Yorkshire singer Kate Rusby is called by some "the sweetheart" of England's folk scene.
by Earle Hitchner


Kate Rusby


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R
usby's Roots Run Deep

Kate Rusby is photogenic, with light-brown ringlets framing a softly radiant face that has prompted some critics to call her "the sweetheart" of England's folk scene.

But such a label misses the substance below the surface, for it is not how the 26-year-old Yorkshire singer looks but how she sounds that has won over lovers of folk music worldwide. Whether on the Irish traditional ballad "As I Roved Out" or on Arkansas singer-songwriter Iris DeMent's "Our Town," her dusky alto pulls listeners in through its confessional intimacy.

"It's the story that draws me to a song," said Rusby, speaking from the house in Barnsley, southern Yorkshire, that she and her fiancé,
Battlefield Band multi-instrumentalist John McCusker, share. "Old ballads are my first love, and I use a lot of ballad and old song books to find songs for recording. One thing I like to do when I'm touring is visit a town's secondhand book shops and look for ballad books stuck in some musty corner. Sometimes books don't even have a tune for the words, so I have to make one up if I like the story and want to sing it."

She is not averse to singing modern material, either. "Every now and again a new song comes along that affects me in the same way as the old ballads," she said. "When I first heard Iris DeMent sing 'Our Town,' she completely broke my heart. The history of folk music, whether traditional or contemporary, is often about people being wronged, their emotions and tragic times. Some of the songs can almost make me cry when I'm doing them. But I'm not a sad person myself. Usually I'm really happy."


SURROUNDED BY MUSIC

Kate's parents, Steve and Ann Rusby, are Yorkshire natives who love to sing and play music (Ann on accordion, Steve on banjo and mandolin), and from an early age Kate was steadily exposed to folk music along with her older sister, Emma, and younger brother, Joe. This was especially true sitting in the back of the car that their parents drove to various English folk festivals, where Steve Rusby was contracted to do sound. "On those long car journeys, we would fight like mad in the back, as kids often do, and we'd emerge ripped and torn and blood-stained," Kate remembered. "My parents found out early on that if they sang to us and taught us songs, we became nice kids again. That's how I learned so many songs, and playing in my parents' céilí band helped, too."

The Rusby céilí band performed for their own enjoyment and that of dancers. "We'd play Irish jigs, reels, and hornpipes, and Scottish and English tunes as well," said Kate, who took up the fiddle at age five, the guitar at age 15, and the piano shortly afterward. "I also remember being in a session at a festival where somebody asked that the Rusby children sing a song. So Emma and I stood on a table and sang 'Our Cat's Got No Hair On.' Someone passed the hat around, and I think we got 50 pence each. I thought: Not bad for a five-year-old singing folk music."

From ages 6 to 10, Kate was also an accomplished Irish stepdancer. "I had the embroidered dresses, the curls, and the white socks," she recalled. "My mom and dad think Irish dancing is wonderful, which it is, and I got my share of medals for it and all. But I gave it up because I kept getting my legs slapped for not dancing. I was told it wasn't a social event, and I admit I used to go for the nice drinks, including this black-currant beverage from the bar, and a packet of crisps at the end."

Though she never mastered it, bluegrass seeped into Kate's early musical upbringing as well. "My dad did the sound for a bluegrass festival held over a May weekend every year in a cowshed that got the once-over after the cows had been shooed out," she said. "A big band would come over from the States, and one year it was Del McCoury, another year, Alison Krauss and Union Station, and another year, Hot Rize. That's where I first saw Tim O'Brien (Hot Rize's leader). I still have a tape of the band in my car, and I consider it an essential touring item. I tried to play bluegrass on the fiddle, but it's all a bit fast for a little girl, and I couldn't quite manage that. I still love listening to it, though, and I think the harmony singing in really good bluegrass is just amazing."

A concert by Dave Burland, a folk singer from her hometown of Barnsley, opened Rusby's eyes and ears to her true calling. "It led me to think that I might try to make a living out of folk music," she said. "Up until I was 15 or 16, I never thought of folk music that way. Then I got asked to do a short solo spot at a festival, and I thought it was the worst experience in my life because I was so scared on stage. I thought that folk music wasn't for me because I wasn't going to go through all that panic every time I did a gig. But my performing grew from there, and before I knew it, I was just doing it, not obsessing about it."


PARRYING POP
In 1993, Kate Rusby was invited to record her first album, "Intuition" (Fat Cat Records), linking up with Kathryn Roberts, a singer from a nearby Yorkshire village, to form one of three pairs of young women featured on the recording. "Actually, Kathryn and I weren't performing together back then," Rusby said, "but the producer suggested we sing on each other's tracks, and after that we decided to go out and play as a duo."

Two years later, with John McCusker as producer, Rusby and Roberts recorded their own album for a fledgling label, Pure Records. "Kathryn and I didn't know about the business side of making records, and when we were thinking of recording a CD together, we spoke to Dave Burland and some other musicians and friends," said Rusby. "We were told to watch out that we didn't lose all our rights to our own work to some record company, and it made us afraid of not owning the music we actually made. That's when we came up with the idea of starting Pure Records, run by my mom and dad."

A poised effort, "Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts" was named best album of 1995 by London's Folk Roots magazine. By that time, Rusby and Roberts had joined with the musical Lakeman brothers (Sean, Sam, and Seth) from Devon to form a new band, called the Equation. When a major label approached them about recording, Rusby had grave reservations not shared by her bandmates.

"It's all rather glamorous when you're told that your name will be in lights and that you'll become rich and famous," she said, "and it's really easy to be wooed by all that when you're young. But to be tied down contractually for five years to a record label that would tell us what and when to record just didn't suit me. The Equation were heading in a direction I didn't want to go, pop, and it didn't make sense to do music every day of my life that I didn't love. So I left."

It wasn't long--about two weeks--before the Poozies, a talented all-women's quartet formed in the early 1990s, contacted Rusby about the possibility of taking the lead vocal spot vacated by singer Sally Barker. "We had a sing-song over cups of tea in the back garden one summer, and our voices blended well," said Rusby. "They asked me to join, and I was delighted to say yes."

For four years Rusby toured with the Poozies and made two recordings with them, the 1997 EP "Come Raise Your Head" (Poozies) and the 1998 full-length CD "Infinite Blue" (Pure). In between, she also made her first solo album, "Hourglass" (Pure), produced by McCusker. It was Rusby's career breakthrough, a hit with critics and public alike, eventually selling 60,000 copies in Britain alone and earning the singer "best female folk artist" honors in the 1998 readers poll of Dublin's Irish Music magazine (for which I'm a contributing writer). A year later, readers of Irish Music magazine again selected Rusby as "best female folk artist."

Few thought she could top the achievement of "Hourglass" on her second solo album, "Sleepless" (Pure), released in 1999, the same year she reluctantly decided to leave the Poozies in order to concentrate on a solo career. There was also speculation about the direction her music would take on a follow-up, whether she'd strive for a more mainstream sound. "Some people expected me to expand into something more commercial, like recording an old Beatles song, but that's not what I do," she said.

Rusby's instinct proved correct. The uncompromised "Sleepless" has already outsold "Hourglass" and was one of 12 albums selected for the Mercury Music Prize, sponsored by Technics and intended to recognize the best recordings in British music each year.


COMING INTO 'THE CROSSING'

Two of the guests on "Sleepless," Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, form the U.S. cornerstone of O'Brien's The Crossing band now touring Britain. Also in that ensemble--bridging Irish, Appalachian, bluegrass, and other roots music with original tunes--are Rusby, McCusker, bassist Danny Thompson, and former De Dannan button accordionist Máirtín O'Connor. The latter four were assembled just for the British tour and one or two Irish concerts.

"I've been a fan of Tim's ever since I was 14 and first saw him play with Hot Rize,” Rusby said a few days before The Crossing's tour began. "When Tim came up to Yorkshire during a tour in 1999, I asked him to pop in to perform on 'Sleepless.' I have to admit I'm scared about being in The Crossing. They're all such fantastic musicians. I mean, what am I doing with them?"

To anyone who's heard her sing with Kathryn Roberts, the Equation, the Poozies, and especially on her own, that question has already been answered many times over.


Copyright 2001 by Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. This article appeared in the Irish Echo newspaper, New York City, October 25, 2000. Reprinted at the Celtic Cafe by permission of Earle Hitchner. Besides the Irish Echo, Earle Hitchner has also contributed articles and reviews to Billboard, Details, Irish Music, New Choices, Wall St. Journal and The Oxford American magazines. Earle has written liner notes for over 40 recordings, including 1999's Grammy-nominated "The Celtic Album" by the Boston Pops Orchestra. In 1999, he wrote six essays for the widely praised reference book "The Companion to Irish Traditional Music," co-published by Cork University Press and New York University Press. He also consulted on four film documentaries of Irish traditional music broadcast on public television.

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