Martin Simpson is one of the world's premiere acoustic guitarists, and a powerful songwriter with a rich, charactered voice. His playing, which in part defined the English steel string acoustic guitar sound, is idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable, and revered among guitar fans. His body of work is very diverse, encompassing all types of traditional and acoustic music, and he has toured with everyone from June Tabor to Steve Miller.
Martin was born in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, in northeastern England, and grew up with the benefit of rather diverse musical influences. His father enjoyed light opera and Victorian parlor ballads. From his older brothers he heard rock, jazz, R&B, and blues. He started playing the guitar when he was twelve and picked up the banjo shortly thereafter. As soon as he started playing music Martin knew that he wanted to be a professional musician, and started playing in public as soon as he could, learning as he went. He was fortunate to live in an area rich with great music. As a teenager he was hearing and working with performers like Dick Gaughan, the Watersons, Tim Hart and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span, Stefan Grossman, Martin Carthy, Nick Jones and Christy Moore. There was a folk club near his home in Scunthorpe, and Martin started going there weekly from the age of twelve. He also hung out at blues festivals where he heard legendary blues performers and got to meet Big Joe Williams.
Martin was playing music professionally from the time he was fifteen. When he was twenty-two he recorded his first album, Golden Vanity, on the Leader Trailer label. The year the album came out (1976), Martin went on tour with Steeleye Span, opening for them in some of the biggest rock venues in England. The following year, June Tabor asked him to tour with her. It was a wonderful opportunity, and Martin ended up working with Tabor for a decade. They eventually recorded three albums together (A Cut Above, Abyssinians, and Aquaba). As his career progressed, Martin also worked with some of Britain's best musicians, including Martin Carthy, Dave Mattacks, Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson.
In 1985, Martin married Jessica Ruby Simpson, an American singer-songwriter and poet. They stayed in England for a few years and recorded their first album, True Dare or Promise for Topic (1987). While living in England, Jessica put together the first of their wonderfully innovative ensembles – the Simpsons' Flash Company – which Martin described to Sing Out! as an "insane five-piece band." That year, they returned to the States, moving the family to Ithaca, New York (Martin had adopted Jessica's three children). Stefan Grossman asked Martin to record an album for Shanachie and he made Leaves of Life, a solo guitar collection of Scottish, English and Irish tunes. He also made a second instrumental album for Shanachie, When I Was on Horseback. During these years they collaborated with a number of musicians in Ithaca to form the Martin Simpson Band.
In the early Nineties, Martin & Jessica moved to Santa Cruz, California. They recorded Red Roses, their second album together, and Martin released the blues album Smoke and Mirrors. Once again, in Santa Cruz, Jessica brought together a collection of very diverse musicians to form the Band of Angels. They recorded an extraordinary CD, Band of Angels, which was released by Red House Records in 1996. In recent projects, Martin has ventured into Eastern music, recording with Chinese pipa player Wu Man, and he has toured with guitarists Bob Brozman and Debashish Bhattacharya. In early 1997, he released his first live album, aptly titled Live. It was recorded in 1995 in England and received stunning reviews in the United States, Canada, and Britain.
Martin's album, Cool & Unusual, drew on his love of traditional Celtic, American, and Afro-American music, and highlights his uncanny ability to blend with diverse musicians. The all-instrumental disc features David Lindley, Kelly Joe Phelps and members of Tarika Sammy, and it artfully brings home why the editors of Guitar Player called Martin one of the world's finest acoustic players.
Martin's Righteousness and Humidity continues his tradition of seamlessly blending a number of traditional styles. With his flawless instrumental work, soulful vocals, and the help of Steeleye Span's Rick Kemp and The Radiators Dave Malone and Reggie Scanlan, this album is a sublime tribute to the music and people of the American South.
- Bruce Cockburn
- Leo Kotke
- Joni Mitchell