The Famous Potatoes: Essex's renowned folk, country, Cajun, barn dancers

Sunday 3rd November 2013

Tony Cummings catches up with the 34 year history of THE FAMOUS POTATOES

The Famous Potatoes
The Famous Potatoes

They have a surreal name. They've done several slots on national TV ranging from The Big Breakfast to Songs Of Praise. They've appeared at the Greenbelt Festival on 15 occasions. And they have an entry in the Guinness Who's Who Of Folk Music though pigeonholing The Famous Potatoes' particular style of music is notoriously difficult. Writing on the Potatoes website leader Paul 'The Prof' McDowell wrote, "We've always had difficulty in describing our style of music because it includes influences from so many different sources. . . We call it 'soil music' because it's earthy - made up of western swing, bluegrass, country, gospel, folk, Cajun and who knows what all else!"

The Prof plays accordion and piano and sings with the group yet also finds time to produce books on folk carols, work as a church organist and toils mornings as an administrator at a Methodist church in Leigh-on-Sea. He ran through the other Potatoes. "There's Keith Baxter (barn dance caller, trombone, banjo and percussion), Richard Baxter (melodeon, lead vocals, saxophone and mouth organ), Nigel Blackaby (bass guitar/double bass and vocals), Paul Collier (drums and vocals), Melanie Derbyshire (recorder, percussion and vocals), Tony Littman (guitar and vocals) and Charlie Skelton (fiddle and vocals). We haven't had a change in personnel for 23 years. Charlie, our new boy, joined in 1990; Tony in 1987; and Paul C and Nigel, who already knew the rest of the band from school, in 1982 and 1981. It's been a remarkably stable unit: even three of our deputies have been deputising for more than 20 years."

The Famous Potatoes website helpfully ensures there is no confusion about the band's lineup. It explains, "No, Richard wasn't a Puritan church leader, no, Keith isn't a film and TV actor (nor did he drum with Skyclad, 3 Colours Red and Therapy?), no, the Prof didn't sing in the Temperance Seven (nor is he the chief executive of Nacro), no, Paul isn't a Professor of Economics at Oxford University, and no, Charlie isn't a writer for TV comedy shows. They're all people with the same name trying to masquerade as the mighty Potatoes."

Cross Rhythms asked The Prof how this most long-running of musical institutions came about. "We started in 1979 playing a few numbers at the '70s equivalent of an open mic spot at a folk club in Southend. We hadn't thought of a name and came up with Thomas Hardy And The Returning Natives. We got two offers of gigs straight away, one of which was to play for one of the weekly dances at the local Grand Ceilidh Club, where we still play once a quarter 34 years on. Before our next gig we decided on the name of The Folk Pistols. Fast forward to 1982, and we were thinking our name was a little passe, but couldn't agree what to change it to. We flirted with Twist With Ken and even released a cassette album under that name - we got it off a seven-inch-single case. Then Richard, Keith and Paul C had a holiday in the USA and saw some car numberplates from Idaho, whose state motto is 'Famous Potatoes'. We all agreed that would be a great name for a band."

After the two cassette releases as The Folk Pistols, The Famous Potatoes emerged with the 'Dig' album. Remembered The Prof, "'Dig' was recorded live and mixed in less than 24 hours in 1983; it still has a great spirit to it especially 'Rattler Treed A Possum'. We even sold copies of the cassette at a gig we had on the same evening."

The Famous Potatoes: Essex's renowned folk, country, Cajun, barn dancers

The following year a seven inch single "I Like Chicken Pie" was released by the band. By 1985 the hard gigging Potatoes found they were Greenbelt stars. The Prof recounted how that popularity at the Christian arts fest developed. "We first played Greenbelt in 1980. The new film Greenbelt At 40 features a blink-and-you'll-miss-it snippet of The Folk Pistols playing on the fringe. Greenbelt has been a great experience over the years. From 1983 to 1996 we played every year, sometimes as an officially booked band but more often playing on the fringe and organising our legendary late-night busking sessions. These developed over the years into full-blown cabaret sets, with the Woebegone Brothers, Sublime (Anthony and Martin Wilson, both now renowned as poet and photographer respectively), the Soil Brothers and lots of others. The highlight there must be 1985, when we saw these massive queues outside the Big Top and it gradually became clear that they were all queuing up to see us! It was a great show and we've got a copy of the soundtrack. Maybe we should talk to Greenbelt about allowing us to release it as a live album. Richard and I still go every year, but August tends to be a holiday month for the Potatoes now. Although the band itself has only played at Greenbelt twice after 1996, people always come up to us there and say 'when are you playing?'"

After the release of 'It Was Good For My Old Mother' in 1985 The Famous Potatoes were getting exposure in the most unlikely of places. Simon Mayo was regularly giving that band plays on BBC Radio 1 and the Christmas 1985 issued of mass circulation mag for young girls, Jackie, published a quiz with a question asking their readers "which of the following wasn't a real pop group: a) Blue Aeroplanes; b) Dumpy's Rusty Nuts; c) The Armadillo Greenhouse; d) The Famous Potatoes; e) The Mighty Lemon Drops." (Note: The correct answer was c).

With gigs now topping 150 a year, the FPs were veritable road dogs. "We often say 'that was a funny old gig - we've not had one quite like that before'. One was a dance where there was a concrete plinth in the middle of the dance floor. One was at a gig where there was a 'no bluegrass' rule. Then there was the time we bumped into a band we knew at Toddington services. They were in the middle of a chaotic tour which involved them playing the North East one night, the South West the next night, then the Midlands, and so on. . . Before that we used to envy them and their one top 75 hit."

'The Sound Of The Ground' is another album about which the Prof has vivid memories. "'The Sound Of The Ground' was recorded while World Cup 1986 was on and Gary Lineker kept scoring as we recorded. Vic Collins, ex-Kursaal Flyers, came in to play some pedal steel guitar. 'Born In A Barn' featured Diana Collier and Laura Blackaby doing the screaming for 'The Women Go Wild Over Me'."

In 1987 the Potatoes played the Lord Mayor's Show as well as a 100 plus more gigs and two years later issued their 'Born In A Barn' album. In 1998 their last album 'Barndancing' was released. Remembered the Prof, "'Barndancing' was recorded in an old industrial works which has since been demolished, and the picture for 'Born In A Barn' was taken at a farm outbuilding which burnt down soon afterwards. The Curse Of The Potatoes. 'Barndancing' was mostly recorded with live ensemble playing, giving it a sound pretty much as we are on stage. It's got a good selection of tunes: old-timey, Cajun, Irish, bluegrass, own compositions, Tex-Mex, Cape Breton fiddle and trad jazz."

The Famous Potatoes: Essex's renowned folk, country, Cajun, barn dancers

The Famous Potatoes continued to pop up in the most unexpected places. The April 1999 issue of Country Music People magazine made 'Barndancing' their Album Of The Month enthusing, "It must be 10 years since the Spuds-I-Like released an album, the splendid 'Born In A Barn', still one of my favourite sets by a British outfit. . . There is much to enjoy here. . . 'Blue Moon Of Kentucky' is wonderful. . . 'Jambalaya' is delirious. . . The one track that, for me, sums up the Potatoes' musical attitude is the standard, 'Hindustan'. With a front-line of trombone, fiddle, accordion, vibes and guitar, it's hilarious. I defy anyone not to smile - or, better, laugh out loud, as I did - at the guys' musical inebriation. This is real Happy Hour music. . . They call it Soil Music. I call it Fun. Go buy."

In 1999 the band somehow found themselves appearing on TV's The Generation Game and in 2006 they played a session for Andy Kershaw's folk programme on BBC Radio 3. And on Christmas Eve 2009 the Potatoes were playing carols like "Shepherds Arise", "Hymn Of The Three Kings" and "While Shepherds Watched" on BBC Radio 2 as part of their Keeping Tradition Alive At Christmas series.

Cross Rhythms asked the Prof about the band's attitude to overtly Christian material. He responded, "We enjoy doing gospel songs ('I Saw The Light', 'Old Time Religion', 'Hallelujah I'm Ready To Go',' What Kind Of Man'). But some of the group are not Christians, and those who are aren't evangelistic. Even if we were, as Milton Jones says, barn dancing isn't a particularly good channel for evangelism. Having said that, we were once booked specifically because we didn't swear! Five of us (including four current members) were in the same church youth group and that's how it came to be us in the band."

Prof spoke about his own church work. "I've been a church organist for even longer than I've been in the Potatoes, and have just clocked up 35 years at Wesley Methodist Church, Leigh-on-Sea. For the last 10 years I've also been working there in the mornings as the church administrator, doing the hall bookings, website, weekly notices and so on. I was commissioned as a Worship Leader last year so now occasionally plan and lead services as well as playing for them. We're not allowed to preach but can do anything else. And I'm one of the contributors to the Methodist Church's Singing The Faith Plus website, researching and giving information about some of the hymns."

There has been no new Famous Potatoes recording since 1998. I wrapped up my interview with The Prof by asking him why this was. "I think it's just sheer laziness. We don't play as many gigs as in our mad years of the mid-'80s when we used to play over 100 times a year, but we now play about twice a month on average. The difference now is that most of our gigs are private functions - barn dances for birthdays, weddings, anniversaries. We have re-released our back catalogue, which used to be just on vinyl and cassette, on CD and made it available for download as well. Still, it would be nice to record some of our newer material. . ." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


 

Reader Comments

Posted by David Paye in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia @ 09:58 on Jul 29 2015

Saw the Spuds at Castlepoint Civic Center, an area with few Christians, in the main they are West Ham supporters! Has the drummer been able to afford a full kit yet?



Posted by Keith Dixon in London @ 12:01 on Nov 5 2013

A great article about some great old friends from the Greenbelt Fringe! The kings of soil!!! (And Richard makes mighty fine pottery too!)



The opinions expressed in the Reader Comments are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms.

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