Back in 2001, off the back of Market Square Records’ ‘People On The Highway: A Bert Jansch Encomium’ 2CD tribute album, the great Duffy Power – who performed a stunning version of Bert’s ‘I Am Lonely’ – was blown away by my friend Janet Holmes’ singing on a cover of Pentangle’s ‘People On The Highway’ on the album, and suggested we try some joint recordings.
The logistics between London and Belfast in that largely pre-internet era proved too much for a full album collaboration, but a few joint Janet & Duffy recordings on some of Duffy’s songs were completed before the project faltered. (These recordings, and others by Duffy from the period, were released on Market Square a few years later as his final album ‘Tigers’, which I was delighted to sleevenote – highly recommended. An outtake arrangement of one song from this period, ‘Nine Lives Gone’, appears on my recent ‘Sunset Cavaliers’, which is dedicated to Duffy.)
I don’t like failing in projects. So two things happened next back in 2001: I determined to source material for a ‘Duffy Power at the BBC’ album, for Duffy; and I determined to fund an album for Janet.
Some amazing material, all of it from non-BBC sources, was found for ‘Sky Blues: Rare Radio Sessions’, released by Hux, and Duffy was delighted with it. With Janet, we conducted sessions with great engineers including Enda Walsh (ex-Van Morrison soundman, two days of full-band sessions at his terrific old-school large-space studio in Cullybackey N.I.), Alastair McMillan (U2 soundman, in Wicklow) and Michael Keeney and Gary Aiken (Belfast). We recorded enough for a double album, including guest appearances from both Gay & Terry Woods (recorded separately on a version of Terry’s Sweeney’s Men classic ‘Dreams’), guitar heros Henry McCullough, Barry Bynum and Colin Reid, and violin maestro and old pal Martin Hayes (who played on the tribute album track ‘People On The Highway’ as well as two older tracks of mine that I reworked/added to potentially for Janet’s album). Well-travelled sessioneers (pianist) Brian Connor and (drummer) Liam Bradley were the backbone of many tracks and the fabulous, if little-known, Belfast bass legend Ali MacKenzie was on many tracks, as was Janet’s partner Colin ‘Hillbilly’ Henry, on dobro, banjo, and guitar. (And I’m sure there are several others…)
Eventually, I ran out of cash, but Janet’s resources filled the void. In 2004 we released a (single album) CD via Market Square, ‘The Road To The West’, slipcased in a fabulous painting by mid 20th century Belfast artist John Luke. Included were covers of Lyle Lovett, the Smiths, Isaac Guillory, a new mix of the Pentangle cover that started it all, a lean mix of ‘Dreams’ (minus Gay and Terry), some of my own songs and Janet’s very first composition, ‘Gone’, writtan at that time.
We left off a rockabilly-style cover of Anne Briggs’ ‘Ride, Ride’, a beautiful take on the Beatles’ ‘Long Long Long (though this appeared on a VA compilation CD later), Ralph McTell’s ‘First Song’, the G&T version of ‘Dreams’, a couple of instrumentals, and probably two or three other pieces.
A seven-piece Janet Holmes band launched the album with a couple of gigs and she was featured on local TFV and radio. The album may not have sold much beyond the locale – though I believed then and believe now that Janet’s a world-class vocalist – but, to my delight, it did launch Janet into an ongoing spare-time career as a singer, songwriter and performer.
From that first composition, with her own then rudimentary (though perfect) guitar accompaniment, Janet became an incredibly prolific and talented songwriter. A further self-funded album followed, produced by the great Cormac O’Kane, then other EP/CD releases with a US bluegrass name, with whom she toured Ireland a couple of times using annual leave, and there have been many more local radio appearances, bluegrass festival concerts and the like. I’m proud to have been involved in kick-starting that. (Janet had been in a hard rock gospel band, SOS, in the early 80s, and I had thought her amazing, as a punter, even then.)
I suppose I was trying to present her voice on ‘The Road To The West’ in various musical contexts – rock, folk, trad, Americana… – but her natural default setting is a kind of Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Mary Chapin Carpenter sort of territory, a sort of sensuous, vast landscape Americana, gritty on the inside and smooth on the ear. Partner and regular accompanist (to Janet’s now terrific guitar playing) Colin Henry is a bluegrass man through and through, so in terms of the music she went on to create, ‘TRTTW’ is a bit of a curio.
Anyway… Janet emailed me recently to say she had just listened to TRTTW and really enjoyed it, and wondered if she should make it available on iTunes. I don’t know why we hadn’t thought of this before. Market Square mogul Peter Muir has obliged, and it can now be sampled via amazon UK (with iTunes and other platforms to follow very soon).