The death of Andy M. Stewart on December 27th 2015 has taken from us not just an immensely talented songwriter and performer, but also one of the country’s last remaining traditional singers.
The first time I remember meeting Andy would have been in the early 1970s. I was watching TV at my parents’ house in Rattray, Perthshire, when there was a knock at the door. I answered it to be met by three young men carrying a variety of instrument cases. It was Andy, Ewen Sutherland and Dougie MacLean, come to play tunes with my elder brother, Kenny. We were all pupils at Blairgowrie High School at the time and, although I was three or four years younger than the others, just a few nights later, I found myself joining them in Kenny’s room and playing bass as part of the band.
We played together for about a year as Puddock’s Well and also took over the running of Blairgowrie Folk Club. Even back in those early days, I clearly remember being hugely impressed by the sheer number of songs Andy knew. He could – and frequently would - sing any of them at the drop of a hat. Most he had learnt from his family, others he had picked up at ceilidhs and parties. Some were variations of songs which had already become well-known on the folk scene. Others were totally new to our young ears, and to a few more seasoned ears too. All were eagerly and happily shared with whoever wanted to hear them (and wherever they wanted to hear them). We put together our own versions of many of these songs and, in a scene where new material was like gold dust, a lot of them found their way into the repertoire of a good number of bands and artists playing the circuit at the time.
Andy was asked to join Silly Wizard in 1974, a couple of years before I was also asked to become a member (a decision in which Andy played a key role)! He remained with the band until we split in 1988. The years spent in Silly Wizard were very happy days for us all, and Andy certainly loved those times. He absolutely revelled in sharing his music with more and more people and, as the band developed, cherished the opportunities which arose to bring his songs to audiences well beyond Scotland and the rest of the UK. The band released nine albums, the last of which, A Glint Of Silver, was voted album of the year in 1986 by the prestigious American organisation NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors). There was also a concert video, Live In Atlanta, where Andy’s legendary on-stage humour shines through almost as brightly as his intense, passionate vocals. One reviewer once wrote that Andy “puts more emotion into one line of a song than most singers do in a lifetime”. Having witnessed him singing up close much more than most, I would not disagree with a single word of that tribute.
Outwith Silly Wizard, Andy recorded several albums of songs, both traditional and, increasingly, self-penned. His first solo album, By The Hush, containing probably his best-known and most-covered song, The Rambling Rover, was voted Melody Maker’s folk album of the year in 1982. This was followed by several top-notch releases in collaboration with Manus Lunny and later with Gerry O’Beirne. On checking back through his discography, I found it almost beyond belief that his last album, Donegal Rain, was released as far back as 1997. The fact that he was – and is - still held in such esteem and incredibly high regard pays testament to the sheer quality and longevity of his skills both as a composer and as a performer. Many of Andy’s songs have become Scottish standards, sung by artists around the world from back room pubs to major concert halls. Over the years, his songs have been performed and recorded by a range of top Scottish, Irish and English artists, including The Dubliners, Wolfstone and June Tabor, as well as by a large number of American and Australian Celtic acts. Other artists to have covered his work include a Russian heavy metal band, a Balkan jazz fusion group, in fact an endless stream of Celtic and folk musicians from around the world.
Andy had a great love of country music and was delighted when the multi-Grammy award winning American country singer, Vince Gill, recorded his song, Donegal Rain.
Andy coupled his post-Wizard performing activities with a new and successful career in film and television lighting which continued until his health began to deteriorate in the early 2000s. He began to experience back pain and occasionally had trouble walking. He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis and underwent major surgery on three occasions between 2003 and 2013. Following the third operation, he was left paralysed from the waist and spent his remaining time in and out of hospital. I visited Andy many times in hospital, firstly at the Spinal Injuries Unit of the Southern General in Glasgow where he spent around 10 months following the unsuccessful surgery. In the following months, his time was split between his home, Borders General Hospital in Melrose and, briefly, a community hospital in Peebles. I was thoroughly amazed and hugely inspired by how he coped with what was, unquestionably, a devastating situation. We spent a lot of quality time, especially in the early days at the unit in Glasgow. We talked for hours and I found Andy, at that time, to be optimistic, upbeat and, above all, determined that he was going to get back to writing and possibly performing again. Invariably our conversations would drift back to our times together before, during and after our days in Silly Wizard. I think it was around then that I really began to appreciate just how long we had been friends, and best friends at that.
I mentioned earlier how much Andy enjoyed country music. This was a love shared by all of us in Silly Wizard, developed by listening to country stations on car radios when we were touring around the USA in the 1980s. We had our heroes – George Jones, Merle Haggard but, head and shoulders above all others, was always the great Willie Nelson.
Two days after Christmas last year, I drove two of my daughters to work in Dunkeld. On the way back, and without thinking about it at all, I reached over and switched on the radio. The car filled with the unmistakable tones of Willie Nelson singing We Will Meet In The Sweet By And By. My heart sank.
When I got home just a few minutes later, Andy’s son Donald called and told me what I had already figured out - that his dad was gone.
As the news spread, tributes poured in from around the world, national newspapers ran obituaries, radio shows featured his music, artists dedicated songs to his memory at events great and small, far and wide. It was a remarkable and thoroughly genuine outpouring and, although I know it was much, much more than Andy would ever have expected, it was certainly no more than he deserved.
I’m old enough now to know that, in life, you make a lot of friends and a lot of acquaintances, but you only ever make a few really close friends. Andy M. Stewart was certainly one of my closest friends and the idea that I will never see him again has a lot of work to do before it will fully sink in with me. When I got married in 1985, Andy was my best man. He still is.
Andy is survived by his son Donald, his sister Angela and his wife Kathy.