Kate Rusby: 20
The new release by English folk singer Kate Rusby is a double album and it’s called 20 because its purpose is to celebrate her two decades as a performer. Yes, amazingly the Yorkshire-born singer has already been around for that long and has become almost an institution in the process. And there lies the problem. She has become the acceptable face of folk while other less widely known singers have taken more liberties with the old songs, sometimes with more edgy and unusual results as the general interest in English folk music has increased over the years. Nowadays Rusby is often damned with faint praise by the ‘folk police’ for her more mainstream accessibility and popularity.
20 is released on Pure Records and, not surprisingly, contains 20 songs. All but one of these are new versions of songs she has previously released in different forms on other albums. The exception is the new original song ‘Sun Grazers’ on which she duets with Paul Weller. The idea of releasing an album of already familiar songs doesn’t sound too clever at first sight and the arrangements for the most part are not enormously different from the originals. However, this is offset by the inclusion of many guest singers and musicians and it is fascinating to hear how these work out. Also, the songs themselves are so strong that it doesn’t hurt at all to hear them recorded again and sequenced in this order. In Okinawa singers do this all the time and no-one bats an eyelid to hear yet another version of an old Okinawan favourite on a new album.
The surprising thing really is that so many of these tracks were actually written by Rusby herself as they blend in so well with the other traditional songs. Over the years she has gradually become a skilled songwriter and some of the best of her songs are here: ‘Who Will Sing Me Lullabies’, ‘Bitter Boy’, ‘Mocking Bird’ and ‘Underneath the Stars’ to name a few. It’s also especially good to hear again the traditional ‘Jolly Plough Boys’ and ‘Annan Waters’ which were both on her first solo album Hourglass back in 1997.
The list of guests includes (among others) Jerry Douglas on dobro, Paul Brady with a duet on ‘All God’s Angels’, Richard Thompson, Dick Gaughan and Mary Chapin Carpenter. This doesn’t detract at all from Rusby’s vocals and the songs are still very much hers. In fact, there are times when we scarcely notice the guests and in one or two cases it might even have been better to have given them a bit more to do. For me, the outstanding addition is Nic Jones – one of Rusby’s early heroes – who adds a harmony vocal to another of her originals ‘The Lark’. It’s simply great to hear him singing again after so many years. The best thing to do is forget any reservations and just sit back and enjoy this album in its entirety. Kate Rusby is a beautiful singer and 20 is an hour and a half of gorgeous music.