English traditional folk singer Kate Rusby, despite her young age, performs with the same warmth, universal appeal, talent, and passion of her ancestors, winning acclaim throughout Europe and the United States with just two solo albums to her name. “The brightest light in English folk music, Rusby is blessed with a delightful voice, an engaging, down-to-earth personality, and refreshing musical integrity,” wrote the Daily Telegraph, while Billboard magazine’s Timothy White called her “hauntingly heartsore solo albums … among the finest expressions in the last quarter-century of the fast-reviving English folk tradition.” Nonetheless, Rusby, a modest and humorous musician who shuns the limelight and all other formal pretensions, awards herself far less credit, even though she has good reason to celebrate her unquestionable musicianship. Although she won several honors, earned the praises of a range of artists from Bonnie Raitt to Andy Kershaw, and performed at Europe’s most prestigious music festivals since the mid-1990s, the gifted singer/songwriter insisted on her website: “I’m just this wee Yorkshire lass who can’t get up in t’morning.”
Kate Rusby was born on December 1, 1973, in the ancient market town of Barnsley in Yorkshire, England. Her parents, dedicated musicians Steve and Ann Rusby—who met while frequenting the region’s folk clubs and later formed their own “ceilidh” (party) dance band—heavily influenced the musical growth of their children. Rusby, who grew up listening to artists like Nic Jones when most of her schoolmates swooned over rock stars like Jon Bon Jovi, was the middle sibling of three. As soon as she was old enough, Rusby, along with her older sister Emma and later younger brother Joe, joined the family band to sing harmonies and play the fiddle, an instrument she picked up at the tender age of five. By the time she reached the age of 12, another folk icon from Barnsley named Dave Burland encouraged her to learn guitar.
Although Rusby loved music—drawn equally to the bluegrass sounds of the Del McCoury Band and to the pop/rock flavors of 10,000 Maniacs—she found herself uncertain about her future when her older sister left the music business in favor of the graphic design industry. “I was always in her shadow,” said Rusby, as quoted by White. Still undecided, Rusby, at the age of 15, received an invitation to take her new guitar- and piano-based solo act to the Holmworth Folk Festival and gave a spectacular performance. From that moment onward, the young folk singer never looked back, although she did go on to study drama for a time as well.
A few years later, however, a music career began to crystallize when radio and record producer John Leonard introduced her to another Barnsley-based musician named Kathryn Roberts, who Rusby met years earlier at Irish dancing classes. With Roberts, Rusby formed a short-lived, yet fruitful partnership. In 1995, the pair released their first and only album, Kate Rusby & Kathryn Roberts, voted Folk Roots’ Album of the Year that year. Immediately, major record companies tried to persuade Rusby to sign, but the young singer swiftly turned down every offer in order to concentrate on her own music. Instead, Rusby chose to remain with Pure Records, the small, cottage label she continues to operate with her parents.
On her own, Rusby held true to the English folk tradition, but developed her own distinctive writing style as well, taking acoustic music to new heights in popularity. And while Rusby proudly calls herself a folk singer, her striking persona nevertheless fits none of the usual stereotypes. “An unchanging tradition is a dying one,” the talented storyteller told White, adding, “Young people today think of folk musicians as people with a finger in their ears, wearing heavy wool sweaters. But I find I can step into other people’s shoes hundreds of years past when I play this music. Back then, people weren’t afraid to show their emotions, and I have a passion for their passion.”
Rusby showcased this passion for the first time on record as a soloist with Hourglass. Released in Great Britain on Pure Records in 1997 and issued by Nashville-based Compass Records in the United States in 1999, Rusby’s debut received vast acclaim.
For The Record…
Born on December 1, 1973, in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England; daughter of musicians Steve and Ann Rusby, who met while frequenting the region’s folk clubs and later formed their own “ceilidh” (party) dance band; siblings: older sister Emma and younger brother Joe.
Started playing fiddle at age five; picked up guitar at age 12; performed solo for the first time at the Holmworth Folk Festival at age 15; released debut solo album, Hourglass, 1997; released award-winning album Sleepless, 1999.
Awards: Technics Mercury Music Prize for Sleepless, 1999; BBC Radio 2 awards for Best Album for Sleepless and Best Folk Singer, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Pure Records, P.O. Box 174, Penistone, W. Yorkshire, England, S30 6P, +44 (0)1226 790536. Website— Kate Rusby at Pure Records, http://www.purerecords.demon.co.uk.
Every track, whether a traditional folk tune or a Rusby original like the elegiac “A Rose In April,” resonated with the singer’s everyday revelations, bringing a calm universality to each lyric. “Barnsley’s an old coalmining town,” Rusby, who seems to understand the depths of human emotion and life’s hardships, explained to White. “All my family on my mum’s side were miners. The mines closed 10 years ago, and there was a lot of unemployment at first. For us, storytelling is a form of escapism, songs of death or loss telling us our lives aren’t so bad compared to another poor soul.”
Rusby didn’t limit herself to songs steeped in the past. In addition to performing melancholy traditional folk ballads on Hourglass, Rusby offered other more contemporary stylings. Two examples included the meditative “Old Man,” as well as the folk singer’s eerie rendition of Sinead O’Connor’s pioneering hip-hop/folk adaptation of the traditional “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.”
Rusby, known for her warm, unselfish nature and self-depreciating sense of humor, also noted that she was really not alone in making her first solo album, expressing the importance of naming the other talented musicians involved. Joining Rusby, along with producer John McCusker—the renowned Battlefield Band fiddler—on fiddles, were band members Michael McGoldrick on flute and whistles, Ian Carr on guitar, Andy Cutting on diatonic accordion, Tony McManus on guitars, Alison Kinnaird on cello, Donald Hay on percussion, Conrad Ivitsky on double bass, Alan Reid and Davy Steele on harmony vocals, and Eric Rigler on uillean pipes.
After performing to audiences throughout Europe and releasing a new single entitled “Cowsong” in November of 1998 with McCusker and musicians Carr, McGoldrick, Ivitsky, Cutting, and James Macintosh, Rusby returned in May of 1999 for the British release of her next album, Sleepless. Compass issued the album a few months later in American. Her band lineup this time included McCusker, Cutting, Carr, Ivitsky, McGoldrick, Donald Hay, Darrell Scott, Roger Wilson, Andy Seward, and Francis MacDonald; Dave Burland, Tim O’Brien, and Wilson made guest appearances on vocals. Sleepless proved just as emotionally penetrating as Rusby’s debut. “The dark-hued tremble of Rusby’s rich alto voice lends it a tone just one calm breath above the confidingly conversant, its effect abruptly warming or chilling those nearby, like a sudden hand at one’s shoulder,” wrote White. “Meanwhile, piano, harp, tin whistle, and squeezebox rustle around her words as if they were wafts of breeze from a door, or a heart, that’s been left ajar.”
Upon the strength of songs such as her own “Sleepless Sailor” and the traditional ballads “Our Town” and “Wild Goose,” Sleepless earned significant acclaim. Mojo included the effort on its list of “Best Folk Albums” of 1999, while Q magazine named Sleepless one of its 50 Best Albums of 1999, as well as one of the Best Folk Albums of All Time. Her second offering went on to win in July of 1999 a Technics Mercury Music Prize, which named a short list of 12 Albums of the Year from a variety of genres; Talvin Singh won the overall honor for his Indian classical album OK. Subsequently, in February of 2000, Rusby took home the two top prizes at the national folk awards held by the BBC (British Broadcasting Company) Radio 2 network. Not only did she win the Best Album award for Sleepless, but was also named Folk Singer of the Year.
At the BBC awards, Rusby was praised for keeping the folk tradition fresh and new. And Rusby herself commented that in spite of the fact that Western culture has progressed to the digital/technological age, her songs, rooted in the traditional, resonate just as much meaning today as they did hundreds of years ago. “They’re songs about people’s emotions, falling in and out of love, being born and dying,” she explained to the audience at the ceremony, as quoted by Billboard’s Nigel Williamson. “The songs might be 200 years old, but they have never seemed old-fashioned to me. They’re as relevant today as the day they were written, and they always will be.”
Kate Rusby & Kathryn Robert, (United Kingdom) Pure, 1995; Compass, 1999.
Hourglass, (United Kingdom) Pure, 1997; Compass, 1999.
Sleepless, Pure/Compass, 1999.
Billboard, October 3, 1998; July 3, 1999; July 10, 1999; August 7, 1999; October 23, 1999; February 19, 2000.
Melody Maker, August 7, 1999.
USA Today, March 16, 1999.
Wall Street Journal, December 2, 1998.
Washington Post, April 25, 1998.
Kate Rusby, http://www.purerecords.demon.co.uk (May 29, 2000).
Sonicnet.com, http://www.sonicnet.com (May 29, 2000).