Sandy Wright opened for The Bay City Rollers when he was seventeen, in Leith, which forms part of his native Edinburgh. He is a singer-songwriter of a certain vintage, and this double disc compilation of twenty-seven of his compositions, is drawn from the deep well of more than 250 songs he has written both for himself and others. The tartan-fringed Rollers famously chose their name for its exoticism; they stuck a pin in a map and it landed on ‘Arkansas’. But they felt that this might be confusing to pronounce, tried again and this time the fateful pin skewered ‘Bay City’ and popstardom. Wright’s music is folky, and broad enough in ambition and influence to be called Americana, the new frontier far beyond the Mason-Dixon line.
‘Steel and Stone (Black Water)’, sung by Kris Drever, is rooted in Scotland, describing the industrial landscape Wright experienced when passing Scotland’s only oil refinery, Grangemouth. This beautiful song is about how people compromise their lives in such ugly environments, chasing black gold on ‘the wild frontier and the Ponderosa trail’. Drever is one of a strong line-up of singers who cover Wright’s songs on disc two of this collection: Eddi Reader, Karine Polwart, Chris Wood, Roddy Woomble, Martin Green and Inge Thomson, amongst others. Disc one is Wright himself, ably backed by his band, The Toxic Cowboys.
‘Beads and Feathers’ appears on both discs. Both versions are stunning, a deeply felt plea for integrity in the face of tempting superficial baubles. Wright’s version feels like a lament for innocence exploited, Chris Wood’s is much more claustrophobic, like advice given in a smoky tepee. Wright uses a broader, big-sky sound stage with beautiful backing vocals, cirrus clouds above his rich, earthy voice; Wood puts his voice centre stage to powerful effect. Karine Polwart and Corrina Hewat harmonise powerfully on ‘Fourteen Hands’, a song with the quality of myth, about the displacement from home, and that haunts the dark places of the skull after listening. Inge Thompson and Martin Green change the musical texture to electronica on the outstanding ‘Tears of the Sun’, a bleak report on the human condition and ‘for all the false love ever said or done’ – another warning to ‘the foolish and the wise’.
Wright’s clarity of vision is drawn from his rich life, as a file clerk, an Army musician and a Magic Circle accredited clown. These songs feel authentic, pellucid but not judgmental. Heidi Talbot begs the ‘Angel of Mercy’ to ‘shine your bright light if darkness is there’, ‘fly to every troubled soul and let their voices sing’, and Sarah McFadyen resignedly sings ‘I could hate you but life’s too short’. There is a sympathy, an empathy that recalls Charles Bukowski, whom Time magazine labelled the ‘laureate of American lowlife’. ‘My Shining Star’, also on both discs, and covered by Eddi Reader, is a bar-fly love song that deserves to become a standard.
Wright is also very witty. ‘Happy Pills’ and ‘Alligator Handbags’ have sardonic lyrics that contrast with the melodic mood. But it is his humanity that stays; ‘Mary Cullen’, sung by the duo MacMaster/Hay, was of his grandmother. He remembers himself, aged three, playing the keys of her piano with his feet – this is a defiant memorial in the face of death. The Bay City Rollers songs were fluff but popular; Sandy Wright is authentic in the best tradition of folk, his songs hemmed with tartan but cut from our universal cloth.
Published on 1 February 2010
Seán Ó Máille is a freelance critic, photographer and full-time secondary teacher in Dublin.