SINCE 2006 the Southern Tenant Folk Union have been looking to yesterday’s music to document life today.
The band - part Irish, part Scottish – have been weaving rootsy Americana, English and Celtic folk into contemporary ditties that chart a very modern world.
Even the band’s name takes inspiration from a 1930s farming movement, as founder, frontman and banjo player Pat McGarvey explains.
“It harks back to a progressive movement that was set up 85 years ago, when tenant farmers built small plots of land but they didn’t get the subsidies they were supposed to get.”
The original Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union was borne out of one of Franklin D Roosevelt’s initiatives to revive the lagging agricultural industry in America during the Great Depression. Roosevelt wanted to increase the value of crops by limiting supply so to increase demand he developed a scheme, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA) which paid farmers not to farm. The landowners were given the money but in the majority of cases did not pass the money on to the farmers. In protest, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was formed.
And while this may seem like distant history, for McGarvey, the parallels between then and now are all too clear.
“It took a couple of months to come up with the name of the band but I am personally interested in politics and liked the idea of being named after a union. History repeats itself only it has a modern facade - our current situation is just another credit bubble led by greed.
“At the moment we have this situation of wage inflation with a huge differential between top and bottom earners. It’s unfair but we are such a tolerant society that people seem to put up with it.”
But while politics is important to McGarvey, he’s not interested in preaching to the crowd.
“I like Billy Bragg and I admire what he does but while he can talk politics between songs I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that.”
Rather, Southern Tenant Folk Union integrate the message into the song. On their latest album, Pencaitland, they have continued to appropriate themes and ancient sounding chord progressions from traditional folk songs into their own material.
“Men In Robes is a track off the album about our right to vote being taken away - I don’t really like writing polemics but the recession’s made people think ‘what’s the point?’ when it comes to voting. Most people don’t really care about politics and the politicians are doing anything to grab attention.”
Musically Southern Tenant Folk Union is a textured affair, with banjo, fiddles, vocal harmonies and double bass but delivery is simplistic. Rather than each member standing on his or her’s own perch on stage, Southern Tenant Folk Union huddle around one microphone in horseshoe form.
But it’s a comfortable intimacy, and one that’s grown out of being on the road as a band for almost six years.
Southern Tenant Folk Union released their debut album in January 2007 and this was met with a furore of critical acclaim. Since then the band has played a number of festival days and intimate shows such as that of their last Sheffield appearance at The Grapes, before it ceased to be a music venue.
“That was a great night,” says McGarvey, who, during the gig, played a cappella with his band in the middle of the room. “I’ve spent years in bands carrying big amps and equipment but now we can just turn up with our instruments, it’s fantastic.”
The Southern Tenant Folk Union plays at The Greystones, Greystones Road, on Sunday.
•On Tuesday the Greystones welcomes Royal Wood back to Sheffield. The award winning Canadian singer/songwriter is in the UK promoting his latest album, We Were Born To Glory. In 2008, Royal was crowned Songwriter of the Year by iTunes and in 2011 his album The Waiting earned a Juno Award nomination for Songwriter of the Year — further establishing him among the elite of Canadian songwriting. Maeve O’Boyle is supporting Royal on all of his UK dates and Joshua Caole opens the show.
The 13 songs that appear on the new album were chosen from among the almost 50 songs he had written before stepping back into the studio in November last year.
Wood enlisted his trusted production collaborator Dean Drouillard to co-produce the new material with him, and the duo returned to the inspired setting of Pierre Marchand’s Montreal studio space to begin the recording process.
“With each record I try to break boundaries and create something I haven’t made before,” he says. “I wanted to push myself not only artistically, but emotionally as well. Exceeding my own potential was the major thread of this record.”
That need to expand found Royal arranging all of the strings and horns himself in rich fullness on songs like Will We Ever Learn and I Need You Now. For the first time ever, Wood incorporated percussive loops into his music adding a crisp layer of untried texture to his work.
We Were Born To Glory is also yet another jumping-off point for Royal Wood whose career is in a constant state of growth. After relying for years on word of mouth and constant touring, recent times have seen him venture out on the road with artists like David Gray and headline tours including the Root Of It All Tour, which was a renaissance to his early days of performing solo on stage with just his piano and guitar. “I love performing with my band, but I missed being the intimate storyteller,” he explains.