The mirage of America as the place to be has been a deeply seductive lure to the British, certainly for the last 100 years. Ever since the power and pizzazz began to shift from the great cities of Europe Paris, London, Berlin and Rome to the coasts of the USA: first Manhattan, then Lake Michigan’s Chicago, New Orleans, and eventually the rising communities of the Western seaboard, Los Angeles, San Francisco and, more recently, Seattle. For many Britons drawn to the shimmer and shine of the New World, their visits have delivered those very dreams we imagined they would: cloud-etching buildings, mile-wide rivers, 10-lane highways, vast open plains and unbelievable mountains, lush farmlands and arid deserts, Wall Street, the Grand Canyon, Central Park and the Golden Gate, Broadway and Hollywood . . .
But what happens when the process occurs in reverse? What draws North Americans to the British Isles? Well history and heritage are part of the appeal, I would guess. These are among the few industries that continuous to churn out a saleable product; that parade of castles and stately homes. And the arts are also part of our attraction. The draw of Shakespeare and the Edinburgh Festival, for example, are enough to get many thousand a Yank each year converting his dollars to sterling. Yet these somewhat caricatured portraits suggest a temporary stay, an enjoyable holiday, then a return to one’s homeland, be it from Birmingham in the West Midlands or Birmingham, Alabama, Halifax in West Yorkshire or Halifax, Nova Scotia. What, though, drives a North American to leave behind his New World roots and lay down a fresh set of foundations on this side of the Atlantic?
I was drawn to these thoughts when, during the recent autumn concert season, I encountered a couple of high grade musical performers who have made that very switch and to whom we will shortly return. But first, this encounter also left me thinking about other music-makers who have decided to make their home here. The first who came to mind is as big a star as you could find. Madonna has become a Englishwoman, at least by address and marriage, but also by the attitude and demeanour she now displays. She’ll never desert her Italian-American background, of course, but she does seem to bask in the “lady-of-the-manor” tag the tabloids have pinned to her. With her filmmaker husband Guy Ritchie and their Hampshire pile, Ms. Ciccone appears to have stepped into the tweedy, rural style linked to our land-owning classes. Even her accent seems to have been moderated, yes, her vowels seem more Anglo. I think it was her phrase “cup of tea”, when she joined the Letterman-like Jonathan Ross on the TV couch earlier this year, that indicated a kind of phonetic transformation.
I recall another American who rose to stardom in the ‘60s only to fall from grace rather quickly. PJ Proby enjoyed chart success in the middle of that decade only to see the bubble burst by a bizarre accident when his trousers split on an English stage. The subsequent accusations of obscenity by British moral guardians of the day dented his career severely, something akin to Janet Jackson’s Nipplegate, I suppose. Yet this flamboyant Texan retained strong links with the UK, living for many years in a quiet Yorkshire town long, long after his Top 40 appearances had dried up. Yet Madonna and PJ Proby, different stars from different eras, can hardly be regarded as typical members of the musical community. A wedding and a family have helped one to make a decision to base herself here; a career calamity lost the other ground for good, but his affection for life in this country evidently did not evaporate despite that setback.
But why should today’s performers decide that the best place to be is in England or Scotland rather than in the US or Canada? The US is the epicentre of the world’s popular music industry. One in three CDs sold over the counter is bought in the States. That is why our homegrown artists are so hungry to make it there and why there has been widespread disappointment at how little impression British bands now make on that marketplace. Yet my two examples have turned their backs on the red-hot commercial cauldron that the US plainly sustains. Preston Reed is one of the greatest guitar players on the planet, dubbed by at least one specialist magazine, Total Guitar, “the world’s most gifted acoustic guitarist”. Gabriel Minnikin, on the other hand, is a singer/songwriter whose reputation had been well established in his homeland before he decided to head East. What drew them to shift the geographical focus of their lives?
Reed grew up in Armouk, New York, and picked up the guitar as a young teenager but became truly interested in the possibilities of the instrument when, as a 16-year-old, he heard Hot Tuna, an offshoot from legendary Bay Area band the Jefferson Airplane. Jorma Kaukonen, their guitarist, became an inspiration. Shortly thereafter, acoustic giants like Leo Kottke and John Fahey took him down other avenues: blues, folk and country. Within a year, he was heading off to Washington and an auspicious debut gig, supporting the poet Allen Ginsberg. The accolades of Reed’s peers followed. Al DiMeola and the late Michael Hedges gasped at his precocious and special talent. He clinched a major record deal with MCA, in part because his friend, country singer Lyle Lovett, was able to play an intermediary role. And, from there on, Reed should have stepped on the up escalator and his should have become a household name.
Since 1979, Reed has released 13 albums and been a regular on live circuits around the globe. But in 2000 his itinerary led to a life-changing decision. Playing the Kirkmichael Guitar Festival in South Ayrshire, Scotland, he met the woman he would marry and he decided that setting up shop in that part of the world would make him happiest. I met up with Reed recently, and asked him about his transatlantic move. “I’ve always enjoyed travelling and I’ve done a lot of international travel to Europe, Japan, Canada and so on”, said Reed, “When I played that festival I met the woman who would become my wife. She was living nearby in Girvan. We were trying to figure out how we could see each other again which is really how this all came about”. Wasn’t it a wrench to leave the US behind? Apparently, Reed has found a very positive environment in the UK. “I found since I have been here that the quality of the music business is better, the quality of the venues is better. There are ethical standards I did not find in the US,” he explains.
Although in the States, he had professional links with several huge music businesses—MCA, Capitol, EMI—it was never that satisfactory. He comments: “The main thing is that I was never able to get for long enough, or in enough quality, was support for my career. I had relationships with several majors but it ends up being a bad thing when they decide not to manufacture and distribute your records you don’t even own your own stuff . . . Now I have my own label, Outer Bridge Records, which is growing quickly. It’s distributed in Ireland, France, Canada and Japan. It gets my records into stores worldwide . . . things are growing,” he says.
Reed now has three CDs under his own imprint including the most recent Handwritten Notes, a fine blend of that dazzling virtuosity that combines lightning fretboard fingering and a captivating ability to use the soundbox of the instrument as a rhythmic accompaniment. Very much ensconced in Scotland, living close to where he first encountered his partner, Reed clearly feels a great sense of optimism about his decision to come here. “This is a great place to be, between North America and Europe and, anyway, I love to travel through Britain and Ireland, too”.
One-time lynchpin of the Canadian alt.country combo the Guthries, Gabe Minnikin has carved out his nest in a Manchester suburb in the north of England. This area is rather known as much for its rainfall as its world class soccer club Manchester United. As a member of the Nova Scotian Guthries, he played several times in the UK, but now feels an adopted Mancunian. “I’m certainly now based in England and I have no plans on leaving; I’m here for the duration”, he said during a recent conversation with me.
So what led to this re-location from Halifax, Canada? “When I was touring with the Guthries, every time we were in this city I made some friends. Each time we came I was met by some friendly faces and I was always looking forward to seeing them again,” he says, pointing out, too, that he had grandparents from the North East town of Middlesbrough, so he Anglo-affinities in his background. Early in 2004, Minnikin’s hunch that he would be happy residing in Britain was well and truly tested. “I tried going to London originally but it just wasn’t for me, and came north instead. In Manchester, I seem to be building up a following. I’ve got a gig in December in the city which I’m looking forward to.” It follows a performance back in October when a packed crowd took him aback.
For Minnikin, this kind of solo experience is taking a little getting used to. For years he played in the Guthries with his sister, Ruth. There were two other siblings in the band Brian and Dale Murray made up the four-piece and their brand of Americana proved in demand in Canada and England. The group shared a bill with Garth Hudson of the Band and memorably supported ex-Talking Head David Byrne in a line-up that also included Beth Orton, the Handsome Family and Calexico. Last year, though, the Guthries decided to go their separate ways
The result is that Minnikin is now taking his own songs, his own show, to the stage, as a solo life takes shape away from the cocoon of the group. “The last time I played the Britons’ Protection” (a well-known Manchester pub) “it was an overwhelming show. It was not what I was expecting. Standing room only! I don’t know quite what has happened. I’ve met people and word of mouth has got around, it seems. I seem to be in contact the right people who are sparking a bit of a fire, I guess,” he explains. He’s also using an e-mail network that is becoming increasingly popular for such troubadours.
With his latest album Hard Feelings attracting interest from alt.country followers, some shared sets with his sister, merely a visitor to the UK, and plans to put together a supporting ensemble including another guitarist, a pedal steel player and a four piece string section, Minnikin’s Manchester move appears to have been the right manoeuvre at the right moment.
Such artists are not quite ex-patriates: I’m sure they will retain their links to those lands on the other side of the Atlantic. Nor are they truly exiles: they were not driven from their homes! These music-makers, whether breathing the heady altitude of Madonna’s kingdom or traversing the gentler slopes of Reed’s and Minnikin’s itinerary, have shifted place, shifted gear, and seem to have adapted to a land and a lifestyle that moves at a slightly less frenetic pace.