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Off the Beaten Tracks: Nic Jones, national treasure

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This week, a celebration of a true musical hero – the great Nic Jones.

A virtuoso singer, guitarist and fiddle player, Nic was 35 and at the height of his success when disaster struck as he was driving home through East Anglia after a folk-club appearance in early 1982. He collided with a lorry carrying bricks and broke almost every bone in his body. His terrible injuries made it seem unlikely he would ever play again. Yet he remained a musician through and through, and, almost 30 years later, made a triumphant comeback to the joy of his fans.

A newsagent’s son, Nicolas Paul Jones was born in Orpington, Kent, in 1947. The family moved to Essex where Nic attended Brentwood School. He took up guitar in his teens and early influences included the Shadows and Ray Charles before he became smitten with folk music and joined a band named The Halliard. They toured from 1964 to 1968 at which point they parted company and Nic married his girlfriend Julia.

The couple settled in Chelmsford and Nic began a solo career, releasing in 1970 his first album, Ballads and Songs, on Bill Leader’s Trailer label. I remember it mostly for his tragic hairstyle on the cover.

The next year saw the arrival of Nic Jones, another showcase for the traditional works which he winkled out from dusty reference books.

Then, after a six-year gap during which he guested on albums by several other artists, came The Noah’s Ark Trap, which reveals Nic Jones in full bloom. His previously reedy voice has developed warmth and range, and his percussive guitar playing is a revelation. Achingly beautiful songs including Ten Thousand Miles, The Indian Lass, Isle of France and Annachie Gordon would all be covered by others but never be matched.

I still have my vinyl copy from 1977, plus an ‘unofficial’ CD copied from the LP, complete with scratches and pops, by an Australian bootlegger. Unfortunately Noah’s Ark has never had an official CD release because of contractual issues but we live in hope that it will come out one day, along with the next album, From The Devil To A Stranger.

I think this record slightly less strong than its predecessor, although many disagree. Standout tracks include The Lakes of Shilin and the wonderful Master Kilby (this is a live version).

Nic then moved on to the premier folk label Topic Records for his 1980 album Penguin Eggs, which was rapturously received and named folk album of the year by Melody Maker. The opening song, Canadee-i-o (stunning guitar intro), was later recorded by Bob Dylan, no less. Next comes The Drowned Lovers and there are still seven more tracks to enjoy. This IS available on CD.

Then came the car crash, which left Nic in intensive care for many months. When at last he left hospital he could hardly play the guitar, the fiddle not at all. His career appeared to be over and he disappeared from public view, but the public weren’t ready to forget Nic Jones.

The family having relocated to York, Julia Jones set up the Mollie Music label and released on CD live recordings of many of Nic’s classic songs.

Visit here to find three albums, In Search of Nic Jones, Unearthed, and Game Set and Match, all of them excellent. There is also an essential DVD, The Enigma of Nic Jones, which comprises a TV documentary plus several bonus tracks including a lovely performance by Eliza Carthy. I lost count of the moving moments in this heartwarming story. There is one point in particular where a former bandmate dissolves into tears as he describes their reunion after many years.

The DVD also relates how the great man made an emotional return to the stage in 2010 after an absence of 28 years, to a standing ovation at Sidmouth Folk Festival. The following year he appeared accompanied on guitar by son Joe at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of a concert named In Search of Nic Jones. In 2012 Nic, with Joe on guitar and former Unthanks member Belinda O’Hooley on keyboards, sang at four festivals. Joe’s playing is a joy – close your eyes and it could be Dad.

In September 2012 Nic Jones was presented with the Gold Badge of the English Folk Dance & Song Society, its highest honour. In 2013 he was named Folk Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Going out on that high note, he announced that an appearance at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival would be his final performance.

Nic and Julia Jones now live in a Devon village. Julia tells me that Nic had a heart attack three years ago which slowed him down a little. ‘That said, he’s still as happy as Larry and happily potters around, playing snooker and chess with his village mates.’

Long may you potter, Mr Jones, and thanks.

alan@conservativewoman.co.uk

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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