JThere’s something truly special about English folk music, whether it’s the dulcet tones of Nick Drake or the gentle lilt of Sandy Denny. With ancient structures, intersecting cultures, and rugged coastlines aplenty from which to draw inspiration, the genre often leans toward the melancholic, reflecting the UK’s oft-grey skies, and stories are passed from one generation to the next set in song.
John Smith is the latest entry into the milieu and a more than welcome one. On his new release, Hummingbird, traditional tunes and contemporary themes effortlessly entangle themselves to create a wonderful and worthy addition to the English folk canon.
The set opens with a gentle look back at a once-lost, but still-lingering love, in the title track. Two things hit the listener right away: Smith’s singing and playing. He’s exceedingly gifted at both. His honey voice is the raw, unfiltered sort — sweet, smooth, and healing, but with a hint of grit when you want it most. As a player, Smith has backed a number of notable artists, so he can more than ably support himself, and uses his guitar as an extension of the voice and song which becomes apparent by the second tune, the 19th-century traditional “Lowlands of Holland.”
The third song splits the difference. Though a new, original composition, “Boudica” could easily be taken for a tale from the ages rather than just of them. It’s a tenderly fierce telling centered around a British Celtic Iceni rebel queen folk hero who has been immortalized, previously, in stone and, now, song. Alternately, the 18th-century “Hares on the Mountain” could just as easily be mistaken for a contemporary love story because humans are just as (un)complicated as we ever were. Smith blurs the lines even further with “Axe Mountain (Revisited).” An original murder ballad that anchors his live performances with its show-stopping puissance, the song is a pristine and potent showcase for all of his gifts.
Ah, the beauty of music in the right hands.
Some artists are a bit precious, when approaching old folk songs, not trusting the sturdiness with which they’ve survived hundreds of years of interpretation. Smith doesn’t do that. He wraps himself around them and them around him, tugging here and stretching there to make them fit his own needs, while never abandoning the heart of their matters. That tactic is exemplified by the album’s coda, “Unquiet Grave,” a gorgeous 15th-century ballad made into a duet with Cara Dillon.
If John Smith’s Hummingbird evidences the special kind of folk beauty coming out of the English countryside these days, please, climate change, don’t ever turn those grey skies blue.