Kate Rusby Underneath the Stars

As the festival season is now underway in the sun soaked UK with many more coming up over the next couple of months how do you decide which one to attend? Obviously that depends on the artists but there’s also so much else to festivals now and some that have been around for a while have developed their own distinct feel. There is one that combines a bit of everything; top headline act, a lot of talented artists worth investigating, other related activities and all organised by the headline act on the final night. That is the Underneath the Stars festival in Cawthorne, a pretty village just outside Barnsley, South Yorkshire, on 20 to 22 July. Headlining on the main stage on the first night are Steve Earle & The Dukes, then it’s George Hinchcliffe’s Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and on the final night, the festival’s creator, Kate Rusby. What particularly prompted my interest in this event was how it maintains the folk tradition in today’s crowded roots music world.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Kate recently about just that; how the festival came about, what fans can expect and her views on the broader folk/roots scene. First off, what prompted her to organise a festival in the first place? “15 years ago I did gigs on the farm where the festival is now held. It wasn’t big, we played on the back of a lorry and the audience sat in front with their picnics. We did it to raise money for local causes; a new roof for the cricket pavilion and projects at the children’s centre. It was popular and very much a local thing but my younger brother Joe said let’s make this a big annual thing. So that’s what we did”.

Putting on a festival is a big undertaking. How do you do you combine it with all your other commitments? “Joe does so much. He’s been my sound engineer for 26 years. He started when he was only 15! But he knows how I want my shows to sound and before our first festival he’d collected ideas over the years we’ve toured the world. ‘This is what we will do at our festival when we’re big and grown up!’ He mixes the sound and books the whole programme of events. My sister Emma looks after the management and financial side and our touring Production Manager Pete Sharman handles the infrastructure. We think that if you plan the basics like getting the sound right, give performers time for a proper soundcheck, give the audience comfortable surroundings, then everyone involved can enjoy a much nicer festival experience”.

Would you say you’ve kept the local touch? “Oh yes, definitely. People around here have totally embraced the idea. We’ve got loads of volunteers from the village doing the car parking, gates, all the stuff like that. We’ve even got a group of ladies from the village running a little tea room on site, serving Yorkshire Tea of course! People here are rightly proud of their old village and want to show it off in the best light. After all, we’re putting on an international arts festival now”.

How do you get all these impressive acts? “ Again, it goes back to our years of touring and all the people we’ve met. Take Steve Earle for example; I’ve always loved his music, particularly the album he did with Del McCoury. My dad was a sound engineer who worked at the old Edale bluegrass festival, also in Yorkshire, where Del played and so did Alison Krauss. My husband, Damien O’Kane opened for a show in Belfast with Steve a few years ago and they met backstage there. This criss-crossing of paths is one of the great things that links the music scene together - and here we are now, hosting Steve Earle and the Dukes in Barnsley!”

And the new acts? How do you find those? “That’s Joe again. He’s always on the lookout for new acts. We’re passionate about music and want to introduce people to new artists”. How would you judge the success of your newer acts? “ Well I met someone after one of the festivals who said she left the site carrying a massive load of CDs by people she’d never heard of. That’s success”.

You mentioned an arts festival. What else apart from music is on offer? “This year we’ve got Andy Kershaw with his ‘Adventures of Andy Kershaw’ show, which is based around his amazing musical knowledge and experiences. Then there’s the novelist Joanne Harris; she’s from near here and does a fascinating performance based on her writing. We really wanted to recreate some of the old festivals we remember visiting as kids, so there’s tons of creative crafts, street theatre, storytelling, circus workshops, dance classes, there’s even a blacksmith forge and a potter’s wheel to have a go on. There really is something for all the family”.

It sounds like Underneath the Stars is going from strength to strength. That’s impressive with so many festivals on these days. Would you say there are too many now? “Good question. Most I know of are well attended and I think a lot of that could be down to more younger people both playing and getting into folk music. My generation are the children of the original 1960s folk revival and there’s a new generation making the scene so vibrant right now”.

Has there been a recovery in interest since you started, or in other words was there a dip between the 1960s and now? “I’ve never been aware of a dip. I come from a musical family. I was brought up with this music and all the traditions around it. I never thought, ‘well, this is a bit rubbish, I’d rather be doing something else’. It maybe true that some grass roots folk clubs which are vital in encouraging new talent have struggled, it’s certainly a big commitment organising a weekly event. Festivals seem to be have taken up some of the slack and as younger people have taken an interest in these types of events, so the whole scene can hopefully flourish”.

Is ‘folk’ still a meaningful description? “When I started out the mainstream music scene did use folk as a dirty word. I’ve never been bothered about classifications. I just sing my music and hope people like it. And the advice I give to those starting out is to remember that some people won’t like it! Just persevere. It’s true though that the popularity of Laura Marling and Mumford has made folk ‘cool’ in the wider music industry, at least for a little while anyway’’.

And finally, what plans have you got beyond the festival? “I’m starting a new album in September for release next spring. I’ve tended to alternate in the studio between my Christmas records and ‘normal’ ones. There’s so much new material to explore. Did you know in the South Yorkshire carol tradition alone, there’s thirty versions of ‘While Shepherds Watched’? I don’t think I’ll ever run out of songs!”

That last comment only underlines the enthusiasm Kate applies to everything she approaches, whether it is organising a festival, folk music generally or the detail intricacies of a Christmas carol. If this conversation is any guide, which I suspect it is, then the future of the folk tradition is secure for future generations in the hands of Kate Rusby and her family.