Sara Grey & Kieron Means
"Living Tradition" - August November 2019
Singing Down The Generations
Brian Peters talks ballads, blues and banjos with Sara Grey and Kieron Means
This year marks a significant milestone in the career of the seemingly ageless Sara Grey. 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of her arrival on these shores, initially to tour, then to collect songs in the Outer Hebrides, and finally to live for most of the following 46 years. For over four years now she's been back in her native USA, but she still finds plenty of opportunities to return to these islands and re-establish her status as one of the UK's
best-loved American performers. This year she's touring and recording once again with her son, the prodigiously talented Kieron Means, in a duo which seems to go from strength to strength.
I've followed Sara's career for a long time as a fan, journalist , friend and musical co-conspirator. My 2002 article, 'Grey Means Business' can still be read on The Living Tradition website (www.livingtradition .co.uk/ magazine/articles) , and readers wishing to catch up with the background could do worse than go back to it.
Seventeen years ago, the mother son combination was relatively new and still developing, Sara's trademark banjo trailing receiving effective accompaniment from Kieron's unconventional but highly skilled guitar picking, and the kind of instinctive harmony for which family members are famous. All these elements are to be found in abundance on their new CD for Wildgoose , which will be launched at Whitby Folk Week in August. Taking a line from one of the songs, it's called Better Days Are Gamin' - "let's hope so!" sighs Sara, rolling her eyes. Not surprisingly, they're bubbling with enthusiasm when I listen through the final mixes with them. "I feel that Doug Bailey (producer) has captured the essence of the two of us very well," declares Sara. "I love the warmth of the sound - it's just like we were sitting in a living room." "Doug is very invested in our music," Kieron adds, "he's offered us good advice and we had a great time recording with him."
Sara's recording career has been a long one, going back to a 1970 LP with Ed Trickett - just re-released in the US by the prestigious Smithsonian-Folkways label, to Sara's obvious delight - and three albums with her 1980s duo partner Ellie Ellis. Kieron has been present on the last four CDs, whilst releasing two of his own on which Sara played. How does the new album differ from its predecessors? "It's much more of a duo project," insists Kieron, "not just one of us playing back-up for the other." Describing the breadth of material - traditional songs still very much to the fore, of course - Sara muses: "It's almost like a musical journey through America - we didn't set out to cover every region or anything, it just seems to have happened organically." Certainly there is a wide geographical spread, from Ontario in Canada, through New England and the mid-West, and of course the Southern Appalachians where the banjo developed from its African-American origins to become an important instrument for song accompaniment. Some of the material has been added recently to Sara and Kieron's repertoire. but there are some familiar songs from their past too: "We've gone back and selected a few that have been our favourites over the years," enthuses Kieron, "songs I've known since I was a kid and always liked." One such is Derroll Adams ' The Sky, an almost mystical song first recorded by Sara on Promises To Keep in 1990, now given a new and emotional treatment , while Goodbye My Lover , which surfaced on Back In The Airly Days in 1998, is also revisited.
New material includes the Appalachian ballad, My Dearest Dear , collected by Cecil Sharp in North Carolina in 1916, which they 've arranged very effectively as a wistful , slow piece in waltz time. The Hills Of Mexico is from Roscoe Holcombe, possessed of a stark, plaintive melody given extra depth by a strange-sounding banjo tuning . "That's 'Last Chance tuning ', which came not from Holcombe but from Dock Boggs," Sara explains. "It's an adapted C modal tuning, but you drop a couple of strings and it comes out as basically an F tuning. It's a bit dissonant , but the minute I heard it Ithought, oh my God, that will work! So we follow the song with the actual fiddle tune, Last Chance, that Boggs invented it for." "Last Chance has a note in it that only exists on the banjo - not in any conventional Western scale!" puts in Kieron drily.
Another newly-learned song is On The Way To Jordan, a call / response gospel number that comes not - as I'd assumed - from the South, but from New England, and the repertoire of the stunningly talented young Rhode Island musicians Benedict Gagliardi and Armand Aromin , aka The Voxhunters. "Benedict and Armand have done a lot of research in their home area, which isn't known for being a centre for balladry, and they've done an incredible job finding material," says Sara. "I love their humility; I love their passion."
There is actually something of a revival of traditional music going on in the North East of the US right now, after a long period when it seemed that most young musicians only wanted to play old-time string band stuff. Sara is full of praise for an organisation called YouthTrad which, led by the ballad singer Julia Friend, has turned a lot of young people on to the delights of singing old songs, through camps and social events. The vibrant Cape Cod summer school, TradMad, is now seeing the benefit, with a strong and enthusiastic youth element.
"TradMad brings young and older singers together without any discrimination - there's such a lot of respect for the source singers and the veterans , it's wonderful to see," says Sara with enthusiasm . "These kids are not first and foremost career musicians - they 've got this great passion for the songs and the sources, same as me! That's what I love about them."
Those of us who have followed Kieron Means' development over the years know very well his talents as a singer of the blues, and the new CD doesn't disappoint there either. Steamboat Whistle is an opportunity for him to show off his talent as a blues guitar picker, a skill he's been working on.
''As I grew up listening to my mother's repertoire and learning her songs, I would try to emulate the banjo on the guitar, looking for a way to accompany those modal tunes, which often didn't have a lot of interesting chord changes. So I would work on the principle of playing the melody over a drone, with the guitar in an open tuning. People used to say I 'trailed ' the guitar, although I didn't actually do that, but I did use hammer-ans to get that roll on the rhythm, and that was pretty much a trailing effect. But then several years ago I was lucky enough to take a week 's class with Andy Cohen (a highly-respected piedmont-style blues picker) at Common Ground Festival in Maryland. We became buddies and he's been very generous with his time, taken me right back to basics, encouraged me to work on my technique, and helped me to learn some more traditional ways of accompanying songs on the guitar, so I've got more variety in the locker. Now I'm living in the Adirondacks I have a neighbour who's another fantastic player in that style, a wonderful lady named Joan Crane, who used to be a touring musician. Joan is my mother 's generation, but we've become really good friends. That kind of blues is a very primal music but it's also controlled - a lot of those guys played for dances, and it's all about rhythm - you gotta be hitting that down beat at the start of the bar."
Quite apart from expanding his guitar technique , Kieron has really matured as a singer, his voice acquiring that 'old as the hills' sound that lends a real authenticity to his blues songs and traditional ballads. His unaccompanied performance of Dillard Chandler 's A Sailor Being Tired at one live show I witnessed put him up there with Tim Eriksen as a top-class interpreter of an archaic song. Meanwhile Sara's voice is as sweet and expressive as ever, and one notable feature of their work together these days is the amount of vocal harmony. Both feel that the way they're working now, both live and on the new recording, is much more of a partnership, and less a case of one backing the other. Songs like The Silk Merchant's Daughter are sung unaccompanied in two-part, while Joe Newberry's powerful I Know Whose Tews marries harmonies with Kieron's bluesy, open-tuned guitar.
Sara is clearly enjoying life in her adopted hometown of Rockland, Maine, where there's a lively folk scene: "I love the way I've been welcomed back into the music community over here. After 46 years away I didn't really know what to expect, but to be involved here has been so good - it's given me new enthusiasm." Although they live over six hours apart, that's not a big deal in US terms. As Kieron says, "We have more time to play together, to select songs together, and to talk about the songs. We've been singing a lot with the whole family - with my stepfather Dave Maclurg (a fine singer formerly with Liverpool's shanty group, Stormalong John) , and my brothers Jeff and Dave. We performed together at the sea music festival at Mystic, Connecticut, and it felt really special. You know, Mom and I have been doing this for over 20 years now! I feel so lucky after all those years to be still playing music together."