Jock Tamson's Bairns - the original boy band
Musicians involved in Scottish traditional music are invariably engaged in playing for other people on Hogmanay. Ask them who they’d like to be listening to at a time when the music they play seems particularly to define the moment, and a good many of them will tell you: Jock Tamson’s Bairns.
The Bairns, as they’re popularly known, are the subject of a BBC Radio Scotland programme presented by Billy Kay to be broadcast on Hogmanay evening. But through the wonders of internet broadcasting their fans who miss out on this ‘quarts and all’ story through gigs of their own will be able to catch up via the station’s website for a week following the broadcast.
There was no grand plan when a group of musicians began to gather at the cradle of Scottish traditional music, Sandy Bell’s bar in Edinburgh in the mid 1970s. Out of these informal sessions, however, grew an enduring band that is revered by its peers and younger generations of musicians alike.
Singer-songwriter Richard Thompson chose the Bairns’ second LP (they were LPs at the time it was issued), The Lasses Fashion, as one of his top ten albums of all time in a feature in Q magazine. The decidedly more youthful multi BBC Folk Awards winner Karine Polwart speaks eloquently in the programme of the many attractions in their music. And the younger still Anna-Wendy Stevenson has gone from fan to band member as the Bairns continue to evolve as the quintessentially Scottish folk group.
The line-up of the Bairns was as fluid as their intake in the early days. As founder member Adam Jack recalls, there could be as many as fifteen musicians involved. Eventually, there came a time when a team had to be picked and the line-up that recorded their first album out at Robin Morton’s studio in Temple in 1980 boasted an embarrassment of riches.
In Tony Cuffe and Rod Paterson they had two of Scottish folk music’s most influential singer-guitarists whose smooth, rich voices were balanced by the earthy, rustic qualities of John Croall’s singing. Adam Jack and Ian Hardie, who would become one of the most prolific tunesmiths in Scotland, played fiddle and Norman Chalmers and Jack Evans contributed half a dozen instruments between them.
For piper and pipe maker Hamish Moore, who sat in with the band in the early days and remains a vociferous adherent, it was the complete honesty of their approach that seduced him.
"It was simple in a way but also complex," he says. "But they always kept the essence of the music. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven when I played with them because of their sheer talent. There were no degrees in Scottish traditional music then, no exams, they just played the way they did because they loved the music and they were good because they’d played together for hundreds of hours in Bells."
Not only were there no degrees – or awards – in folk music back then, there were no role models, at least not Scottish role models.
"The only examples we had were the country dance bands or the classically trained singers who sang Burns, and those weren’t what we had in mind," says Rod Paterson. "We’d all been impressed by the style of the Irish bands who were coming through, Planxty, the Bothy Band, those people, and we wanted to emulate them in a way but the music had to be Scottish."
For Paterson the message that Scotland had a unique tradition of its own hit home when he heard the late great ballad singer Jeannie Robertson at Keith Folk Festival. "I was struck very forcibly that this is what we have and no other country has it, and I thought, If we could take this to a younger audience …"
While Paterson and Cuffe developed an accompanying style that let the narrative songs tell their stories without over dramatising them, the fiddlers found a source of tunes and inspiration among a group of old Shetland fiddlers who met once a week in Pilrig to have a play.
"They played some Shetland music but they also played a lot of old Scottish tunes and pipe music, and they played all this with real energy, drive and swing," says Derek Hoy, who replaced Adam Jack in the band.
The transition from pub session players to professional performers wasn’t easy. Some people saw this as a betrayal of their origins. One folk club organiser, in Fife, booked them, drew an audience of two and sent the Bairns back to Edinburgh without the agreed fee at the end of the night.
"They were – and are – much better appreciated by musicians than by the general public," says Karine Polwart, who praises the Bairns’ approach in letting the music breathe with graceful energy.
In 1983, with Cuffe off to join Ossian and the married band members wanting to spend time with their families, Paterson, Chalmers and Evans formed another iconic group, the Easy Club. The Bairns closed for business but spurred by Billy Kay, who had worked with them on projects including Fergusson’s Auld Reekie, they reconvened in 1995.
"We had the sense that we hadn’t really left a mark and we felt that the music should be played the way we’d played it by one group or another and that we’re the one," says Rod Paterson. "So we carried on."
They’ve since gone on to adventures on Iona, in Disneyland and in Sienna, which are told with relish in the programme, have recorded two further, much loved albums, been eulogised by Michael Marra and now find themselves consistently upstaged by a small wooden dancing doll called Wee Donald, who constitutes the Bairns’ sex appeal.
"We’re missionaries in that audiences probably wouldn’t have known this stuff very well without us but I’d draw the line at saying we’re evangelists," says Paterson.
For Hamish Moore, the Bairns provide a reference point in Scottish music and the last word, here at least, goes to Anna-Wendy Stevenson, the youngest Bairn, who describes the attractions of joining them as "they’re alive, they feel the music and they’re great fun. They’re not grumpy old men, really. In fact, I always say that they’re my favourite boy band."
From The Herald, December 2006