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Martin Simpson and Thomm Jutz play into microphones sitting opposite each other. They are both playing acoustic guitars in somebody's sitting room.

Martin Simpson/Thomm Jutz – Nothing But Green Willow: The Songs Of Mary Sands and Jane Gentry – a review

Martin Simpson and Thomm Jutz gather together a coterie of extraordinary musicians and bring to life the songs of Mary Sands and Jane Gentry.

Release Date
29 September 2023
Nothing But Green Willow - Martin Simpson, Thomm Jutz and friends
In 1916, Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles ventured to Appalachia, uncovering forgotten ballads with the help of Olive Dame Campbell. They cataloged numerous songs, notably from Jane Gentry and Mary Sands. ‘Nothing But Green Willow,’ crafted by Martin Simpson and Thomm Jutz, beautifully revives these tracks. With standout moments where female voices, including Emily Portman's clarity and Sierra Hull's emotive delivery, take center stage, the album showcases the seamless blend of old and new, paying tribute to past songkeepers and today's vocalists, ensuring the songs' enduring resonance.

Just imagine all that we would have lost. Imagine the things that would have slipped from the collective mind if Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles had not been helped to find their way to Appalachia in 1916. Imagine, most importantly, how the female voice might have been, further, silenced had these songs been allowed to die.

Sharp and Karpeles were on a song-collecting mission in America, having exhausted much of what the UK had to offer, when they met Olive Dame Campbell. She directed them to Appalachia where, she felt, there were ballads still remembered, ballads still sung. Sharp and Karpeles knew, right away, that out in those mountains, across the riverbeds, there were hundreds of songs to be found. When they heard guest house proprietor Jane Gentry sing, they knew they had hit the motherlode. Of the songs included in the book that the two folklorists compiled, English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachia, 40 of them were collected from Gentry. A further 23 from her near neighbour Mary Sands (“Singing Mary”). On this utterly charming, quietly extraordinary album, Martin Simpson and Thomm Jutz have given them yet another chance to be remembered.

Across thirteen tracks, Simpson and Jutz act as Transatlantic co-producers, contributing musicians, and careful selectors. It is they who chose the songs, they who have gathered the wonderful singers, each one of whom takes on a different song. The two of them very simply, very delicately create a beautiful setting into which gemstones are allowed to glisten. When this album is at its very best, the two men fade into the background and the female voices come to the fore.

When this album is at its very best, the two men fade into the background and the female voices come to the fore

If Emily Portman is the absolute epitome of the English female folk singer then her version of ‘Fair Annie’ [Roud 42] sums up Nothing But Green Willow with serious aplomb. Her voice is as clear and clean as an Appalachian stream, as sweet and crisp as the song is dark and difficult. There is an almost complete lack of fuss, as though Simpson and Jutz have pitched up on her porch and turned on a great big reel-to-reel. This, of course, isn’t a million miles away from the truth. Each song, each collaboration took barely a couple of hours to record, the amazing musicians meshing organically, the outcome never anything other than remarkable. 

This approach seems most obvious with Fay Hield‘s ‘I Whipped My Horse’ [Roud 3627]. Handclaps keeping everything to time, Hield’s voice, as ever, full of wit and dripping with knowledge. You can picture her in a lecture theatre, simply illustrating a point with the song, leaving her students dumbstruck, awestruck. Angeline Morrison, too, is honest and earthy, lending her trademark open-heart surgery to ‘The Suffolk Miracle’ [Roud 246]. On both songs the dual guitars of Simpson and Jutz are entirely sympathetic, never overwhelming, always amplifying the voices. 

The other UK collaborators are Cara Dillon and Seth Lakeman. Dillon’s treatment of ‘Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies’ [Roud 451] is as immediately familiar, as wonderfully comforting as a favourite old patchwork quilt. Her voice is like honey, sunlight glinting through the gold. Where, sometimes, she can be a bit over-polished this is properly gorgeous, the spontaneity entirely working in her favour. Lakeman, too, seems to be enjoying the more relaxed approach, hamming up ‘Edward’ [Roud 200], at turns mannered and howlingly effective, Simpson’s slide guitar and slack-stringed resonance cushioning him beautifully. 

On a whole album of jaw-dropping vocalists, it’s Hull that you need to search out again

The contributions from the UK are incredible but it is with some of the American artists that Nothing But Green Willow becomes an indispensable release. ‘Geordie’ [Roud 90] is one of those songs where the world would be a poorer place had we lost it, had Sharp and Karpeles not gathered it from Jane Gentry. In the hands of bluegrass multi-instrumentalist, Sierra Hull, it is packed full of longing, her voice tough and tender. She harmonises with Justin Moses and plays mandolin, trading gently plucked lines with Simpson’s banjo. On a whole album of jaw-dropping vocalists, it’s Hull that you need to search out again. 

Dale Ann Bradley is another renowned bluegrass vocalist. She’s a six-time Female Bluegrass Vocalist of the Year and her version of ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ [Roud 2286] is stunning. Singing here with Tim Stafford, the two voices blend and merge, set off by the delicacy of Jutz’s guitar. Tammy Rogers‘ fiddle creeps in slowly, illuminating the corners with a softly flickering glow. On ‘Married and Single Life’ [Roud 16530], Rogers, singing this time, is sparse and spare, the normally male-centric song turned on its head as the guitars and her fiddle tussle gently. Odessa Settles adds unbearable heartbreak to ‘Pretty Saro’ [Roud 417], sounding powerful and then desperately vulnerable.  

There are some fabulous male contributions here – Tim O’Brien‘s ‘Edwin in the Lowlands Low’ [Roud 182] is fantastic, his voice as good as anything on the album – but Nothing But Green Willow has to be recognised for the feminine fingerprints that are all over it. Whether we think about Maud Karpeles and her contribution to the collecting of the songs, Olive Dame Campbell and her insistence that Appalachia would have plenty of songs to seek, or Jane Gentry and Mary Sands, who remembered and cherished these songs, the voices of the women are the ones that shine. Emily Portman, Fay Hield, Cara Dillon and Sierra Hull take these old, old songs and ensure that, for generations to come, we will be able to hold them dear.  

Nothing But Green Willow comes out on Topic Records on September 29th. Click here for more information.