The Midlands NUFFSED play brilliant folk roots on a pop tip. The band's leader Terry Mills spoke to Alan Chesters.
Although 'Cross Rhythms: Roots And Branches' is a new event its roots go back to 1993. In that year Les Wilkes, founder of concert organisers Starburst Christian Arts and the Cross Rhythms prayer coordinator, persuaded his church, the Willenhall Christian Fellowship, to support a small indoor festival, called Roots And Branches. Each subsequent year saw the Roots And Branches fest slowly growing until, in this year, came the big expansion of the vision with Willenhall Christian Fellowship and Starburst linking up with Cross Rhythms to put on a two-day event to be held in October at Dudley Castle. The omnipresent act at every Roots And Branches has been the brilliant folk roots team Nuffsed whose Kingsway albums 'Fields Keep Calling' and 'Forged In The Fire' have brought the West Midlands-based group much critical acclaim.
I begin by asking Terry Mills, Nuffsed's lead singer, guitarist, mandola player and composer (along with a certain greybearded lyricist called Tony Cummings) how Nuffsed managed to get on the bill of every Roots And Branches. "Well, it helped that Les Wilkes used to be our manager!" Terry quips. "What really happened was that all the band members attend Willenhall Christian Fellowship and we often lead worship at the church. We had a lot of input into Roots And Branches. So it just seemed to follow that we should play at the festival, a bit like the Fat Band always playing Greenbelt or the Electrics always playing Impact."
Having helped pioneer UK Christian music's acoustic-based 'roots music revival', was Terry sorry to see Roots And Branches expand its musical parameters to this year include rock, grunge, hip hop et al? "Not at all. Les' vision was always to see Christians ministered to through music whatever its style. And from Nuffsed's perspective, we've always been open to a wide range of musical influences. Everything from Buddy Holly through to REM have played a part in influencing my songwriting."
The main thrust of Nuffsed's ministry has been their prison work in the Midlands. But since their haunting CD debut 'Fields Keep Calling' the band have also had to answer numerous calls to play all over the UK. That's been no easy matter for the multi-instrumentalist band (current line up Terry Mills, vocals, guitar, mandola; Kati Rigby, vocals, keyboards; Jackie Mills, vocals, whistle; Caroline Bird, keyboards, cello; Aaron Rigby, guitar, Matt Redfume, bass; and Lee Paul, drums, bodhran). The band have to hold down regular day jobs (or in Caroline's case, study for her 'A' levels!).
Terry told me that, with gigs EVERY weekend in 1995 - big, small and indifferent - Nuffsed were in serious danger of burnout. "Now we're consciously trying to space things out to always give our best for God. The Holy Spirit has blessed us with enough material for another three albums and, since some songs lend themselves more to worship than a contemporary album, we are now talking to record companies about doing a worship-orientated album." As well as their own compositions, this would include some Sammy (Electrics) Homer songs.
While we know how low sales of CCM are compared with mainstream music, Terry comments they were amazed at how the first album, 'Fields Keep Calling', went. "'Forged' we feel is a better album and was even better received in Europe. We haven't played gigs abroad yet but there may be one in Stavanger, Norway in February. We've had good airplay particularly on United Christian Broadcasters and also played live on UCB on Christmas Eve. They've had letters from America, Norway, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Kenya and Romania. It's all been very encouraging." The band nearly got to play at Spring Harvest this year but the size of the band was a stumbling block. With changes and members having to leave, the band has now trimmed a bit.
Terry is excited about the forthcoming worship album project. "With the worship album, we want people to realise that we're not just for youth but for all ages," says Terry. Anyone who has witnessed a milling, moshing throng going bananas over one of Nuffsed's wickedly catchy jigs and reels will have no doubt that Nuffsed have youth appeal. But the band have also played gigs in old peoples' homes wooing the senior citizens with their haunting, lyrical ballads. The prison work is still very important to Nuffsed. Terry remembers one recent prison concert: "After I sang 'Wisdom Is You' and 'Fall In Your Arms' (the latter a song about the Prodigal Son), a prisoner came up to me and said, 'That's just how I was with my dad.' Another time, we arrived at a prison after a riot and felt led just to play soothing music. Later, one man wrote asking us to come and visit him, not asking at the time because he didn't know what his mates would think."
The week I spoke to him, Terry was about to give a talk on The Power And Spirituality Of Music and sing two songs on his own. The venue was Room In The Inn, organised by an elder from Terry's church with a vision to reach sceptics and people who've been hurt in church. Terry comments, "I'm not knocking poets but music brings something to the word. What did David do to calm Saul down? He sang."
Nuffsed are getting other venues at pubs, in particular The Kipper House in Willenhall. "Les Wilkes and I went for a drink one day and, as I do, I took a tape with me. I said to the landlord, 'We're a local band. If you're interested we'll come and play.' He contacted me and said he liked it. He said, 'I can see from it that you're Christian, can you mix other music with your songs?' So, we put in a few songs by Donovan, REM and Simon And Garfunkel and now we're booked on a regular basis."
Another pub, the Old Boat at Alrewas, near Lichfield, heard about Nuffsed and, on their debut there, after singing "Colours" (Donovan) and "I'm Alright" and "Stealing The Rainbows" (from 'Forged In The Fire'), one man sarcastically called out "Hooray for Jesus!" Terry followed this with a comment about turning water into wine and pressed determinedly on under his watchful eye.
Few, if any, bands in UK CCM have played to such wide-ranging audiences (young and old, Christian and non-Christian) as Nuffsed. Gig-seasoned and with a vast repertoire of quality folk-pop songs they are creatively still growing. And their loyal following will surely take the roof off the tent at Roots And Branches. Nuffsed.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.