Martin Simpson – An Introduction To Martin Simpson Topic records
For many years seen as the butt of musical-hall jokes, and since the coming of the digital age, alongside Penistone, the victim of many a ‘search-engine block’, Scunthorpe has received little recognition as the birthplace of a diverse range of illustrious individuals. Within the music métier, Howard Devoto (Buzzcocks, Magazine), Iain Matthews (Fairport Convention, Matthew’s Southern Comfort, Plainsong) and Stephen Fretwell (The Last Shadow Puppets) can all claim the North Lincolnshire town as their place of origin. Apologies to Q Magazine, but I have to disagree with their claim that Fretwell is ‘Scunthorpe’s finest export… ever’; for this reviewer, (and with all due respect to Stephen), he’s not even its finest musical export – seemingly they’ve overlooked Martin Simpson.
Now in his 65th year, and celebrating some 45 years as a professional musician, can it really be forty-odd years since this reviewer recalls a Sunday evening performance at the Scunthorpe Folk Song Club upstairs in The Berkeley Hotel, and then in 1976 that he toured as support for Steeleye Span and released his first solo album Golden Vanity? So very much has happened to Martin in these intervening decades. After initially establishing himself as a consummate instrumentalist on both guitar and banjo, predominantly as an interpreter of traditional English and American folk material, his successful collaborative work with June Tabor in the 1980s was brought to an end in the middle of this decade when he relocated to America, where he lived for some 15 years, fully embracing and immersing himself in blues and folk music there.
Just after the turn of the century, the release of Righteousness and Humidity, (2003), saw the first real public recognition of his songwriting talent, with Love Never Dies, (included on this release), gaining particular acclaim. The following year saw the dual accolade of both this record being nominated for the BBC Radio 2 Folk Album Of The Year, whilst he was also the winner of Award for Best Musician Of The Year
Indeed, the aforementioned BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards can be seen as a true barometer to Martin’s achievements. In the 15 years of their existence, he has been nominated an unprecedented 31 times, with no less than nine consecutive years as a nominee for Musician Of The Year, (which he has won twice). With five nominations in 2008 for the Prodigal Son recording, he picked up two wins, Album Of The Year, and Best Original Song for Never Any Good, a song about his late father which is also on this collection. An unparalleled six nominations for 2010s True Stories saw another win, this time for Best Traditional Track, Sir Patrick Spens (unsurprisingly perhaps also present). This litany of success continues, with Martin once again being nominated for Musician Of The Year in the 2018 Awards.
Thus, four and a half decades in, and after around 23 solo records, (including two live), 8 collaborative releases, in addition to a plethora of contributions as an esteemed session musician, An Introduction To Martin Simpson, (incidentally one of several Introductions To… in a series from Topic Records , which also includes Shirley Collins, June Tabor, Dick Gaughan, John Tams, Ewan MacColl, Eliza Carthy, Anne Briggs and Watersons/Waterson:Carthy), it would seem both timely and fitting to take stock and offer an overview of his oeuvre so far.
With such a vast back-catalogue upon which to draw, there will inevitably be discussion over the tracks selected and those omitted. Suffice to say that the final 17 to make the cut were not only selected but also sequenced by Martin himself; and they certainly fully reflect the diversity of his output.
In addition to the award-winning songs outlined above, The First Cut Is The Deepest, from his 1983 Grinning in Your Face L.P. and written by Cat Stevens, is one of several cover versions appearing here, another being Bruce Springsteen’s Brothers Under The Bridge, recorded by Simpson on 2011’s Purpose & Grace. At the opposite end of the time-scale, we see two tracks from his latest, 2017 album, Trails & Tribulations. Only one song representative of his collaborative work is offered, Dark Swift & Bright Swallow from the wonderful Simpson Cutting Kerr release Murmurs.
As seems to be the vogue with this type of anthology, there is one ‘exclusive’, previously unreleased track, or at least a new, 2018 version of a track initially appearing on Martin’s Vagrant Stanzas record; and what a stunner it is too. Referencing both the Aberfan mining disaster of 1966, and a warning as to the self-protectionist policies of the rich and privileged in society, the emotive and moving Palaces of Goldcomposed in 1968 by Leon Rosselson, (and released on his and Adrian Mitchell‘s A Laugh A Song A Hand Grenade L.P.), the sentiments of which unfortunately, sees as relevant today as when it was written.
Given the extensive range of his output, this release can only really scratch the surface. However, An Introduction To Martin Simpson more than adequately showcases both his undoubted skills as one of the world’s finest acoustic, finger-style and slide guitarists but also his transformation into one of the folk world’s undoubted national treasures.
Whilst long-term devotees will be able to revisit and enjoy reminiscing with the age-old friends offered up here, for neophytes, (and lest not aged-malcontents such as myself forget, there are many for whom Martin will not be familiar), this primer does exactly what it says on the tin.