PREVIEW BIG BIG COUNTRY
A long time coming
As Big Big Country expands from three days to a whopping ten nights of country and roots music. Kenny Mathieson celebrates the long- awaited Scottish debut of legendary singer— songwriter .lohn Prine.
It‘s been a long wait. but he‘s coming at last. Long-term John Prine watchers rrrust be doing cartwheels at the thought that. 35 years after the release of his classic eponymous debut albutn in
l‘)7 l. the tattered troubadour is at last going to grace a Scottish stage with his presence.
That delight may be tempered somewhat if you hayen't snapped up your tickets. because the concert was heading for sell-out status at a rate of knots It's on: of those strange historical oddities that the tnan has new er tirade it here. although he's not esactly a regular visitor to the UK in general. Billy ls'elly. the director of Big Big (‘ountty has worked the necessary triagic however, and can rrow devote himself to doing the same for .I .l (‘ale (just kidding. Billy. but then again... ).
l’rinc's talents as a songwriter have beetr endorsed by premier division heavyweights- like Kris ls'ristofferson and .\'anci (iril’lith. while his commercial standing is probably higher than at any point in his career. following a long overdue (iramniy Award for his last bttt one album. '/‘/1(' .Iliswre )i'urs. itr I‘I‘Il. Last year‘s lost Dogs and .Uirw/ Blessings featured
’ John Prine: where you been so long?
hands-on assistance from Bruce Springsteen. Bonnie Raitt. Tom Petty and Marianne Faithful. all friends and admirers of the former tnailrnarr who. despite that long wait. is no stranger to the road.
‘The records have sold okay. but not enotrglr to nrake a living. and the way I‘ve done that was basically just going
out on the concert trail. The first five or
sis years \\ ere great. because I'd never been any where. and ll was all new to me. but it can get pretty old after a while. It almost gets to being like a job sometimes. but hell. it's always be: er than being a mailtnan.‘
His music is an amalgam of folk. country and rock idioms. delivered with his instantly recognisable rough—edged vocals and strictly functional guitar. That highly personal stamp is carried over into his wry. acutely perceptive songwriting.
'Yeah. I guess I see myself primarin
as a songwriter. For me. the records serve the songs. rather than the other way round. Most of the time I work on the lyrics and the tunes at the same time. which is what I call the Chuck Berry school of songwriting — you match a syllable to each note. and the sound of the words or the way you say them affects the melody you come tip with.
‘With some songs. I don’t really know what they are about until after I‘ve sung them a few times. They Usually start from something small. maybe a phrase or a striking image. Sometimes I'll start in the middle. with the clioi'us first. and then I'll figure out whether I ought to make it a ballad. or put a character into it. and sometimes it’s just a case of going for it and see where it goes -— it can be tnore of a process of editing than writing at times.’
Boosted by an enthusiastic endorsement frorn Kris Kristofferson. Prine set out in a blaze of glory with his early Atlantic albums. btrt eventually grew disillusioned with his dealings with major labels. He is not the first artist to see setting up their own label as a way out of such an impasse. often with disastrous results. but he has been able to make a go of his Oh Boy label since setting it tip in the early 80s.
‘l’m the kind ofguy who has to keep myself interested in all aspects of everything I do. and I got tired of working with the major labels around I980. l was getting ready to sign a new contract. and I just had a gut feeling that I didn‘t want to do it again. but I did want to keep on performing and recording. and I figured there had to be an alternative way.
‘I decided to try putting out the records on my own -— it started out basically mail order. bttt over the years we booked up with different distributors. and now we‘re pretty much in all the stores we would be in with a major label anyway. I think most of the problems people have had with their own labels have been down to lack of distribution.‘
The ()M Frill/market. .‘itut 2. 7.30mi].
BIG BIG COUNTRY
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Shiela Henderson: mad for melody
Big Big Country opens with a concert which is intended to provide a showcase for Scottish artists, augmented by the considerable talents of ace American singer- songwriter Jim Lauderdale. Glasgow singer Carol Laula and The Felsons, currently a hot ticket with the release of their fine debut album, top and tail a bill which also includes an intriguing singer from rather further north.
Shiela Henderson hails from Lerwick in Shetland. Her debut album, Call It Fate, featured some of the freshest and most accomplished singing I have come across from a Scottish country artist, while the strong material mixed her own songs with an imaginative selection of cover versions from the likes of Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Julie Matthews.
‘l have to like the melody first and foremost, then the lyrics. I would probably sing a song if I liked the melody but not the words, but never the other way around. The first singer I was really into was Emmylou Harris, who for me was new country long before there was new country, and later on Mary Chapin Carpenter.
‘Country is quite popular up here, and l was interested in it from an early age. I heard records by the likes of Patsy Cline around the house, but I don’t really listen to older country singers much now - I’m more likely to check out somebody like Richard Thompson.’
Shiela will be accompanied by fiddler Jenny Napier for her Big Big Country concert, but also has a four-piece hand these days. The album, though, was done with the assistance of producer Phillip Anderson, and a couple of guest musicians.
Her jaunts to the mainland are necessarily limited, but she feels that a major problem with moving there would be the nature of the British country circuit itself, with its insistence on the familiar standard country covers repertoire. It is a dilemma which now faces a number of younger Scottish artists, and it will be interesting to see if some kind of alternative circuit starts to emerge as more bands like The Radio Sweethearts and The Felsons develop their own material. (Kenny Mathieson) Old Fruifmarket, Fri 31, 7.30pm.
I BIG BIG COUNTRY
John Berry: ballad man
Apart from the fact that he doesn’t wear the obligatory stetson, John Berry is a perfect example of the country-pop sound of Nashville in the 905. The town has always been big on smoothing out the rougher edges of the music in the search for commercial gold, and Berry’s rich, super-smooth baritone is custom- made for the kind of big ballads which eventually broke him on the country charts.
It was no overnight success for a man who set his sights early on that goal. He made his initial reputation in his native Georgia, notably in a particularly successful gig at a club in Athens, and issued a string of self- produced albums. Eventually, though, he realised that he had come to a crossroads.
‘l’ve always known what I wanted to do, and we eventually ended up with a huge following in Athens, but by 1992, we had been playing that gig for seven years, and I realised that it was not gonna send my kids to school. We didn’t want to move to Nashville, so what we decided to do was to set up as many industry showcases as possible around town, and just keep on doing them until somebody listened.’
Berry was heard by A&H man Herky Williams, who brought him to the attention of Jimmy Bowen, head of Liberty Records. Bowen took one listen and signed him up. Everything seemed just fine, except that Berry was starting to feel some very strange and alarming symptoms.
‘I was getting real bad headaches all the time, and I got to the point where I couldn’t remember if I had just sung a song on stage one time, and this was right after I finished it.’
Eventually Berry ended up in the emergency ward in the Athens hOSpital, where a CAT scan revealed a colloid cyst on his brain, which was removed in a harrowing operation. He made a full recovery, and is now back where he always intended to be. (Kenny Mathieson)
Old Fruitmarket, Thurs 6, 7.30pm.
The List 3! May-l3 Jun I996 41