There’s always a temptation at festivals to make sure you see the performers you know and love, and sometimes this means you miss out on other undiscovered treats. I have to confess that at this April’s Costa Del Folk, Reg Meuross was not really on my radar, so I was unsure of what to expect from the Somerset based songwriter. Then he appeared in one of the late night sessions, sat quietly somewhere near the back, and with gentle persuasion from some of the other sessioners, took out his guitar and blew me away.
Judging by the crowds of people talking to him and buying his CDs after each of his performances, I suspect I was not alone. His ability to tell a story in a very human way through his songwriting, and his honest and intimate performances, won him many new admirers throughout the week, and I certainly won’t be missing any chance to see him again if I can help it.
Though he openly confesses that he’s “not a traddy”, Reg is a regular visitor at folk clubs and festivals up and down the country and his songs fit perfectly in the folk genre. They tell stories of real people and real situations in a way that is direct and accessible, his melodies are instantly catchy, often with a good chorus, and he isn’t averse to the more political side of things either.
“I’ve been doing the folk circuit for pretty much all my career really,” said Reg when we met up over a glass of wine in the Spanish sun. “I had a duo called The Panic Brothers back in the late 80s and we did really well. We had lots of gigs, did lots of TV, but then after three or four years I started to work with more folky performers. I made my first album in 1996 and then I didn’t do anything for a while – I moved out of London and wrote a bit for other people. Then, in 2004, I made my first proper solo album and that was the beginning of this part of my career. Since then, I have done about 12 albums, of all original material. I’ve got known for historical songs like Lizzie Loved A Highwayman, songs about real characters. People like Mike Harding have picked up on that and been really supportive. Back in 2009, I played at the Albert Hall at a folk concert for the Teenage Cancer Trust that Mike was involved with – there was Fairport, Eliza Carthy, Seth Lakeman, Kate Rusby and me. It’s been quite an organic development since then.”
“I’m not a traddy. I am not one of these people like Eliza Carthy or Seth Lakeman who are writers, but who are essentially trad players. I’ve always been a singer songwriter. There has always been this divisive thing about singer songwriters not being the real deal, being a bit too self-indulgent, but I have always believed that the living tradition of folk music is the singer songwriter. To think that these songs grew out of the ground or fell out of apple trees is just nonsense - we write the songs. It could be argued (and has been) that singer songwriters commercialise folk music, and that we do it for our own benefit. But back hundreds of years ago, they made broadside ballads and printed them out – that’s how they lived; they went from town to town and sold their broadside ballads. That was the storytelling tradition and I am part of that tradition – that’s what I do, I tell stories about people and their lives in my songs, and also the social and political climate that we live in. For me, that is absolutely the living tradition.”
“We all have to make a living though, and if you are going to do your job well, then it helps to get paid for it, because then you can sustain yourself and your family and you can afford to buy the equipment you need. There is no shame in that. Making a good living as a singer songwriter is possible, but you have to live a very long time! The longer you live, the more chance you have of making some money, so I hope to get very, very old and slightly wealthy. I do have other strings to my bow, though. I have written for theatre and TV, and then recently I’ve been doing songwriting workshops and that earns money.”
Some performers work in a variety of line-ups, in different groups and settings, and this flexibility increases the situations in which they are able to earn money. Over the years, Reg has worked with other people but he feels that he has come full circle now, to a place where he realises that the focus needs to be on how he sees and reflects what is going on in the world.
“When you build up a bit of a fan base, as I have (thankfully), people start to listen to what you say. They want somebody to say the things that they are thinking and feeling. That’s why Dylan is so famous, and Leonard Cohen – they speak from the heart about the way everybody feels. Being able to do that makes sense of what I do and gives me credibility. For example, I sang a song about my dad this week (Good With His Hands) and some guy came up to me and thanked me for saying what I said in the song. He had just gone through something similar with his father but had never heard anybody express it in the same way. Voicing what a lot of other people feel makes me happy - it’s a privilege.”
Reg’s songs seem to resonate deeply with people, for all different reasons, and one song in particular hit a real emotional note for me - The Band Played Sweet Marie. It tells the story of Wallace Hartley, who was the band leader and violin player on the Titanic on the night it sank in 1912, and his fiancée, Maria Robinson. Maria gave Wallace the gift of a violin and he is said to have played Nearer My God To Thee on it, before strapping it to his body and slipping to his death on that fateful night. Reg’s song was inspired by the violin being found again in recent years, and is a re-imagining of the story from Maria’s perspective – heartfelt and incredibly moving.
“I found the story in a newspaper,” he tells me. “I was about to light a fire and I saw this article with a picture of Maria Robinson and the violin. The violin had been found and after seven years of testing, was authenticated. Maria had given it to Wallace with a silver plaque attached to it saying – ‘To Wallace on the occasion of our engagement’. He took it on the Titanic and played it. What resonated with me about that whole story, as a musician, was the notion that ‘the band played on’. It’s a dual thing. On the one hand, as a musician I feel incredibly privileged to stand up and play in front of a roomful of people who have paid to come and see me, and be the focus of attention for a couple of hours. On the other hand, as a musician, you are the guy who comes and goes by the back door, and you are very much a tradesman in a lot of respects. That duality came across in the story of Wallace Hartley and the musicians on the boat with him. These guys made the ultimate sacrifice in a way – they could have got into the boats and escaped, but it was their job to stay and keep the people calm. It was expected of them, at the cost of their lives. So that violin is an incredibly symbolic thing for me, so I wrote the song after lots of research into the story.”
Another of Reg’s songs that has very much caught people’s attention is his anthemic England Green And England Grey, the title song of his 2014 album. “I wanted to write a song about all the iniquities of our government,” said Reg, “all the greed and the till dipping and the stuff that is in our faces every single day. I wanted to speak about it in a constructive way and in a way that other people would share, so I tried to write a modern folk song that would resonate with people. I even worked a bit of the tune of All Things Bright And Beautiful into it, deliberately, so that people would hear it and feel that they know it. I wanted people to think that they had heard it before. So I made up this tune and filled it with my own personal grumbles really, but I also deliberately tried to make it anthemic. I wanted to make a song that had all those elements, a big song, but that said what I felt needed to be said.”
One of the lines in the song states: ‘I don’t believe the BBC’ and refers to the Jimmy Saville scandal. Reg explains. “What really annoyed me about that was that the BBC, whoever they are, has known about it since the 60s – it was common knowledge in certain areas, but nobody ever did anything about it. Jimmy Saville was popular and bankable, so he was allowed to keep going. And all of that is down to the BBC as far as I’m concerned. That’s what that line refers to – fundamental corruption – and it’s the same in our government. We are getting poked in the eye by it every day and it pisses me off.”
“I am not a soapbox type person. I didn’t want to stand up and scream and shout it or ram it down people’s throats, so I decided to write it into this gentle, pretty little love song, essentially a love song to my country that sounds like All Things Bright And Beautiful! I think it gets under people’s skin though.”
Writing a good song that gets under people’s skin is a rare skill, but how easy is it to know, when writing, whether a song is actually good or not? Do many get abandoned in the process?
“Obviously whether something is good or rubbish is relative, but I think I do know,” says Reg. “I know what’s good for me, but a song might not necessarily work in the way I think it is going to work when I play it live. Essentially, performance (especially for singer songwriters) is about honesty – I am communicating with you in a way that I feel comfortable, so I am not going to sing songs that I don’t like as I wouldn’t be able to get behind them and communicate them properly.”
“I do abandon songs. Sometimes there are lines that you think are really clever, but they don’t come off. I worked with a guy once who had been working on a song for 30 years and he wouldn’t let it go. But I always say to people, if something doesn’t work today, just dump it and you can try again tomorrow. If it doesn’t feel right to you then the chances are it’s not right. Having said all that, I’ve actually got an album – The Dreamed And The Drowned - made up of songs that I had rejected. I was approached by the Bodleian Music Library to see if I had any songs that hadn’t been released. I found 25, and they put together a collection. They were all songs I didn’t think were good enough, but I got some of the best reviews I have ever had for them. So I am the worst judge. For me, it’s about what I want to communicate at that time – it’s not really about good and bad.”
Earlier this year, Reg released his latest album, December, and it is just Reg and his guitar (and a bit of mouthorgan). On previous albums he has involved other artists from the folk scene such as Karen Tweed, Phil Beer and Jackie Oates, but he decided it was time for a change. “It’s an album that I wrote in about a week and recorded in two days and it has been my most successful album so far. I have always worked solo, and when recording albums, I thought that I needed to enhance them with all these lovely musicians. But I am starting to realise, after all this time, that most people want what they have just heard at a gig. They want you, on your own, and the song. So there will be more of that coming. This year I am doing a solo tour, promoting December with concerts and workshops, but I have decided that I am going to do two more solo albums this year as well. The next one will be more political, and the third one I am going to keep as a surprise.”
The album may well be just Reg and his guitar, but the guitar in question is a 1944 Martin and, in true songwriter’s fashion, there is a special story behind it.
“I found it in San Jose,” says Reg. “A wealthy woman there decided she wanted to be a singer songwriter. She randomly went on the internet and found me. She got in touch and I got booked to go out and teach her for a week. While I was there I thought I would do some gigs. I’ve worked in the States quite a lot and I always buy a guitar when I am there as they are about half price compared to here. So I went to this store and bought an old Gibson, but as I was leaving the shop I saw this old 1944 Martin on the wall for sale and, as you know, those cost an arm and a leg. I took it down, played it, and although it needed lots of work done, I knew that this was the guitar I had been looking for all my life. I wish I had found it 30 years ago. I gave it back (I couldn’t afford it and I had already bought the Gibson) and left the shop, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I came back to England, sold the Gibson to try to get money for the Martin, but it wasn’t enough. I phoned the woman in the States and asked her if she could go and buy the guitar and stick it under the bed till I could afford to pay her for it – and she did.”
“There it stayed for about 6 months while I tried to raise the money to buy it. Even though it was a wreck, it was still very valuable. I couldn’t get the money together and, in the end, I told the story to a friend who runs Rega Reseach (they make the best hi-fis in the country). About a week later he phoned me up and said that they wanted me to have the guitar. His accountant (whom I had written a song for previously) wanted to put up the money for me to buy it. Roy from Rega Research wanted to have it shipped out through his company. And then I spoke to Stuart Palmer in Doncaster, who is one of the top luthiers in the country, and he said he would fix it for me. So there was this whole chain of kindness that followed this instrument around the world, and eventually I got it. The guitar has a kind of magic about it, and not just because of the story. People notice it.”
And it undoubtedly helps that such a lovely guitar is being played by a musician such as Reg Meuross, accompanying songs that are beautifully crafted and lovingly sung. As we finish our interview, Reg jokingly says to me: “One of the great things for me is that, having not been hampered by success, I can do what I like.” That may well be true, but whatever he is doing seems to be working for him. So, more of what you like please Reg. Much more!
by Fiona Heywood
Printed in Issue 115 of The Living Tradition
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