Well, I’ll be jiggered. You could have knocked me down with a feather boa and one of Loreena McKennitt’s dainty harp strings when I heard the news. Sam Lee’s oddly graceful A Ground Of Its Own album has been shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize for best British (and Irish) album of the year alongside fabled names from another galaxy… like Plan B, Django Django and Lianne La Havas.
We’re a long way from Kansas…let alone Cecil Sharp House…and although the F-word (folk, people, folk!) is occasionally attached as a keynote reference to fellow nominee, the golden-voiced Michael Kiwanuka ; and the unassuming Richard Hawley brought the house down with his Sheffield sermons on a Sunday night at Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago; Lee’s nomination appears so random that you can’t help but lick your lips anticipating what awaits through those doors enticingly about to open up in front of him.
For make no mistake, the Mercury Prize shortlist is a very big deal.
Some artists have never been heard of again after appearing on the list (Helicopter Girl? Floetry?!?) but there’s plenty whose careers have been established on the back of a nomination – Laura Marling for one, Seth Lakeman for another. And you sense that suddenly invested with such a platform, he’s unlikely to leave it standing empty.
We shouldn’t, perhaps, be overly surprised about this latest rabbit to come leaping out of Lee’s ever-larger hat. He has a way with prizes, does Sam, including a BBC Award for folk club of the year and the 2011 Arts Foundation Award, which helped fund his Mercury-nominated album. Mercury hasn’t shone its torch too brightly on the folk world in recent years and I did think if the spotlight fell anywhere this time it would be on the already well-decorated June Tabor/Oysterband collaboration Ragged Kingdom; but, with the Mercury held later this year, the time frame was probably against it. I know that if I was still on the panel I’d have been thumping tables in support of the innovative Speech Project album by Gerry Diver - coincidentally Lee’s producer on Ground Of Its Own – while everyone else around the table looked at me in pity.
Lee’s nomination will not be universally applauded by the Brit folk community, of course. As entrepreneur, promoter, agent, song collector, club organiser, storyteller, irrepressible PR man, inveterate bon viveur and outspoken critic of the (lack of) imagination of many of the modern generation of bright young things, Lee’s sheer ubiquity irritates many. I can think of several people who will, as we speak, be banging heads against walls in exasperation at the news.
Yet in so many ways Lee is a perfect and genuinely exciting Mercury candidate. Ground Of Its Own is a beautiful album and a brave one too, both in its enlightened instrumentation – not a guitar in sight – and with a relatively oblique array of material, drawn handsomely from the travelling community which he has embraced so fulsomely since abandoning a burgeoning career as a burlesque dancer to embark on his impassioned quest for the inner soul of traditional song.
Lee is a perfect and genuinely exciting Mercury candidate
He has conviction, geniality, ideas (indeed he has so many ideas you wonder how his head doesn’t explode) and a colourful back story – all ingredients that make him media friendly and will go a long way to making what most assume to be a scarily difficult music accessible to the populous. The inferred role as folk song ambassador that habitually accompanies the specialist spot on the Mercury list will fit easily on his shoulders. Indeed, while Ground Of Its Own is possibly the most hardcore folk-related album ever to make the Mercury list, who can say what will be achieved once Lee’s famous charm offensive moves into full tornado force on the mainstream. The results will be fascinating…and surely very good.
As a Mercury judge over several years, I was forever shocked, sometimes to despair, by the complete ignorance of the British folk movement among both fellow judges and the wider world. My first year on the panel – 1996 – was I think a bit of a landmark as I and a couple of other sympathetic ears somehow wrestled Norma Waterson’s first solo album on the list in the face of complete incomprehension from most of the others. “Why does she have to sing in that weird voice?” argued one of them. “That, madam,” I said, hurling several large toys out of my pram, “is her real voice. It’s from Yorkshire and if we had any cultural self-awareness in this country it would be cherished as devotedly as Piaf, Callas or Billie Holiday. Returning for the final judging meeting at the award ceremony itself several weeks later, I was amazed to find she’d done a complete about-turn and, waxing lyrical about Norma’s unique singing, was leading the unexpected charge for Norma to win the prize outright. She nearly did, too, losing out by a single vote to Pulp’s Different Class…immediately making a complete nonsense of all the lazy write-ups which bang on with endless laziness and clichéd predictably about the “token” folk or jazz albums on the list. Norma Waterson’s name appearing on that Mercury list in 1996 was the first visible evidence of the rehabilitation of British folk music in the eyes of the great unwashed and the subsequent nominations of Eliza Carthy (twice) and Kate Rusby, not to mention the broader roots paraded by the likes of Asian Dub Foundation, Cornershop, Black Star Liner, Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney, KT Tunstall, Beth Orton, Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan, Lou Rhodes and Susheela Raman, who’ve all contributed to a defiantly diverse resistance to the insidious Cowellisation of the music industry.
I still fondly recall Seth Lakeman, fiddle on his back, casually wandering into the press call when Kitty Jay was shortlisted in 2005, ending up performing an impromptu set right there in the middle of the floor with a passion and fury that had the assembled hacks reeling away, hastily discarding all the normal catalogue of clichés they ritually dust off for any mention of folk music. It was an astonishing moment and, the willing Seth’s career took off spectacularly from that point, although it did earn him another appalling epithet as the “poster boy” of folk along the way. The Unthanks, too, did the genre proud when The Bairns was narrowly beaten to Mercury by an Elbow (with Laura Marling’s wonderfully delicate debut Alas I Cannot Swim also in the frame), using the profile to expand and maximise their music in unexpected ways and change some long ingrained attitudes in the process…
Of course, the whole list thing is a tad spurious in the first place – “a crazy contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon” as Antony Hegarty memorably commented in 2005 when winning the prize with the exquisite I Am A Bird Now – and the grumpsters, conspiracy theorists and cynics will have their knives out for Sam Lee, just as they did for Seth Lakeman and the Unthanks.
The ego has landed and I for one applaud heartily and will sit back and await the next part of the journey with great anticipation. For, while it seems inconceivable that he will actually go on and win the thing (the bookies odds of 10-1 look incredibly mean) and the smart money this year has to be on Django Django but…strange things have happened and here’s a master of strange things. There is, after all, nothing token about Sam Lee…
Irwin was an assistant editor of Melody Maker in the 1970s and 1980s, before leaving in the summer of 1987 as the magazine moved in a different direction, and editor of Number One magazine in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
His book In Search of the Craic details a comic journey around Ireland seeking out pub music sessions and became a best-seller in Ireland. Subsequent books were In Search Of Albion, a similarly light-hearted journey around English traditions and rituals and Sing When You're Winning, about the history and culture of terrace songs at football matches.
He's also reviewed music for The Guardian, Mojo, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and fRoots and has been a Mercury Music Prize judge.