Kate Rusby has recorded 18 albums and this was her 7th. It was released after a difficult personal time for her. She split with John McCusker who had been her long term partner and musical collaborator. Her grandmother and uncle both died during the recording. Whereas John McCucker had produced all her albums up until this point, she produced the album herself, relying a lot on her brother Joe who is credit with engineering and mixing the album as well as providing emotional support. Kate Rusby said “It wasn’t something that was planned, but the split from John two years ago has inevitably put a strain on our working relationship, and sadly meant that it wasn’t the right time for us to make a record together. So the best thing was to produce this record myself, it’s been a long and at times lonely road, but with help from Joe we got there in the end. John still played on the record. He’s a brilliant musician and a great fella.”
The other musicians on the album are the nucleus of her live band at the time. Ian Carr had previously been the guitarist in the Kathryn Tickell band. Andy Cutting has collaborated with Chris Wood and June tabor amongst others and plays the accordion. Andy Seward plays double bass and he has also played with Roddy Woomble, Richard Thompson, Billy Connolly and others. John McCusker is a brilliant and talented multi instrumentalist and he plays guitar on five of the tracks.
Around the time that this album was released, Kate Rusby named “The Bitter Boy” as the best song that she had written. It is remarkably sad, angry, vindictive and loving all in one. Whether or not the song is aimed at John McCusker is immaterial – it’s a work of stunning beauty. The first verse describes a boy with a golden heart with whom she fell in love. In the second verse, he professes his love for her and in the third verse they are happy together. In the last verse, he betrays her. “He reached in my chest, deep in my breast and took the heart away forever”. In 2012, Kate Rusby re recorded a lot of her songs for a double CD retrospective called “20” to denote 20 years in the music business. She duetted with a number of different musicians on this album and for “Bitter Boy”, she chose to duet with her husband, Damien O’Kane. Was this choice ironic or simply musical? It doesn’t matter because it’s a beautiful version.
Richard texted me the other day to ask me what versions of “Willie O’ Winsbury” I knew. He was particularly fond of the version by Meg Baird. I knew the song, mainly because it is on Anais Mitchell’s 2013 album “Child Ballads” but I wasn’t aware that it is the basis for “John Barbury”, another beautiful song on “Awkward Annie”. When I first heard Kate Rusby’s version, I got very confused because the melody is the same melody that Fairport Convention used for “Farewell Farewell” from “Liege And Lief”. There is a song called “Farewell” on “Awkward Annie” but this is not it. Confusing. The melody is derived from Child Ballad 89, “Fause Foodrage” but the lyrics are derived from Child Ballad 100, “Willie O’ Winsbury”. Michael McGoldrick plays a haunting, beautiful flute solo in this song and he has played on hundreds of albums, including 12 of Kate Rusby’s. The only other instruments on the song are a piano and a string quartet. This is sanitised folk music – Kate Rusby has taken a traditional song and transformed it into something gorgeous. It might be too sweet for a traditionalist but I absolutely love it.
“Farewell” is a song that has been covered by many traditional folk artists. The Carter Family recorded it as “Sailor Boy” and it has also been called The Faithful Sailor Boy” or “The Sailor Boy’s Farewell”. Its origins are obscure. The “Mainly Norfolk” website states that there are versions recorded by artists in England, Ireland, North America and Australia. “Planets”, the song that follows has a mournful banjo and another pure vocal from Kate Rusby on a song that she wrote herself. “Andrew Lammie” is Child Ballad 233 and is as beautiful as any folk song.
Van Morrison recorded a song called “Purple Heather” on “Hard Nose The Highway” and his version of “Wild Mountain Thyme” was the first time I heard the song. Kate Rusby’s version features an operatic singer called John Hudson who gives a unique ambience to this song which, again, features a stunningly beautiful string quartet. Although John Hudson wasn’t at the Cambridge Folk festival in 2007, the YouTube clip is equally lovely.
Works of such beauty, calm and peace are hard to find but the whole of this album is an oasis of loveliness.