A Conversation With Cathryn Craig And Brian Willoughby

Venue: Lymm Folk Club
Town: Lymm
Date: 25th April
Website: http://www.craigandwilloughby.com

The description "Dream Team" is frequently overused but in the case of Cathryn Craig and Brian Willoughby it is entirely appropriate. The explanation for this statement is quite simple. Take one of the best acoustic guitarists in the world and one of Nashville's best singers and songwriters and the result is.....Craig and Willoughby.

I was fortunate to meet up with Cathryn and Brian for a genial conversation over a drink prior to their gig at Lymm Folk Club. The venue was The Spread Eagle pub in the picturesque Cheshire village of Lymm.

Cathryn and Brian are touring following the release of their superb new album "Real World", which I had the pleasure of reviewing in these pages [see March album reviews]. Between them Cathryn and Brian have worked with a huge number of artists, from Bill Medley to Nanci Griffith and Mary Hopkin to Monty Python and it would be possible to fill a book with their musical memories but we decided to concentrate, quite rightly, on their new album, of which they are justifiably proud.

"Real World" is the duo's third album, following "I Will" and "Calling All Angels", and contains a mixture of previously recorded songs from those albums together with some new songs. Cathryn told me that the album is called "Real World" because it represents what you would hear if you go to one of their shows. The album, which was recorded "live" in the studio by Ron Angus, contains no additional instruments or overdubs, just the Real World.

We talked about the sources of inspiration of some of the songs on the album and the result of this conversation appears in the following review of the gig, which took place immediately afterwards.

The show began with "That Ol' Guitar", which was written by Shel Silverstein and Mickey James. Those in the room who had not seen Brian play live before were clearly gobsmacked by his incredible technique. You could see the jaws of even seasoned guitar players dropping during Brian's solo. As one of my companions noted "he can make that guitar sing", and she was not wrong!

Next we had the song "Genevieve", which features on the new album. The lyrics recount the story of Cathryn's aunt who spent her adventurous younger years flying all over the world "on a merry-go-round of sunlight and clouds".

"Cumberland" is one of my favourite songs on the album. Cathryn told me the background to the song. In early 2010, the Nashville area suffered exceptionally heavy rain and the Cumberland River rose by over fifty feet, causing death and widespread damage to property [estimated at over $2 billion]. This, however, happened at the same time as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and press coverage concentrated on that event. The Nashville flood went largely unreported as the press were all down in New Orleans. Cathryn told me how the victims of the flood received no state or federal aid and it was left to volunteers to work together to clear up the mess. Cathryn told me how the people came together as one family in love and friendship which she described as "a fantastic thing, an inspirational moment". One of the enduring images is of "the guitars from the famous" being washed away, including some which had belonged to Johnny Cash.

The next song was also written about a disaster, but one much closer to home. Cathryn told me that "Time Has Proved You Right" was written after she and Brian saw a television programme about the fight for justice for the victims of the Hillsborough Tragedy. Cathryn said that she was so moved by the story [ "it tore me up"] that she was inspired to write a song in which she could speak to the families of the victims and she hopes that they will hear the song. The audience were visibly moved by the song and by the passion and emotion in Cathryn's vocals.

During our conversation, Cathryn told me how famed English collector of folk songs Cecil Sharp visited Virginia in 1918 and recorded six songs by her Great Grandfather Jacob Sowder. When Brian took Cathryn to Cecil Sharp House in London, they were allowed to see Sharp's diary which detailed his meeting with Jacob Sowder. Sharp wrote " I met Old Man Sowder, I like him a lot". Cathryn's father, John Grady Sowder was brought up in Franklin County, Virginia in the heart of Appalachia and carried the rich musical heritage of that area with him. His love of that musical heritage is documented on Cathryn's 2001 album "Pigg River Symphony", which is dedicated to her father.

The song "Eastview Lane" describes an idyllic childhood "back home at granddaddy's old place" , roaming the hills and being "completely free". Tonight's performance was preceded by a rousing version of "Dixie" which was her father's favourite song and which enjoyed considerable participation from the Lymm audience.

"Mr.Jefferson" recounts the story of Sally Hemmings and her children. Sally was a black slave who was reputedly the mistress of Thomas Jefferson and who had his "secret children" but Jefferson refused to acknowledge them. The song contrasts Jefferson's public pronouncements with his personal life- "Freedom, justice and trust for everyone else but us". The song featured an incredible guitar solo from Brian, whose playing throughout the evening was just stunning.

"Accanoe" is a powerful song relating the amazing story of Matoaka, who was the daughter of Chief Powhatan of the Chickahominy,a nation of native Americans from the Tidewater region of Virginia. Matoaka is better known as Pocahontas. The inspiration for this song came when Cathryn and Brian saw a statue of Pocahontas at St.George's Church in Gravesend, Kent where she was buried in 1617. Cathryn discovered that Matoaka/ Pocahontas came from Accanoe, a village in her home district in Virginia. Matoaka was imprisoned in James Town during the Indian wars but was saved by John Rolfe, an English tobacco planter, who married her and took her to England, where she was known variously as Pocahontas or Mrs.Rebecca Rolfe. Cathryn's performance of this song is something to behold as she adds bells and foot stomping to her powerful vocals.

After a short break [and the obligatory raffle], Brian returns to perform a solo guitar piece. Not just any guitar piece, mind you. This instrumental, called "Fingers Crossed", effectively launched Brian's illustrious career as a professional musician. Written when he was eighteen, Brian recorded the song on a cassette tape which he gave to Strawbs founder Dave Cousins. Dave knew that Beatles protégé Mary Hopkin was looking for a guitarist, so he gave the tape to Mary and her husband, the famed record producer, Tony Visconti. Of course, Brian got the gig with Mary and the rest, as they say, is history.

Brian hails from County Antrim in Northern Ireland and the song "Malahide Moon"is a lovely song about how he would ride on his Daddy's motorbike beneath the Malahide moon [ Malahide is a seaside town near Dublin, which is now home to various celebrities including some of U2].

Cathryn puts in another hypnotic performance on the evocative "Spirit Is Stronger", a rather mysterious and abstract song which talks of "a sacred place" and "wandering through the wilderness of history". With a great, string-bending solo from Brian, this is powerful stuff indeed.

The second set reveals more songs from "Real World" - "Walk On", "Goodbye Old Friend" and the touching "Alice's Song", which is about Brian's niece who has Asperger's Syndrome. The imagines what it would be like to see the world "through Alice's eyes". The next song "I Will" was also about a niece. This time it is about Ann, Cathryn's niece, who gave up a promising career and comfortable home ["this gilded cage"] in order to "face the wind and rain "and to pursue her own dreams.

For their thoroughly deserved encore, Cathryn and Brian perform a medley of Leadbelly's "Cottonfields" and Bob Wills' "My Window Faces The South", to great applause. It was a superb performance and I would like to thank Cathryn and Brian for giving up their time to chat to me before the gig. They are delightful company and I would thoroughly recommend seeing them live in the Real World.

Peter Cowley
Photocredits, Kristy Morris, Pete Bradley, Roger Liptrot

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