Ashley Hutchings is the man who ‘rocked up’ folk back in the 1970s and laid claim to founding a new genre of popular music.
An original member of the era’s most iconic electric folk bands, he was once described by the legendary Bob Dylan as ‘the single most important figure in English folk rock’.
Today, 71-year-old Ashley is looking back on his distinguished career – which boasts a back catalogue of 90 albums and an MBE for services to folk music – with a stage show that explores his life and creative output.
Coming to the Lawrence Batley Theatre next month, in the company of vocalist and guitarist Becky Mills, he charts his exploration of folk from the days with Fairport Convention to his evolution as a writer of poetry as well as songs.
How London-born Ashley (now resident in Derbyshire) helped to change folk music and lay the foundations for successive generations, can be traced back to his childhood and the early influence of his father, a swing band leader and self-taught pianist.
He explains: “My father was a great pianist who played entirely by ear. He used to play in the house when I was growing up. There was music around me, and that’s carried on because my son (Blair Dunlop) is now doing really well in the music business.
“I learned the bass guitar because a group of friends at school said ‘let’s form a band just like The Beatles’ and the bass was the only instrument left, so I ended up with it. I was self-taught too and, in a way, became a band leader just like my father. Because the bass is not a lead instrument, as band leader I’m able to keep an eye on the band, so it’s been useful.”
As a teenager, Ashley spent a lot of time in folk clubs but says: “I have to say that while I enjoyed it very much, the music hadn’t moved on. It was very old world style. Initially when we founded Fairport in 1967 it was to play American West Coast copy music from singers like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. But then we got the folk bug in ‘69 and decided we wanted to play some folk songs, but played with the instruments we had – electric guitars and drums. Very organically and very naturally it happened that we invented folk rock. I was the moving force that wanted to really push forward with up-dating the presentation of traditional folk music.
“Since then it has gone through many, many changes and my show reflects that. My life parallels the progression.”
From those early beginnings, Ashley found himself becoming more and more fascinated by the folk tradition and its history. “I’ve always been interested in history,” he says, “it was one of my favourite subjects at school. In the early 1970s I began researching the folk traditions of this country. I have listened to all kinds of folk music from different countries and in Fairport we were fascinated by American music; but the penny dropped and we realised that we couldn’t keep copying, we had to make our own music and our opinion was that we had to go back to our own roots, so we built on British folk. I’m proud that we made that decision.”
When he left Fairport to form Steeleye Span, Ashley continued with British folk but eventually realised that his true interest lay with English folk. He explained: “We used to play a lot of Celtic music but I wanted to get into the Englishness of folk, which I did with the Albion Band. I also got very interested in Morris dancing, which was even more archaic than folk music at the time. There were no young people who wanted to join Morris teams when we found the music and I encouraged us (the band) to rock it up. We had an album Morris On and from that moment on lots of young people got into Morris dancing.”
Despite the fact he had no formal musical training, Ashley has been a prolific songwriter and an enthusiastic wordsmith. He says he showed early promise and as a 16-year-old school leaver was offered the chance to become a trainee journalist working for the Haymarket Press, producting articles for magazines. He spent four years in journalism, honing his literary skills, before becoming a professional musician.
He now enjoys putting together spoken word pieces as well as songs and his new show includes poetry and stories from his life. He’s particularly proud to have written a book that he describes as: “a selection of my best song lyrics, poetry and album sleeve notes.”
He added: “I’ve done 90 albums but just one book. Most of the audiences for my shows know about the music of the older groups and that’s reflected in the show, but what people don’t know is that I’m also a writer.”
Ashley Hutchings’ Cellar Folk show starts at 8pm and will feature Jenny and the Good Men performing original acoustic arrangements. Tickets are £7 for the under 26s and £12 from www.thelbt.org.uk or 01484 430528.
Fairport Convention played its first concert in a church hall in May 1967. Based in North London, the group had formed around bass guitarist Ashley ‘Tyger’ Hutchings. The youngsters ‘convened’ for rehearsals at a house named Fairport, the family home of rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol, resulting in the name of a band that has endured for nearly four decades.
Ashley formed the Albion Country Band to provide backing for his then wife Shirley Collins on her solo collection, No Roses (1971). The band also produced the album Morris On (1972), an affectionate electric tribute to Morris Dancing.
Formed in 2004, the Rainbow Chasers is Ashley’s present band and a largely acoustic outfit.
Ashley’s son Blair Dunlop is the third generation of self-taught musician in his family. He is a guitarist, singer and songwriter and about to release his third album.