Good news, everyone. They absolutely do make ‘em like they used to.
Let us introduce you to Gary Stewart, making his entrance into the world of music with a crash and a howl and a fiery folkish burr. Ellen and the Escapades fans should already be in on the secret of Yorkshire’s treasure of a Scotsman; he lent his dulcet tones to the harmonies of their highly acclaimed album ‘All The Crooked Scenes’ and he’s been thumping the bass up and down the country, touring that same record.
Now he’s releasing his own labour of love, the ‘Year And A Day‘ EP. Sparking off British and American folk traditions alike, you’d be hard pressed to pin any of this breathtaking music to a specific time or place. Like all the greatest folk songs, they shoot for timelessness and split the arrow right through the bullseye.
‘Thorns’ fades in from the mists of time, a last chance saloon ballad rippling with electric tremolo guitar wails and a refrain like coyotes baying at the moon. Drum rolls fit to stop the heart speak of the quality of production afforded to these few tracks. Every instrument rings true and clear, crisp and unhurried, letting the mood sink in. We’re only just getting to know Gary Stewart, and by the measure of ‘Thorns’, he means business.
The calmer but by no means less gripping ‘Eve’ continues this unspoken theme of songs rescued from the depths of time. There’s just as much ‘Greensleeves’ to this EP as there is ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, but this transatlantic feel doesn’t stop at mere instrumentation. Stewart’s own voice, soft and eloquent and gracefully sincere, calls to mind both James Taylor and Bert Jansch without relying too much on either. This is a voice in command of his audience, not shouting or stumbling over phrases to make himself heard, but speaking and obliging us to listen.
Whilst we’re dropping names like breadcrumbs, this listener could’ve sworn he detected the influences of Ry Cooder and Fairport Convention on the latter two tracks. Strike me down if ‘Green’ couldn’t stand alongside any part of Cooder’s bluegrass soundtrack to The Long Riders. The fiddle and the banjo and the mad strumming guitars Stewart brings together here make up just the kind of song from the backwoods of Missouri to spirit Frank and Jesse James away from the law with mischievous grins on their faces.
‘Blue’ owes much to the eerie atmospherics of Fairport classics like ‘Reynardine’ and ‘Crazy Man Michael’, but Stewart has no trouble steering the music in new and scenic directions. “I will be your setting sun,” he sings, “If you will be my breaking dawn.” This is a songwriter, a musician, a singer who truly feels these words and brings them off the page and into the heart.
Gary Stewart has supported just about every folk act worth knowing. He’s played festivals of every size and shape and regional description. It’d fair to say this man knows this material inside out. It shows. ‘Year And A Day’ boasts an acutely enviable depth of passion and strength of purpose. These songs of love and anguish could be sung beneath the shadow of the Ozarks, atop the rolling Yorkshire Dales or in a Thursday night open mic basement bistro; they’d still sound like the sky splitting in two.
They prove, not for the first or last time, that big things come from small beginnings.