Sara Grey has been a great ambassador for American traditional music in the UK down the years, now pushing it forward again in the duo with her son Kieron Means. Vic Smith finds out how it works.
“We have just developed an uncluttered style. It doesn't mean that it is an easy way to play; it just means that it allows the song to fill those spaces. I just find it so important. That is one thing that I can articulate."
Well, after nearly 40 years of friendship, the last word that I would reach for to describe Sara Grey would be inarticulate. Amongst the first I'd choose in summing her up would be enthusiastic, knowledgeable, committed, sharing, hard working...
Yet it is difficult to describe her position and importance in the scene that she works in and I think I would have to make a gardening metaphor to do so. It is easy for us to get excited about the first flowering of some brilliant new plant whilst ignoring the sturdy old apple tree in the corner that has been bearing fruit for decades. I'm not suggesting that Sara is overlooked or neglected; one look at her busy touring schedule would be enough to deny that. It is a feeling that she never has quite achieved the position that she thoroughly deserves and that, in traditional and folk music circles, her vast, rich musical experience should accord her a higher status than it does. In fact it goes beyond this. She has been a remarkable ambassador for American traditional music on this side of the Atlantic. She feels she has been successful as people have responded positively to her performances over the years and American traditional music now has a much higher profile and following in the UK. She'd like to think that much of this is due to her efforts.
Perhaps a feature on someone who has been in the business for 45 years ought to be a career perspective, but this is not going to be it. For one thing, this is far from the first piece that I have written about her-the last in fRoots was in 1990 -and for another, I don't consider what Sara has done to be quite as important as what she is doing. So, pausing only to mention the fact that she was in a duo with Ed Trickett before she came to this country in the mid-sixties, that she was in another with fellow American Ellie Ellis, though working mainly in Britain and that she led the lovely Lost Nation Band, I'd like to concentrate on what I take to be, musically, the most satisfying aspect of her career and that is her current partnership with her son.
I've seen Kieron grow up and remember his teenage years when his instruments were the saxophone and the electric guitar. What happened? "The saxophone? Well, I took that up briefly in order to persuade a girl at school to go out with me, but that went back to the shop and that was the end of the sax. And besides our collie had chewed the mouthpiece. It was a doomed endeavour from the start." Time to change the subject and ask where the traditional songs and tunes fitted into all this. "I played it through my teens but I don't think that mum was aware of how much I was playing traditional stuff at the time, in my bedroom. It was only late on that we came together and played. But all the time I was absorbing it in the background." Absorbing it very fully by the subsequent sound of things.
When Sara and Kieron sing and play together there is an intense and quite rare empathy in their playing and this is something of which they are very aware. Sara: "We never have to think about the phrasing. Kieron has an uncanny way of knowing where I am going. We kind of fly by the seat of our pants. That's the way that we work the best, I think. We don't go for very elaborate rehearsals, you may be horrified to know, but we do work through songs. It would ruin what we are doing to make it too practised. Kieron is the most intuitive musician that I know." Kieron: "I know when she is going to take a breath, I know when she is going to pause that extra moment. I know when she is going to forget a line, though she hardly ever does."
I can't remember Sara losing the words of a song, but it would hardly be surprising if she did, given the enormity of her repertoire. "I do have a very large repertoire of songs; really huge. My husband, Dave, says he thinks that one day my head will burst open from all the songs that are in there, that my head won't hold any more. I seem to have this ongoing thing about having songs that I am learning on the go. I can never seem to be working on just one or two songs at a time. I just go with several, maybe nine or ten on the go and then I think to myself, 'I have got to stop this'. I don't know if it's obsessive..." Kieron gives this statement some consideration before deciding, "It's borderline!".
But, for all the huge numbers of songs that excite her, Sara has never hankered after writing her own. Over the years there have been several songwriters whom she has favoured; one quickly thinks of Si Kahn, Gordon Bok and Dave Goulder; but a large percentage are from the very best that the tradition has to offer. Kieron, on the other hand, has written some crackers, as the three that are found on his two albums testify: The Shark Song, I Worry For This World and One Day. Although it is not constructed as a blues, it is clear from this last song that Kieron has listened carefully to Skip James and a range of other southern bluesmen.
When Sara and Kieron recorded a pair of albums for The Tradition Bearers label in 2003, they reckoned they had stumbled on a pretty good format. In the time that they had set aside for recording, they worked with a fiddle player, Kate Lissauer, and came up with enough solo, duo and trio tracks for Sara's Boy, She's A Daisy and Kieron's Run Mountain. They repeated the pattern a couple of years later with a different recording company and a different fiddler. This time it was Ben Paley. Rehearsing for the album was the first time they had played with Ben and they both spent a considerable time telling me what a wonderful fiddler he is; not that I needed any convincing having been playing regularly for dances with Ben for nearly 20 years now. Before this interview, Ben had told me that working with Sara and Kieron was the best time he had ever had in a recording studio, so clearly a mutual admiration society has developed.
In spite of Ben's great contribution, the outstanding thing about both these albums is the singing. Sara's narration of Derry Dems Of Arrow is ballad singing at its best; Kieron's voice has that haunting quality that stays with you and is really plaintive on pieces such as Drunkard's Lonely Child. The highest moments on both albums are when they sing together, and you would have to go a long way to find anything as fine as False Young Man.
Kieron's guitar playing is another element that catches the ear. He has a distinctive and melodic way with the blues and his back-up guitar playing on old-timey songs is far from the standard chordal approach. "I think that is because originally I wasn't thinking in terms of accompanying the banjo, I was just thinking of playing the song in the way that I heard it. Also, my approach to the guitar is a bit different. A lot of guitar players, I think, work in patterns that are just moved up and down the fretboard. I prefer to approach the guitar like a fiddle player or a banjo player approach their instruments. What our styles really have in common on the banjo and guitar is the rhythm."
Sara feels that this is also pushing her banjo playing in different directions. "He is making me do things that I hadn't before. Like, I've always been a banjo frailer, but now I am doing some two-finger picking on some songs. I've never done that in my life, but there are certain songs that I do with Kieron where that is needed. I've had to make myself do it."
Although touring and playing as a duo has become their major direction in the last two or three years, there are quite a number of other things that they are involved in. Their contribution to the American Song Links project was a major one and they are both heavily involved in giving workshops at festivals. Sara has always had a strong involvement in taking traditional song into schools and this continues.
There have been two main thrusts to this work. The first with Tom Spiers in Scotland, offering some 'migration of ballads' workshops and collaborating on a book of the ballads. "It was a working booklet on taking various ballads and songs that have migrated, and some that have come back, and some that have changed a lot and some that haven't changed. We tried to pick really wide differences in the variances of the ballads, so that you get some interesting picture of how some of the ballads have gone through a lot of drastic changes and very interesting changes. Then we did a CD to go with the booklet, so that we could link up each version with a verse of each version."
The other surrounds the fact that the book Cold Mountain has entered the English syllabus. It was firstly a school in Essex that approached Sara to help with the musical approach to the book in trying to give the historical context of the novel. "I love to take on a challenge like that. I spent a lot of time working on that novel and how it related to traditional songs and that period of time during the American Civil War, and trying to bring the full picture to light. It was very rewarding and I enjoyed it so much. There is so much to be taught about social and oral history through the songs. Students would love it much more than just delivering cold dry facts. It made all the bits of the puzzle come together for them. Those students between the ages of 15 and 18 could really understand what that novel was all about. Then at the end they saw the film as well, so they were able to have a visual impression of what the Sacred Harp music was like and the correlation between Sacred Harp singing and Scottish psalm singing." The workshop was subsequently taken up by other schools and fitted in with her performing schedule.
Sara has usually handled her own bookings rather than working through an agent. This would seem to be fine for British gigs, when she is based in the UK and has built up a mass of contacts over decades, but it seems amazing that she can fill a two-month tour of the USA as she did in the autumn of 2006. Kieron: "There is certainly a wider variety of venues that we play over there: bars, barns, shacks, house concerts, cafes, coffee houses, festivals - every kind of venue imaginable - bookshops, libraries, churches, sporting venues, theatres, halls, you never know quite what you are going to get."
Come on Sara, how on earth do you get all these contacts when you are based thousands of miles away? "I just don't know. I have a tour that is just amazing, in terms of the places that we are going into. There are so many interesting venues out there. You have one contact in Kansas, a return booking say, then it kind of snowballs: 'Well, I know a teacher who would love you to come to her school'. Then there's the Ozark Folklore Centre. I've done things there before and when they found out that I was coming, they wanted me to come back, because I sing a lot of Ozark songs and then they recommended some other places and it just snowballs from there. Then they are having a big Folk Legacy Golden Ring reunion in Rochester, New York, so that's happening and I'll be there with Gordon Bok and Ed Trickett and we will be on the stage together for the first time in 40-some years. All kinds of stuff happens."
Clearly it does - and let's hope that stuff continues to happen for these very special performers.