Tony Cummings spoke to the hitmaking singer/songwriter from the Scottish borders, ISLA GRANT
Isla Grant is a paradox. A grandmother who regularly make national pop charts, a singer from Scotland who is a star in Ireland, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Australia, a "secular" entertainer whose songs often carry sincere portrayals of a dynamic Christian faith. The country and folk-tinged singing and songs of Isla has brought her a worldwide audience and sometimes her travels to the obscurest regions can have profound effects on a whole community. There can be no greater example of this than an incident that occurred during one of her visits to Australia.
Said Isla, "I've been over to Australia about seven or eight times touring and not the last time, but the previous time, we were travelling from one venue to another. We'd been on the road about seven hours travelling when we came to a place where they hadn't had rain in about 10 years. All the fields were brown; the water holes were all dried up. Then I saw this man walking cows along the side of the road and I said to the promoter who was driving, 'What's all this about Terry? Why are they walking their cows along this road?' He said, 'Well, there's no grass at all in the field so the farmer gets up early in the morning and he takes his stock out hoping they will find some blades of grass for them.' When I heard that, it broke me up inside because I'm from a dairy farming background, and I loved the life. All our stock were well fed. We had 150 milking cows, they yielded great milk, and we had Hereford bulls that I looked after and used to show. It really broke me up to think about the difference and that farmers were committing suicide here because they didn't know what to do. On the way to the venue I wrote the song and when I got to the venue that night I said to the audience, 'I've written a song, it's not recorded, but I'll read out a verse to you.' Half the audience were in tears when I read the first verse to them and I promised them that I would record the song for them and have it on the next album. I have kept my word too and the song 'The Farmer's Prayer' is on my latest album 'Movin' On'. The strange thing about it was the following morning. We woke up in the hotel and when we looked out at the car park the rain was coming down. No one had seen rain in years and people were coming up to me in the car park and throwing their arms around me and saying, 'Isla, thank you so much for the prayer. It has been answered.'"
Music has always been in Isla's blood. Born and raised in the Scottish borders, her was a piper, her mother a singer and both her grandparents fiddle players. Following in the family footsteps came naturally and, by the time she was eight she was singing in church, school concerts and at Burns' suppers. She told Cross Rhythms, "My mother was a great church person; she used to organise all the concerts and everything for the church. I was in the choir from when I was around eight years old. We were brought up very much Christian; I have a great faith. I could never have been through what we have been through without having the faith that the Lord is there looking after us."
Isla continued, "I started playing guitar where I was nine or 10. I wrote my first song when I was about 14, it wasn't very good and was never recorded. I dabbled in it a lot and as the years went on I started writing more but never had the confidence to actually go into the country music scene. I started off in the folk music scene and was 14, still at school, but I was doing folk clubs in Scotland. I met wonderful people and got a tremendous apprenticeship, the best anyone could have got for this business. I worked with great people like the Furey Brothers, Eddie and Finbar then, just the two of them, the Dubliners, Roy Williams from the Corries who wrote the song called 'Flower Of Scotland'. I've also worked with people like Billy Connelly, he was with the Humblebums. Billy Connelly watched over me when we were in the Glasgow Folk Club and made sure I was okay. I had a great apprenticeship but I moved from that to country music in 1982. I didn't make any recordings in the folk part of my life as it wasn't something that you would do in the folk scene. I changed to the social club scene then as well. Then, I went into country music and that's when I started to write more. I found Merle Haggard, that was the first thing, and got great inspiration from a lot of his songs."
Isla became a regular performer on the British country music scene, playing clubs and the occasional major festivals which included a couple of Wembley International Festival appearances during the latter years of its life, sharing the stage with such as Johnny Cash, Crystal Gayle and Tompall & The Glaser Brothers. Isla said, "You can only go so far working the club scene. It's a scene where cover songs are the general order of the day, current hit titles and standards. Once you reach a certain level, there's nowhere else to go." But she went further than many other artists. She started singing a few of her original songs and audiences and club organisers began to ask for more.
The club scene also brought her in contact with Al Grant, who was heading up his own band. They married in 1992, after having first worked together as Dixie And Allon and, later, as Isla And Al Young. Then, tragically, within a few months of the marriage, Isla was in a near fatal car accident. On a shopping expedition with Al, they were hit head-on by a car exceeding 100 mph. Isla suffered internal injuries and a broken wrist, her husband a dislocated foot. They pulled themselves from the car and a local woman called the police and gave them comfort. Later the police told the couple that they were lucky driving a large car: they might not have survived had they been driving anything smaller.
The repercussions of the accident were to last five years. Isla struggled to leave her house, was diagnosed as agoraphobic and she found she couldn't play the guitar without sobbing. Even more distressing, some five months after the accident, she was told that she'd probably never sing again let alone perform in public. Isla recalled, "My whole world had fallen apart. I couldn't listen to music on the radio because it brought back too many painful memories of my past. I'd wake up crying at night and I didn't even have confidence going out and buying groceries."
Continued Isla, "I was praying more then than I had ever done in my life. I said to the good Lord that if you allow, and want, me to go back and do the work I love doing, I will promise that I will only do my own songs if that is the way you want me to go. The minute I made that decision I found myself able to do music again. I kept my word to him except for one album, which was 'Isla Sings Hank', and the duet album isn't all my own songs. But every other album has all Isla Grant songs and I intend to keep it that way as it was a promise I made."
Isla signed with a small Scottish record label, CMR Records, who released her 'Only Yesterday' album. But it was her next release, the 'Mother' album, which proved to be the breakthrough release while her next album 'A Dream Came True' went double platinum in Ireland. Said Isla, "The 'Mother' album was written when I was grieving for my mother. It was recorded in Scotland but it kind of filtered into Ireland when a radio presenter started playing it and the whole of Ireland went crazy. My one claim to fame is that the 'Mother' album beat U2 in the charts. Everyone loved the [title track] and it's played at so many funerals now all over the world, not just Ireland, from people who have lost their mum. A record company in Dublin, Rosette Records, got to know of the success of it and asked for a meeting and signed me up. They bought everything back from the Scottish record company. I was with them for 10 years but that's the song that did it - 'Mother'."
Down the years Rosette have released a stream of her albums. The Christmas project 'The Day That Christ Was Born' was followed by 'When The Day Is Done' (2005), 'By Request' (2006), 'The Best Of Isla Grant' (2007), 'The Beauty Of my Home' (2007), 'Down Memory Lane' (2007) and 'Special To Me' (2008). During this period Isla continued to tour tirelessly. She commented, "I've travelled all over the world. I always remember my dad saying that you don't have to go to church to get close to God and that sometimes I feel closer to God in the briar with the cattle, talking to him there than I would in any church. I've taken that through life with me. I always say that if I can get to church, fine, but if I can't then I take my church with me."
Isla's recording career took a change when she started her own record label. Her deft renditions of Hank Williams oldies on 'Isla Sings Hank' produced a much more sharply focussed album than many of its predecessors while its successor 'Movin' On' is considered by many to be the best album of her career. As well as "The Farmer's Prayer" the album contains an equally moving song, "I Still Love You", directed to husband Al. "Al and I have been together for 27 years and he's my best friend. He travels the world with me. He plays bass in the band. We have had such great times together and we've come through some really bad times, when we were down to almost nothing and I was off the road for five years, due to the car accident, and I'd been told I'd never be able to sing again. But I was talking to the 'Good man above' and wrote a lot of songs at that time. I call God my director, by the way. He directs me the way I'm supposed to go in life. I've written many songs for Al but I thought it was time to let him know that even after all these years, even though I don't always get a cup of tea in bed, I still love him. Love gets better with age - as the years go on; it just gets stronger and better. We just never stop having fun and that's how I think it should be. I found my soul mate."
'Movin' On' was jointly produced by Johnny Scott and Isla. Johnny Scott is a multi-instrumentalist who has acted as Isla's musical director for the past two years. Prior to joining her he was musical director of Van Morrison's band for a number of years. On this recording Johnny enlisted the help of a number of top musicians who have also been a part of Van Morrison's band, notably, Frnak Gallagher, Rod McVey, Nick Scott and Liam Brady, with additional input from Glen Flynn on steel guitar and Mick Daly on banjo. The result was an album of broad based appeal far superior to the rather easy listening stylings of some of her earlier albums.
During the hundreds of concerts that Isla has performed she has been privileged to see God use her music for his own purposes. She recounted, "I suffered from agoraphobia for a long time, after the car accident when I couldn't go out the house. There was a man in Dublin who had never been out of his house in nine years with agoraphobia. His family did not know what to do. They'd had specialists seeing him but nothing seemed to work. Anyway, one of my albums came out and his daughter bought it for him and he played it repeatedly. I think they were getting fed up with listening to Isla Grant. An advert came into the paper that I was going to do a tour in November, in Ireland, and we going to play the Helix in Dublin, which is a huge theatre. He said to his daughter, 'I see Isla Grant is coming. We'll have to get tickets.' She wondered what was going on. They didn't get the tickets until last minute. But he was adamant. He went to the concert and he was a wreck. I didn't know anything until the end of the night when we went out to sign autographs. I looked across and there was this man with people around him and he was shaking and sweating. I thought, 'Wait a minute, this man needs some help.' People were leaving and the daughter came over and asked if I would say hello to her dad because he had agoraphobia, he hadn't been out the house in nine years but had got himself there that night. I went over and threw my arms around him and didn't say a word."
Isla's husband Al had his own memories of God using his wife's music. He remembered, "One incident that sticks in my mind, and always will as long as I live, is the story of a woman in Australia. She had had a stroke and the doctor had said to the son and daughter that she wouldn't get over it and she would be bed ridden for the rest of her life. They used to have to go in to her home in the morning and get her out of her bed and put her in her high chair so that she could sit. She used to listen to Isla's music and she was a huge fan of Isla. She had been reading the paper and said to her daughter, 'Isla's coming to the theatre in the town. You'll have to get tickets for that for us. I want to go.' The daughter said, 'Well, we'll see nearer the time,' knowing full well that she couldn't go. As time went on, it was getting nearer the date and she was sitting in her chair and she said to her daughter, 'Go put Isla's music on for me.' As the music was playing she got herself up and she walked around all the furniture and asked if the daughter had got the tickets for the Isla concert yet because Isla was to be there the next night. The daughter hadn't but she went and got the tickets. At the end of the show this woman walked up to the stage with two sticks and her slippers on. The son and the daughter were in tears watching her. She wanted, so much, to see Isla that she walked to the stage."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.