and leafy lanes but also rides the relentless waves of progress, following the bucolic idyll down into the communities built on floodplains. What do we expect when we are so reckless in our relationship with nature? Where would they even find Kipling’s wise Old Hob, as Ghosts Of The Village points out? The countryside becomes the playground of the rich. It’s all second homes and the absentees who only turn up at weekends, literally draining the lifeblood form our green and pleasant land, as communities are decimated by simple economics.
Perhaps then The Wanderer is the real anthem. It’s certainly another strong favourite with Rowan and John once again joining in fulsome duet and some wonderful bouzouki, guitar and fiddle combinations, above the steady striding pulse of the bass. If there’s any ambivalence here, it’s more the recognition of those that have walked these footpaths and ancient tracks for centuries. Whose footsteps is John following? What was their purpose? What were their hopes and dreams?
There’s a connection through the Reluctant Ramblers harking back to the way that folksong and dance spread across the country too, which John acknowledges. He’s quick, however, to downplay the ‘posh word’ of troubadour, but does agree that itinerant and seasonal workers, travellers and those who would literally sing or play for their supper, carried the songs through the regions of the country. Mind you, as he notes above, this is a particularly talented crew, a notch or three above your average buskers and hawkers. They also have in John a visionary songwriter and Never Stop Moving charts the pathways straight to the heart, so that even the most reluctant of ramblers can slip this CD on, follow the journey and set their mind to wandering, where it will go. Well, either that or strap your boots on, pack some oilskins and head for the Lake District this October. Either way, let John be your guide.
Review by: Simon Holland
Never Stop Moving is released on 4th September via Westpark Records
Also available via: Amazon
In October 2015, John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers will spend 3 days in the northern part of the Lake District, based near Blencathra, just east of Keswick. For details on this and more visit: