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Steve Ashley

Born 6 March 1946, Perivale, London, Steve has been writing trad-infused songs for nigh-on five decades since he signed a publishing contract in 1971 with Harbrook Music; his `Fire And Wine’ became a staple for ANNE BRIGGS, a leading folkie at the time who invited his subsequent folk-rock group Ragged Robin (with Richard Byers, Brian Diprose and John Thompson) to perform on a shelved set in 1973. Going back a little to the latter half of the 60s, Steve sang and played harmonica with arty psych outfit The Tea Set, while with Tinderbox (a duo featuring guitarist Dave Mendey), ASHLEY recorded a shelved 45, `Farewell Britannia’.
The turn of the decade saw Steve gain a foothold in the music industry once again, side-lining with SHIRLEY & DOLLY COLLINS on the sisters’ classic “Anthems In Eden” set, while in April ’72 he joined up with the touring ensemble of The ALBION COUNTRY BAND – a group of former FAIRPORT musicians, ASHLEY HUTCHINGS, Simon Nicol and Dave Mattacks; Steve guested for SPIROGYRA in 1973 and instigated a newly-run London folk club in King’s Cross, The New Merlin’s Cave (organised by Heather Wood and Anthea Joseph), around the same time.
Together with producer Austin John Marshall and a concise string section from the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Kirby, Steve’s debut LP STROLL ON (1974) {*9} won over many new acolytes, none more enthused than journos Karl Dallas (of Melody Maker) and Derek Jewell (of The Sunday Times). With gemstones like the aforementioned `Fire And Wine’, `Monkey Puzzle Tree’, etc., it was named as the Contemporary Folk Album of the Year in Folk Review mag; support gigs to jazz-rock label mates IF and ISOTOPE (and, among others, SUPERTRAMP, GONG and MAN) followed.
Sophomore set SPEEDY RETURN {*7} only confirmed his early promise, while Motown records in the USA gave his albums distribution when he toured there. Sadly, subsequent workouts with various musicians from DECAMERON, LEA NICHOLSON and STEVE KNIGHTLEY (as Rare Old Men) and television appearances alongside DAVE PEGG, Richard Byers and Bob Critchley, led to few or no recordings, although The OLD SWAN BAND paid homage to Steve by way of dance tune `A Pint Of Old Timer’; The Steve Ashley Band and a duo with fiddler Chris Leslie came to nothing.
The 80s fared even worse by his own high standards, although a handful of demo cassettes containing his new political standpoints and one vinyl set for FAIRPORT CONVENTION’s Woodworm imprint, FAMILY ALBUM (1983) {*6} – featuring the great `The Rough With The Smooth’ – gave his fanbase some hope of recovery; he’d sung in front of an estimated quarter-million people at a CND rally in Hyde Park.
MYSTERIOUS WAYS (1990) {*7} was his first proper set for some time, a rootsy affair that was raved about in Folk Roots magazine. Although semi-retired, ASHLEY still managed to write the odd piece of music for television (two for documentaries by Roger Deakin), while that shelved ANNE BRIGGS set with Ragged Robin (`Sing A Song For You’) finally saw light of day. With a reinvigorated spark of life, ASHLEY signed a fresh deal with Topic Records, almost immediately releasing the fRoots-friendly EVERYDAY LIVES (2001) {*7}, a fine return showcasing at least one classic in `Gog And Magog’.
In March 2006, Steve and some high-esteem folk friends (namely Chris Leslie, DAVE PEGG, Simon Nicol, Robert Kirby, MAARTIN ALLCOCK, Ragged Robin, Tinderbox, PHIL BEER, Paul Downes, Martin Brinsford and Mat Le Mare) celebrated his 60th birthday and also released his accompanying LIVE IN CONCERT (2006) {*6} set; TIME AND TIDE (2007) {*6}, was another well-received studio album, featuring the likes of ROBIN WILLIAMSON, Dik Cadbury (from DECAMERON and ex-Steve Ashley Band), DAVE PEGG, Simon Nicol, Chris Leslie and Tommy Scott, to mention only a handful of players.
Several years from his previous studio outing, while his songs were being interpreted by GRACE NOTES, among others, Market Square Records released his 8th album THIS LITTLE GAME (2015) {*6}. Simply solo Steve and his acoustic guitar painting a canvas of the modern world, from the branches of life (`Just Like The Leaves’ and `Rainsong’) to the heart-felt (`In Your Heart’ and `The Last Deeds Of Love’), all was indeed peaceful and sombre.
Said to be inspired by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (not even BILLY BRAGG could come up with that incentive!), observant 70 year-old protest singer/songwriter STEVE ASHLEY gleaned rave reviews for understated umpteenth set, ANOTHER DAY (2017) {*7}. Poignant and wry as many an old folk gem, `One Strong Voice’, `The Paper Song’, `The Months Go Round’, `Another Shore’ and many other cues proved traditional styles don’t have to be suffocated by DYLAN’s nostalgic blues.
There was some reassurance, that in these days of fast-living and everything fingers-and-thumbs, the masterly STEVE ASHLEY was still quietly protesting over the ills of the world. If he’d forgotten to rail against something or other, then he’d resolve it through 2018’s swansong set, ONE MORE THING {*7}. Described fittingly as “the PHIL OCHS” of the Momentum age” by Colin Irwin at Mojo, Steve was at his best through `The White Helmets’, `They Are So Few’. `The Windsor Song’ and his farewell piece, `Keep It Free And Easy’.
© MC Strong 2010-GFD // rev-up MCS Feb2015-Dec2018

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