Southern Tenant Folk Union
"Southern Tenant Folk Union"
by Johanna J. Bodde



"Southern Tenant Folk Union"
(Ugly Nephew Records)
When I received Pat McGarvey's E-mail regarding his brandnew project, I realized we know each other already more than twelve years. Around Eastertime 1995, Rotown in Rotterdam. That was way before The Coal Porters went bluegrass, it was a very fine countryrockband back then and Pat played the electric bassguitar. For some reason Sid Griffin was in a quiet mood and didn't really want to speak to anybody that night, so my friend and I shifted our attention to handsome Pat (still wearing his hair very long...), sitting on the edge of the stage. He did sign his autograph with a few X's!

The years went by and Pat stayed on as Sid's trusted sidekick, he took out his banjo for The Bluegrass Coal Porters, participated in Western Electric, wrote numerous songs, worked with other well-known names like Peter Case, Bob Neuwirth, Amy Rigby, Tandy, Rosie Flores and Ian Dunlop of Gram Parsons' International Submarine Band. In early 2006 he wanted to find a more personal outlet for his songwriting and gathered a collective of musicians that share his love of traditional music. There's leadsinger Oliver (Olly) Talkes, who also plays guitar, Pete Gow is the other guitarplayer, he's from the band Case Hardin and performed with Stacey Earle, Caitlin Cary and Chris Mills. Frances Faux (fiddle) has a background in jazz and Irish music, while Eamon Flynn (mandolin) from Foghorn Leghorn and Matt Lloyd (upright bass) are familiar names from the London folk scene. And of course there's Pat himself: born in Belfast, living in London, breathing music and playing the banjo.

Where did they take that long name Southern Tenant Folk Union from? The ground breaking multi-racial union of sharecroppers and non-landowning tenant farmers founded in Arkansas in the 1930's. And I like the outfits, reflecting the same era, the men wear grey suits with black or white shirts, while Frances looks pretty in a beautiful flowered dress. The musical styles they play are bluegrass, old-time with some touches of gospel and Celtic folk. The influences are many, from The

Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family, Gillian Welch and Flatt & Scruggs to less obvious names like the Grateful Dead plus Belle & Sebastian!
So..., time to pull out the disc and listen! First track "Southern Tenant Folk Theme in A" is an instrumental, coming back later as "Southern Folk Theme Vocal Version" (yes, with vocals indeed...) and "Southern Folk Theme in G". I fully understand why fellow reviewers praise Oliver's "unique soulful voice" -best in the slower songs- when I hear old-timey "Sweeter Times" with the fiddle solos. In "All You Need To Know" the main solos are done by the mandolin, this is more of a bluegrass song, uptempo with again perfect harmonies. Slow "The Cold Flagstone" sounds like a 1940's radio recording, an old-time lament with harmony singing and ending that seems inspired by a negro spiritual. Uptempo again in "A Little Deeper", gospel influences and a shining part for Pat's banjo.That instrument is also very important in "Mosul Train", a story ballad about (American) soldiers, that picks up speed and builds itself in an excellent way. "Who Is Going To Love You Now" from the hand of Oliver Talkes himself, featuring harmonica and fiddle, is a sort of lovesong, although you're never sure on this album with its smart and often somewhat dark twists. The Irish flavored songs "Rosalind" (uptempo, banjo and mandolin skip-jumping along) and "Candle Waltz" (a slow waltz as expected) are written by Eamon Flynn. "The First & Last": another old-timey hymn like gospel.

Prize track is "The Green Eyed Girl (From Louisville)" with its infectious melody and harmony singing, the acoustic bass keeping a steady beat and the other instruments yet again taking turns at the solos. The other prize track and my personal favorite is powerful "Here In The Dock". I don't know if Pat had a "work song" in mind, when he wrote this one but every time I hear it, I see this old picture of my father and his co-workers at the ships repair yard, in overalls covered with oil and tar, a severely damaged ship's bow in the background...

Just too bad, that the inlay doesn't contain more info: who's playing & singing what & where exactly and I miss the printed lyrics!! They're much better than on the average bluegrass album and are somewhat harder to understand in the close harmony singing than usual. If the budget isn't big enough for a big booklet, they could be put on the website... Important, for a band who wants a break on the continent full of people knowing English only as a second language.

Everything sounds so deceivingly effortless, but making this kind of music on such a high level takes, besides skills, also years & years of experience and knowing the classics plus a bit of music history! The Southern Tenant Folk Union is getting well-deserved very positive reviews with loads of stars, smileys and horses literally everywhere. Uhm, bookers, festival bookers in particular, did that coin drop already?

Written by Johanna J. Bodde, August 2007.