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Ashley Hutchings started his musical life as a fan of skiffle, a highly rhythmic British answer to American folk and R&B, played at its most basic level on acoustic guitars, washtub bass, and washboard percussion, which became popular in England in the mid- and late '50s. He also had an appreciation for "trad," a British form of Dixieland jazz that had become popular in Britain at the beginning of the 1950s. He listened to a lot of early English and American rock & roll, but by the early '60s had developed a deep and abiding love for folk music as well. He began singing and playing bass in a skiffle band, and later graduated from the washtub version of the instrument to a proper upright bass.
In 1966, he formed the Ethnic Shuffle Orchestra with Simon Nicol (guitar), Steve Airey (guitar), and Bryan King (washboard), which played a mixture of English skiffle, American R&B, and folk music from the British Isles. Their work together led Hutchings (who was known then as "Tyger," a nickname he'd picked up because of his aggressiveness on the football field), Nicol, and new colleague Richard Thompson to form Fairport Convention in 1967, with Martin Lamble (succeeded, after his death in a car crash, by Dave Mattacks) and Judy Dyble (later replaced by Sandy Denny) added to the lineup. Fairport Convention performed a similar mix of traditional English folk, original songs, and American singer/songwriter material. After three albums structured along those lines, the band recorded Liege and Lief, a record drawn largely from traditional folk material. When it became clear to Hutchings, however, that future albums would include far more original material, he exited the lineup and began organizing a new band, Steeleye Span.
Formed by Hutchings, Tim Hart, Maddy Prior, and Peter Knight, with Martin Carthy coming in as the fifth member, Steeleye Span in its original form (and for several lineup changes after) was devoted to purely traditional music, adapted to the forces of a five-piece band with a growing arsenal of electric instruments. Ultimately they shared the limelight with Fairport Convention, vying for the greater loyalty of folk music fans and even reaching out for a time to rock audiences -- the decision to go almost fully electric and the addition of a full-time drummer toughened their sound considerably, and they became associated with Jethro Tull, opening for the chart-topping band on an American tour and getting the services of Ian Anderson as producer for one album.
Before that point, Hutchings was gone, having exited after the recording of the group's third album, Below the Salt. In late 1971, he became a member of the Albion Country Band, formed to back his then-wife, Shirley Collins, on one of her albums, and decided to keep the studio ensemble together under that name. The initial lineup included his ex-Fairport bandmates Simon Nicol (guitar) and Richard Thompson (guitar), along with vocalist/concertina players John Kirkpatrick and the late Royston Wood, and the group subsequently had upwards of 26 musicians in it at various times. This Albion lasted in various lineups: Kirkpatrick exited the original lineup very quickly, to return later on, while Wood was gone after October of 1972; Steve Ashley joined on harmonica, along with ex-Fairport drummer Dave Mattacks; Linda Thompson came in on vocals; and fiddle and banjo player Sue Draheim came into the fold for a time.
In January of 1974, the Albion Country Band evolved into the Etchingham Steam Band, with Hutchings on acoustic bass guitar, Shirley Collins on vocals, Ian Holder on accordion, and Terry Potter on mouth organ. Nicol, Mattacks, and Hutchings' Steeleye Span bandmate Martin Carthy all passed through this lineup, which lasted into 1975. The group's next incarnation, lasting from 1975 until 1977, was the Albion Dance Band, with Hutchings (back on electric bass) and Nicol still at the core. Finally, in 1978, Hutchings formed the Albion Band, with a lineup that included future Fairport Convention member Ric Sanders on violin. This group, with some lineup changes (including Nicol and Mattacks passing through) lasted into the 1990s, recording numerous albums and also becoming the subject of a BBC documentary.
Hutchings also recorded several quasi-solo projects during the 1970s and '80s, including Kickin' Up the Sawdust, A Word in Your Ear, The View from Pa's Piano Stool, and By Gloucester Docks; The Compleat Dancing Master with John Kirkpatrick; Rattlebone and Ploughjack (credited to Ashley Hutchings & Chums); and Morris On, Son of Morris On, and Sway with Me (Hutchings and Judy Dunlop). He appeared on numerous albums by other artists throughout the 1970s and '80s, including work with Ian Matthews, the Bunch (a rock showcase album by a group of English folkies), Shirley Collins, Royston and Heather Wood, Ray Fisher, Richard Thompson (Henry the Human Fly), Mike and Lal Waterson, Martin Carthy, the Kipper Family, and Polly Bolton. With so many associations in his past, Hutchings has turned up on numerous compilation albums and box sets devoted to such artists as Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, among others. During the 1980s, Hutchings also wrote and performed his own one-man show about folk song collector Cecil Sharp, which he took throughout England beginning in 1984, and resulted in the album An Hour with Cecil Sharp and Ashley Hutchings. In the 1990s, he also put together Ashley Hutchings' Big Beat Combo, a revival group specializing in skiffle, trad, and early English rock & roll.
By now one of the grand old men of English folk-rock, Hutchings has been a major force for nearly 40 years, fostering the foundation of more than his share of legendary and important bands. His skills as a bassist have placed him in demand beyond the boundaries of typical folk bands, but the most important aspect of his contribution to music, apart from the bands he has organized, is his ability to take traditional music, long predating the 20th and 21st centuries, and transmute it into something accessible to young, modern listeners, without violating its spirit wholesale. He also has a sense of humor that radiates as brightly as his musical ability on most every project he has ever participated in. ~ Bruce Eder
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