Ralph McTell celebrates 50 years on the road at Chequer Mead

Ralph McTell
Ralph McTell

Busier and more prolific than ever, Ralph McTell is back on the road with his milestone 70th birthday extravaganza at London’s Theatre Royal now behind him.

Ralph plays the Chequer Mead Theatre, East Grinstead, on Saturday, October 31.

As he approaches his 71st birthday in December, he is now marking the fact that it is now 50 years since his first professional engagement, with a bluegrass band in 1965.

“I had something of a reputation as a guitar-picker, and I would have been 20 at the time.

“I had been playing before that, but somebody heard me. Their guitarist was leaving, and they asked me to join them. The band was called The Hickory Nuts. They were very young musicians, and they were destined for great things. But it was great fun while it lasted. They asked me to do a little set in the middle of their show. We didn’t have a very big repertoire. We did our set and we realised we had finished it within half an hour, and so we just did it again in the second half.

“We did a national tour that ended on Christmas Eve in Birmingham in 1965. We didn’t have any money to put petrol in the vehicle to get back to London.

“But I started to do a solo set and things just developed from there really, with me going on to become a soloist. It was a slow process. I drifted down to Cornwall with a very fine friend of mine and I got discovered down there. I was writing songs, and that resulted in performances in clubs. I was asked if I had written any songs, and that led to a recording contract. That was ’67.

“It was a great time. I couldn’t believe it. By this time I was married with a little boy, and it was suggested that I could take the music side of things seriously.

“I always took it seriously in terms of my belief in music, but there was music afoot, folk music, and it seemed a young man or woman at that time could fall into a niche.”

Ralph counts himself in the second wave in that respect, the first wave coming in the very early ’60s. Then along came folk rock in the form of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span and The Albion Band. Now there is an upsurge in folk/roots/acoustic generally.

“I think that upsurge is for two reasons. It’s accessible if you are prepared to put in the time and practice it. But I also think it is a rejection of the media values behind all those talent competitions you get on TV.”

Ralph can see absolutely no virtue in shows such as The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent. If they come on, he’s out the door in search of something better to do.

“No one plays an instrument. That’s the big thing that’s missing. Anyone can sing. The milkman can sing.”

For Ralph, the pleasure is in the creative process: “I am the happiest man in the world when I have written a new song and when I perform it for the first time. That’s the most exciting thing about it. I think I am on my 34th album as a song-writer now. But I also think it is important to keep to the basic principles. Self-advertising of sexual prowess and songs with no humanity just become boring in the end. There are so many subjects you can sing about, mostly to do with human relations.”

Visit chequermead.org.uk.

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