This next bit is not strictly about steel guitars. It’s more about the people I make music with right now. You can skip it if you like, but if these names come up later on, don’t come all ‘but who the hell is HE?’ with me.
Music is for sharing. There are certain individuals, no doubt, who are happy and talented enough to generate every note and beat themselves. I am not among them. For my playing to have any meaning, it’s really important to have someone to play with, and listen to. The traditional format for this is a band. I’ve been in lots of bands and I really like them. You get all the upside of being in a fully-fledged street gang, with a marginally reduced risk to life and limb. Here is a list of the name of every band I can ever remember being in, in order, from the age of 13.
Walking Pace – Moon Rocks in the Sea of Tranquility – The Sulphur Petals – In The Machine – The Chickens of Chan – The Suspect Upstairs – Sometime Sartre – The Greenstreets – Jesus and Jane – Surf ‘n’Turf – The Choppers – The Swerves – Ten Tall Chimneys – The Walnuts (n.o.)
I am limiting myself here to named bands which have actually performed on a stage. If I were to include every cul-de-sac rehearsal, drunken ‘lets-do-it’ and rough book scribble, then I reckon you could triple the length. A few things strike me looking at that list:
A. It’s not as long as I thought it would be.
B. Most band names start with ‘The’. Because that’s the best way to start a band name.
C. There are some absolute stinkers.
Walking Pace I think I am excused, because I was just 13 at the time, although even at that age I should have seen that it sends out a truly terrible message: nothing in the music you’re about to hear will either stop you in your tracks or encourage you to dance. It was indeed, a plodding nonsense, including in our repertoire my first ever songwriting effort, the dirgelike ‘Westminster’ for which the only lyric was the monotone word ‘Westminster’. I must also say that I didn’t come up with all the names, and some of the bands I joined already had their names when I joined them. It’s not great band politics to demand that a name is changed at your first rehearsal.
As you can see, the last name on the list, and still bearing a ‘not out’ legend, is that of the Walnuts. It is, I feel, one of my most successful band names, because it achieves the highly desirable effect of keeping audience expectation very low indeed. It also hints at the idea that the instruments that we use will be made of wood, therefore acoustic, which is largely correct. There are three Walnuts, and they are currently Davie, who came up with the name, Donald and myself. We go to places and play other people’s songs.
Here are the other Walnuts.
As you can see, Davie has a guitar and an impressively full beard. I met Davie a couple of years back when he came on my radio show and we played and sang The Allman Brothers’ Come and Go Blues with absolutely no rehearsal whatsoever, a tradition we keep alive to this day. It was an instant hit with our listeners as the radio station’s switchboard registered no outright complaints. I vowed on that day never to let him wander too far. Davie plays intricate finger style guitar and sings with the high and lonesome tone of a cowpoke cut adrift in foul weather.
Davie’s True Grit comes in another form though. After looking after his in-laws through the latter stages of Alzheimer’s, he decided that he had to do something to help sons and daughters cut adrift in a similar fashion. He founded sevensongs.org, which works on a simple principle. He will come into your house or party and sing seven songs for you, free of charge. If you like what you hear, you might want to put something into his Dundee cake tin at the end. He’s played over seventy of these micro-gigs and so far raised over £20,000. I’ve played a couple with him and they are always unique events. It’s amazing how simply giving musical entertainment and asking nothing in return changes the tone of a party into something bigger and more inclusive and mutual. Seven Songs is a simple, genius idea, and I love being a small and occasional part of it.
Donald almost didn’t make it into the Walnuts. Davie and I have very strict standards of professionalism which he just doesn’t seem to think apply to him, namely:
1.At least one song in the set must be started, or even completed whilst abiding by the one-unique-key signature-per-member rule.
2.Nothing is to be played/sung without lyric sheets.
3. Pre-arranged orchestrations are agreed as a guideline only, otherwise where’s the wee-making unpredictable thrill of performance?
Donald doesn’t abide by rules 1, 2 or 3, because quite frankly, he is a blisteringly good fiddle player. He learnt his chops as a kid playing ceilidh fiddle in pubs and at festivals in Scotland and beyond, and the music is in him like the grain in wood. He’s also a country fiddler par excellence. In short, you could drop Donald into any group of musicians in any setting, and he’d be awesome, even in E flat. They’d get him on the Mongolian Steppe, and no doubt, on Mars. What on earth is he doing with us? I think it’s simple. He just loves to play, we asked him to play, and he currently doesn’t have much else on.
It’s worth mentioning that both Davie and Donald are Scottish, and are, sooner or later are likely to vote to devolve from me by a convincing two-thirds majority.
So, them’s The Walnuts. Then there’s Scott Balcony.
Scott runs Balcony Shirts in Uxbridge.
He’ll run you up a batch of t-shirts or embroidered trucker caps at a very reasonable price and then ship them out to you. They also have their own line of excellently funny t-shirts, designed by Scott and the team which claim to put a bit of spunk into your wardrobe. Things like this, modelled by Scott himself, looking insouciant.
Scott and I met on twitter, through broadcaster Iain Lee. It quickly became apparent that we have, if not completely overlapping musical taste, then it represents an almost total eclipse of the art, with a bit of exposed Level 42 on my side and some of the more obscure psych-rock flopping out on his. Crucially, Scott spends the time between t-shirts writing and recording his own pithy country and folk songs, generally about things he can see around him. Early on, he decided to sing these in his own Uxbridge accent, avoiding the usual mid-Atlantic mix-up, which brings the whole enterprise a level of authenticity to which Steve Earle would silently nod his approval. That, my friends, is country. Have a taste.
For a little while now, Scott and I have bounced recorded tracks back and forward to add vocals, keyboards and, yes, lap steel to. It’s nothing short of a joy to add a bit, send it, and then hear it come back miles better. He’s happy to let me have a go with his prize possessions, and crucially, is straight with me when it just hasn’t worked.
For me, this is what music is. Taking a risk, and showing a bit of who you are with people with whom you might share a bit of a connection. These connections have come and go over the years. Some have lasted decades, some just minutes. Some don’t click despite all the signs being positive, some seem to work because of the differences, rather than in spite of them. That’s all part of the magic. What does anyone else thinks of it? Well that’s really their concern. It’s nice to have an appreciative audience, but bitter experience taught me long ago to learn to live without one.