Every folk fingerpicking guitarist longs to make a raw, naked, warts-and-all album at some point in their career – an album of single takes with zero overdubs that showcases their extraordinary talents, while at the same time worming their way into their listeners’ affections enough to entice them back again and again for the songs as much as the wizardry. It’s a tall order; very few manage it, and yet here comes young Jack Rutter with his debut solo collection, Hills, ticking nearly all of the boxes at the first attempt. In fact, the only box he seems to have missed is ‘warts-and-all’, simply because there don’t seem to be any warts. As a 40-year-old fingerpicker myself, I have to say that this album is frustratingly good.
First things first – credit where it’s due: Joe Rusby’s production is perfectly suited to what the performer is trying to do here. It’s a no-frills, aurally enticing environment in which he couches his subject, and I think it’s this, in part, that prompted Jon Boden to compare Hills to, “the great folk albums of the 70s.” From the opening notes of ‘Hey John Barleycorn’, you sense the same kind of inclusiveness that makes albums like Penguin Eggs so special. You know you’re in the presence of a really gifted musician, but they’re not holding you at arm’s length in any way. They’re simply sat on the lip of your ear, welcoming you to stay around a listen a while.
It helps, too, that Jack Rutter appears to be the complete package. Until now he’s been known principally as a member of bands (Moore Moss Rutter), or as a support musician (Seth Lakeman, Molly Evans, Jackie Oates), and subsequently his skillset as a guitarist and bouzouki player has been known for some time. However, this album introduces the listener to a singer of great warmth and intimacy, his homely Yorkshire burr effortlessly wrapping itself around songs selected as much for his clear love of them as the fact that they originate from the his locale.
The wonderfully named ‘I’ll Take My Dog and Airgun Too’ is a great case in point – Rutter takes it acapella, and his voice soars to the top of the wide-ranging melody with ease, before swooping low to gather up a handful of grit when the mood demands it. It’s one of those fascinating songs that turns up in varying forms around the country, and twice in the space of a year has a version turned up on a contemporary album. Rutter says in the liner notes that he got parts of it from a book called Folk Songs of the North-Countrie; very similar words collected in Hampshire were set to a jauntier tune and recorded as ‘While Gamekeepers Lie Sleeping’ on Death and Other Animals (Faustus, 2016).
He also offers himself up as a very capable concertina player on the tracks ‘It Hails, It Rains’ and ‘Morning Trumpet’, although it’s the rich timbre of his voice that once again makes these tracks, softening the sharp sound of his squeeze box. It may be that these tracks are included simply for the singer’s love of them, or possibly to attest to his skills as a multi-instrumental, but they ultimately serve a key purpose: they break up the overall sound for the listener. It’s little things like this – attention to arrangement and production details – that make a good album great.
Of course, the success of any collection of traditional songs is as much down to the choices the performer makes, and you can’t please all the people all the time. Suffice to say that, for this listener, Rutter has chosen songs that resonate. I’m a big fan of what you might call observational folk songs – depictions of times gone by that can really put you in the picture. There are plenty of those here, but it’s ‘The Dalesman’s Litany’ that really stands out, as much for it’s lyrics as its diced up performance. “From Hull and Halifax and Hell,” calls the refrain, “good lord deliver me”. It’s one of those great lines that you’re guaranteed to remember, and much the same can be said for Hills as a whole.
If Jack Rutter can pull something like this off on his first album, it’ll be fascinating to see what he’ll manage over the rest of his career. In the meantime, the rest of us had better get practising.
Hills, by Jack Rutter, is out in October. It can be pre-ordered from his homepage: www.jackruttermusic.com