Lins Honeyman quizzed the veteran Glasgow-born folk artist IAN WALKER
Scottish folk artist Ian Walker's most recent album 'Singing The River' showcases the veteran performer's innate ability to write personal but accessible songs about his Christian faith whilst reigniting an artistic partnership that had lain dormant for quarter of a century. To say the Glasgow-born folk singer has paid his dues is an understatement. In a career that has spanned in excess of five decades, the vastly experienced singer/songwriter and banjo player has plied his trade in countless venues including folk clubs, festivals and churches whilst showing a keen community conscience by appearing at the likes of sheltered homes, schools and hospitals in conjunction with charities such as the New Makars Trust and Alzheimer Scotland. In addition, Ian has made many appearances on local radio stations over the years and has built up a healthy back catalogue of studio albums to solidify his standing as one of Scotland's most hard working and renowned folk musicians.
It was back in the early 1960s, during visits to the Glasgow Folk Centre, that Ian first sang live and ultimately cut his teeth before venturing out as a regular club and festival performer in the 1970s. During this time, Ian found success in one of Scottish impresario Archie McCulloch's Stars Of Tomorrow talent shows before picking up awards for singing at various festival events the length and breadth of the country. By the end of the decade, Ian had developed a passion for songwriting and subsequent years saw original songs like "Hawks And Eagles" and the Robert Burns-inspired "Some Hae Meat" covered by other artists as well as the inclusion of a number of compositions in a variety of songbooks.
1985 saw the release of Ian's long-awaited debut album 'Roses In December' which was followed two years later by 'Flying High' - the latter winning the Folk And Country Music category in the prestigious Music Retailers Awards in London the next year. In 1987, Ian chose to team up with fellow Glaswegian singer/songwriter Ian Bruce to record a handful of songs and, whilst the writing partnership only lasted four years initially, the pair have since teamed up on Ian's well-received 2010 release 'Singing The River' - an album which saw Bruce in the producer's chair. The album was nominated for the 2011 British Country Music Association Awards and, on the back of this success, the two Ians are currently in the process of recording a duo album set for release early next year. During the hiatus of working with his colleague, Ian continued to write, record and perform on a solo basis whilst collaborating with the likes of Scots/Irish band Setanta as well as country gospel singer Jimmy Scott as one half of the long-standing Christian folk act Vangel.
Just in the door from the studio after working on the new Walker/Bruce album, Ian gives some background on how its predecessor - Ian's most recent release - 'Singing The River' came about. "After about 40 years of marriage, my first wife, Margaret, took dementia in early 2000 and I ended up as her carer before she died a few years later," he advises. "You're out for the count and on the floor after something like that happens. Following Margaret's death, I went to a silent retreat at the Bield Centre for Spiritual Renewal in Blackruthven in Perthshire. Being there has the effect of reducing you down to nothing and emptying your mind and, although you're at rock bottom, you start to build up from there. When I was in there, a lot of ideas came into my head about songs and the likes of 'Tears On The Cross', 'Still' and 'No Fanfare' came from that week."
"About that time," continues Ian, "I met Ian Bruce after a break from playing music together of about 25 years and he suggested making an album with those songs. I didn't think he'd wanted to hear them because the songs had a Christian theme but, once he'd listened to them, he said we should go for it. Ian was ultimately responsible for arranging and producing the songs on the album."
I ask Ian how he feels 'Singing The River' has been received. "It was
nominated for a Country Music Award recently," he states. "I don't see
my music as country but nevertheless it was a great thing to be put
forward for. In church circles, I've got the feeling that some people
feel the album is slightly off the wall. For example, I might sing the
song 'Still' as part of Vangel with Jimmy Scott at a Women's Guild
event and the audience there must think it's a lovely peaceful song.
However, if they listen to the song on the album, they'll find that
Ian Bruce has deliberately put a crashing electric guitar in the
middle of the song. The idea behind that is to disrupt your
complacency and stillness. I have a funny feeling that it may be too
way out for some people but I have great faith in the songs. On the
whole, it's been well received and I'm really pleased."
I ask Ian to cast his mind back to how it all started and it appears that an early exposure to the entertainment industry had a significant impact. "As a young boy in the '50s, I used to come out of my primary school in Glasgow and take a tram down to Govan. The legendary Scots actor and entertainer Jimmy Logan had a big flat there and my mother worked for him and I remember being there with my mother. About a year before he died, I went to one of his shows. He wasn't well and I wanted to go up to him and say hello but I didn't because everyone was crowding him for autographs. I don't know if he would have remembered me or not because I never met him after my early encounters with him but my introduction to the world of entertainment came through Jimmy Logan."
The subsequent years saw Ian hone his art in countless folk clubs and festivals whilst becoming a regular feature on the Scottish folk scene before his conversion to Christianity changed his life completely. Ian confirms that his faith has sustained him through some dark times and helped him move on from personal tragedy and is now happily married to fellow singer Moe having found a newfound lease of life in Eaglesham Village near Glasgow. I ask Ian how a hardened folk singer can end up giving his life to Christ. "I was quite anti-church all through my 20s, 30s and 40s," he confesses. "I was singing the likes of 'Keep The Red Flag Flying' like the best of them in the folk scene and the last thing I would have considered becoming was a Christian because I thought they were all soft!"
"Many years later," he continues. "I had an experience whilst on a family camping holiday in Lisieux in France. Although I had no connection with Catholicism, I had a dream about Saint Teresa of Lisieux - also known as Teresa of the Roses. We'd been visiting a basilica as tourists during the day and, back in the tent, I had this vision-like dream - something I'd never had before in my whole life. In it, I was talking to Teresa and she said things like 'don't strive' and she showed me a courtyard with birds eating in it. Afterwards, I realised this was the same message that was contained in Matthew 6: 25-34. The other thing I noticed was that there seemed to be people around who were incredibly happy and joyous. I was filled with this huge sense of joy and there was such a powerful feeling of love. I tried to forget the dream but, after three years, I eventually knelt down and asked Jesus into my life."
Accepting Jesus as his Saviour not only made a difference to his life but also to how some people perceived his music, as Ian explains. "There were venues where I used to sing regularly and, after I became a Christian, I remember one agent saying 'they won't book you because they think you've become all holy.' In the clubs, a Christian can be quite an alien thing but I'm actually quite happy to be an alien in this world."
Whilst there were initially a few knock backs, it seems that Ian's music has an effect on people regardless of where it's played. "Jimmy Scott and I were singing as Vangel at a folk festival in Linlithgow recently and, at that festival every year, they do a bluegrass gospel session," advises Ian. "Lots of people were crammed into the room and the organiser said to us both that he didn't want anything too religious! So, at that session, we sang 'Tonight Has Given Me Wings' from the album and this woman came up to me at the end and said that she'd lost her husband a year ago as well as her faith and had stopped going to church but us singing that song touched her. That gospel session was in a big folk festival and technically Jimmy and I should have been in church that Sunday morning but here we were unexpectedly reaching someone. I revel in that when it happens."
With a number of different musical hats on his head ranging from singing with Ian Bruce in clubs and festivals as well as his solo work to playing in venues such as churches and women's guilds as part of Vangel, it appears that Ian has no plans to hang up his banjo. "I'm still as fit as a fiddle and I have no plans to retire," he confirms. "At the moment, we're taking off in a different direction. Ian Bruce and I have been signed up to Greentrax - a major Scottish label based in Edinburgh - and we're working on a CD with 12 new songs plus an accompanying DVD of some of our old songs with a release date hopefully of January. Bookings are starting to come in for festivals in 2014 so we're really putting a lot into the Bruce/Walker project but that doesn't stop me singing the gospel as part of Vangel or on my own - that work will always continue."
With a wealth of experience that comes from decades in the business, Ian reveals in closing what keeps him writing, singing and performing: "I'm a huge believer in the power of music. It can make people laugh or cry and, whether it's young children, somebody who's 90 in a nursing home or secular or church audiences, the power of music to touch people's lives is just immense."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.