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Martin SimpsonMartin Simpson
Album: Trails & Tribulations
Label: Topic
Tracks: 13+6

Commonly acknowledged as one of this country's finest guitarist and exponents of the banjo, veteran folkie Simpson released his debut album back in 1976. Some 40 years later, he's on his 20th, his punningly-titled first solo work since 2013 and a collection of self-penned and traditional songs about nature, travels and true life stories.

Joined on the album by, among others, daughter Molly, Nancy Kerr and Andy Cutting, it opens with a intricately fingerpicked cover of Jackson C. Frank's 'Blues Run The Game', somewhat atypical of the more dour mood of the rest of the album which proceeds with Simpson breaking out the 5-string banjo for a sparse, spooked cover of Emily Portman's "Bones & Feathers" , a song about an old dear who resurrects dead birds, inspired by Clarissa Pinkola Este's Women Who Run With The Wolves" and featuring Molly and Amy Newhouse-Smith on backing vocals.

A clutch of originals follow, headed up by 'Thomas Drew', a simple acoustic number with Simpson on resonator guitar sung in the voice of the titular dead man, murdered by the subject of another folk ballad, John Hardy, over a 25c win in a crap game, the lyrics detailing how Hardy was baptised before he was hung, taking 17 minutes to die by strangulation.

He stays Stateside for 'East Kentucky', musically reworking a song that also goes by the name of 'East Virginia Blues' and 'East Virginia', respectively recorded by the Stanley Brothers , Joan Baez among many others, playing clawhammer style through a 1958 Magnatone amp to create its distinctive sound.

A 24-second fingerpicked guitar interlude heralds a marvellous simple acoustic guitar and string bass setting of Charles Causley's anti-war poem 'A Ballad for Katherine of Aragon' before returning to his own pen for the acoustic guitar accompanied 'Maps', opening with a childhood memory of discovering some old maps in a neighbour's garage and the world they opened up to him before shifting to draw on Robert McFarlane's account of the relationships between Edward Thomas, his wife Helen and Ivor Gurney, the psychological aftermath of the two men's experiences in France during WWI and the healing power of nature.

A thematic connection of sorts leads to 'St. James Hospita'l, the first of the traditional numbers, Simpson accompanying himself on slide, giving way to the album's longest track, the six-minute medley of 'Jasper's/Dancing Shoes', a short guitar instrumental segueing into the achingly sad second half, another wartime set tale, here of traumatised veteran returned to find the life he left behind has gone a different path without him, its mood underscored by diatonic accordion, fiddle and violin.

'Ridgeway' returns to nature and the land with a number inspired by a summer's drive Trowbridge to Hatfield and seeing the Red Kites and Buzzards circling in the skies above the Wiltshire Hills, but there's a dark undercurrent here too as Simpson introduces an environmental theme, singing of the Black Poplars, a species of tree wiped out by their use for making rifles during the war and now under threat in his home of Sheffield, cut down to make it easier to mend the pavements.

Another traditional number, accompanied by Appalachian-styled banjo 'The Rufford Park Poachers' hails from the Percy Grainger collection and recounts how, in 1850, the poachers rose up against the gamekeepers of the Rufford Park in what came to be known as The Poaching Wars, the song celebrating the stand taken against the repression of "poor men's rights."

It's a traditional number too that ends the album, an acoustic guitar interlude setting the scene as he's joined on string bass for 'Reynardine', the second new version in a month following that by Red Shoes, the folklore tale of a sly seducer with the ability to shapeshift into a fox that provides a terrific closing note to yet another outstanding Simpson album.

Mike Davies