SEPTEMBER 2016 saw the release of the seventh Southern Tenant Folk Union album Join Forces. It was written following the May 2015 general election result, and then recorded in June and July the next year amidst the quickly changing political landscape, something that made the suite of songs seem timelier still. And as we know. With the even greater hindsight in July 2017, politics has shifted again and the band’s single from the album, ‘What Would You Give For A Leader With Soul?’, now seems almost prophetic as the STFU do the final few dates in support of the record.
Musically the album harked back to the more roots and bluegrass sounding earlier albums and is divided into two main strands. Firstly there are some tracks which have a much poppier and melodic approach than in the past. Songs such as the dynamic opener To The War, the frantic Arthur Lee & Love influenced The Media Attack, Rory Butler’s Carefully Does It and the title track Join Forces. Then, secondly, several songs deliberately take in more old-time bluegrass chord sequences and sounds. Tracks like ‘Ash’, a metaphor for political progress meeting the sci-fi eco movie Silent Running, and the uptempo bluegrass lament that is ‘Our Revolution It Will One Day Come’ which concerns the slow nature of change. Plain Stanley Brothers style A cappella harmony vocals start off ‘My Grandfather’s Father’, before mixing in folk fiddle & percussion breakdowns and then there’s the anthemic ‘What Would You Give For A Leader With Soul?’, which was released as a single during the Labour Leadership election in early Sept 2016.
Whilst it did look back to an earlier Americana and old-time sound the whole thing is still subtly different to anything the band has recorded before. Containing three ‘question songs’ in the Pete Seeger/Phil Ochs style, the first of these is the single What Would You Give For A Leader With Soul? about the hope of better leadership, that growing pent up desire for higher standards in politics and political leaders, the same desire that saw the grass roots popularity of Jeremy Corbyn here in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the USA. Secondly comes the professional politician on the campaign trail and their sincerity with Were You Faking When You Kissed Her? The third ‘question’ track is the country rock era Byrds-flavoured What Kind Of Worker Do You Want To Be? and looked to mix the politics of unionising and solidarity with campfire song folk.
Lead singer and guitarist Rory Butler pens two tracks for the record, firstly the opening cut To The War reflecting on the frustration of us all being complicit in war abroad and in despair at the ‘war’ on those least fortunate in our society. The second track, Carefully Does It, brings a 70s pop almost Jimmy Webb styled sensibility to the album powerfully utilising the big band acoustic sound of Southern Tenant Folk Union.
A strong flavour of Scottish folk also runs across the whole record with the exciting and daring fiddle playing of Katherine Stewart intertwined throughout. Plus Katherine and percussionist Steve Fivey specially wrote the Islay Crossing Set which features three original tunes – of sometimes fiendish complexity, dynamic rhythmic impact and stark beauty – that demonstrate the link between folk and bluegrass and their relation and common currency over time.
Southern Tenant Folk Union play live at South Petherton’s David Hall on Saturday, September 30th. For more details call 01460 240340 or visit www.thedavidhall.org.uk