on the photo for KateRusby.com
for her recordings.
Rusby's Roots Run Deep
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
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.
the story that draws me to a song," said Rusby, speaking from the house in
Barnsley, southern Yorkshire, that she and her fiancé,
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."
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."
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."