In one of his last interviews, the legendary John Renbourn – excelled British guitarist, folk trailblazer, ex-Pentangle member – talked to us about the albums that helped him along the hard road to success…
As guitar legends go, you would have been hard put to find one more self-effacing and down to earth as John Renbourn. Airs and graces were not part of his vernacular. On the morning of our call, which sadly turned out to be one of his last interviews, he admitted to “stumbling around, with too many wine bottles to clear up.” Not that such an admission is startling, it hardly reeks of rampant decadence, but it’s possibly not what you’d expect to hear from a venerable guitar legend. But then, from his earliest days scuffling around London working as a kitchen porter, to playing at Carnegie Hall with Pentangle, you know that John Renbourn enjoyed everything life had thrown at him.
Holed up in the Scottish Borders, before he settled down in this particular rural retreat, John had spent time in Oakland, California, a place he described as “murder mile”. Quite a life change; but his domestic adaptability mirrors his music. From early days moulding his guitar work on the songs of icons like Big Bill Broonzy and Josh White, musicians he saw playing when still barely out of short pants.
‘I was obsessed with Josh White, my mother used to take me to see him when I was 11 or 12, and I had this book The Josh White Guitar Method that came out in 1956,’ he recalled.
Classical guitar, jazz, and folk have effortlessly rubbed shoulders in his musical palette. But as we finished our conversation, he sounded like a man who had found nirvana: ‘I’m down in the country where all the dropouts hang out, and it’s remote and really beautiful.’
John Renbourn died on Thursday March 26, 2015. He leaves a score of guitarists in his wake who have been inspired by his contribution to British folk music. Rest in peace, John.
Merle Travis – Back Home
‘One of the first recordings of acoustic guitar that got me going was this from Merle Travis. Four tracks – ‘Dark As A Dungeon’, ‘Over By Number Nine’, ‘Muskrat’, and ‘Nine Pound Hammer’ – are some of my favourites. I would have been 13 at the time I heard these. The combination of Merle’s old rosewood Martin recorded at the legendary Capitol studios and his great picking with sparkling breaks and a steady choked bass contrasting with ringing open chords blew me away then as it does now. Chet Atkins modeled himself on Merle Travis. Doc Watson named his son after him. What more can you say?’
Davy Graham – The Guitar Player
‘The LP that jumped to mind initially was Davy Graham’s Folk Blues & Beyond but, in fact, it was the forerunner The Guitar Player (from 1963) that set me on track. Davy’s approach was truly contrapuntal and recalled Jimmy Yancey’s piano playing and the duets of Brownie McGee and his brother among a host of other influences. It would have been the first time for me to encounter such ideas on one guitar. That one opened the floodgates.’
Jan Johansson and Rune Gustafsson
‘Third choice would be a little known EP by two guitarists Jan Johansson and Rune Gustafsson. I don’t recall the title and I expect it is now a rarity, but the playing was wonderfully fresh. The story was this: Johansson was a great Swedish musician known primarily as a solo pianist and band leader. He called his guitarist Gustafsson one day and asked him over to the studio to record some guitar duets. Gustafsson asked, “Who with?” and Johansson said, “Me”. He had just got himself a guitar, tuned it up and, never having played before, was ready to go. It is a real object lesson. To paraphrase Freewheelin’ Franklin: “Ideas will get you through times of no technique better than technique will get you through times of no ideas.”’
Keep your eyes peeled for the next issue of Acoustic as it will feature our tribute to the great man.