Fire And Wine -
An Armchair Guide To Steve Ashley

Author: Dave Thompson
Published: Self Published

Steve Ashley is more than just another English singer-songwriter. He's currently enjoying a bit of a renaissance, not least in terms of appreciation (and not before time, many of us would say), and Fire And Wine makes the most persuasive case imaginable to aid reassessment of Steve's major contribution to, and undoubted importance both within and outwith, what might be loosely termed the British contemporary folk scene.

The book's author, "Englishman abroad" Dave Thompson, is a prolific writer of all manner of books including a host of uncannily perceptive volumes in the Armchair Guide series which provides career overviews of key musicians, many hitherto unjustly neglected. Dave proves an ideal advocate, for he writes with a clear empathy for, and love of, Steve's music; at the same time his style, while readable and quite conversational, is nowhere superficial, for he packs a hell of a lot of information while seeking out intensely relevant (and often extensive) anecdotes and reminiscences to both support his argument and tell Steve's story and furnish considerable insights into the life and work of this modest, rightly cautious, sometimes diffident but above all scrupulously honest musician. Steve is painted - entirely correctly, IMHO - as a man of quiet integrity and considerable intelligence, an unassuming and apparently laid-back yet in reality completely focused consummate artist (in all senses) who both appreciates and is able to demonstrate the timeless value of understatement. He does things on his own terms and with complete conviction at all times, refusing to be fobbed off or distracted from his vision. He sings with his own accent, and even plays the guitar his own way.

Dave's assessment of Steve's special talent simply cannot be bettered: songwriting that embodies a quintessential Englishness, characterised by "a core understanding of the British way of life - what made the country's culture and values so unique, reflected through the core values of the traditional songs that he grew up loving", and concerned with "the tenor of our relationships, the nature of the family and the structure of everyday life, the need to preserve or at least conserve the things that we consider most valuable". These threads run right through Steve's output, which, though not exactly prolific, is incredibly consistent over his long (if sporadic) career to date. The esteem in which Steve's held by his fellow-musicians and the better class of music critics is fully borne out here, not least by judicious critical quotes but also from the impressive roll-call of musical and other collaborators, all of whom have their stories to tell: among these we find Fairporters Chris Leslie and Dave Pegg, Shirley Collins, Decameron's Dik Cadbury, (Austin) John Marshall… but the list is nigh endless.

Steve's story is told sensibly and in strict chronological order, with true affection and yet without the overly devotional, blindly gushing tone adopted by some biographers; Dave scores highly here, and by the end of the book the reader really feels to have gained direct access to Steve's mind, nay his very soul, while still respectfully observing a necessary critical perspective on his many and various activities. And even though I'd call myself a long-term admirer of Steve's music, I still learnt much more that I didn't know about Steve, in areas such as his interaction with, and attitude to, key personalities in the music world over the past four decades, and his musical predilections outwith the traditional folk scene out of which he emerged. The various phases of Steve's career are expounded colourfully, almost picaresquely at times, from his first love of the blues, his membership of various lineups from Tinderbox and Ragged Robin to the early Albion Country Band, his friendships with Peter Bellamy and Anne Briggs and so on. Each individual creative endeavour is discussed and contextualised, and direct (not tenuous) connections drawn with the records he was making at those times and with other projects with which he was becoming involved.

Some often surprising facts emerge too, such as his being signed to Motown at one point!… while the author doesn't shirk from presenting us with Steve's more negative life-experiences and outlining some of the less comfortable aspects of his contacts with industry personnel over the years. But positive light is nevertheless cast on virtually every episode of Steve's wide-ranging musical life, from the Kent folk clubs of the 60s to the developing electric folk movement, from involvement in Shirley & Dolly Collins' landmark Anthems In Eden project (which brought Steve's first appearance on disc, albeit as a session musician) and in Austin John Marshall's abortive magnum opus Smudge to the complex gestation of his own landmark, and highly influential, solo record Stroll On (and its own subsequent enhanced reissue), his brief period of political activism in the 80s to his frequent (temporary) periods of disappearance from (and disillusionment with) the music scene; and brought bang up to date with mention of future plans, a continuing presence in the live music arena and a healthy maintenance of his profile through an increased awareness of his work by new generations of artists, and more covers of his songs than ever before.

The whole narrative is presented and steered in such a way that you'll want to have Steve's recordings to hand for immediate listening access as the tale progresses, and the book's meticulously researched discography proves a considerable aid to locating these (or, rather infuriatingly in some cases, not!). The remainder of the book's abundantly useful appendices comprise a complete A-Z index of Steve's recorded compositions (including source albums, compilation appearances and cover versions), a list of players with whom Steve has worked, and a mouth-watering "wishful thinking" list of forty Steve Ashley "odds and sods" recordings which we will probably never get to hear…oh, and a host of rare photos too. So, go sit yourself down in that armchair with fire and wine, and savour that glow in the company of one of the music scene's genuinely good guys…

David Kidmann


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Steve Ashley - Fire And Wine

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