Country and western today, Gaelic psalm tomorrow for a well-connected islander

Calum Martin. Picture: Brighter Still
Calum Martin. Picture: Brighter Still
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As the big blue and yellow striped tent goes up yet again on Lews Castle Green, musicians and audiences from both sides of the Atlantic are preparing to converge on Stornoway for the 21st Hebridean Celtic Festival.

The festival has grown from an audience of under 1,000 to crowds of some 15,000 people, injecting an estimated £20 million into the local economy over the past two decades.

This year’s programme features such bill toppers as Runrig, Hayseed Dixie, the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, King Creosote, Astrid and Breabach. And to mark the event’s 21st birthday, a song celebrating the big blue tent that was the heart of earlier HebCelts has been given the Nashville treatment.

The makeover is the brainchild of the song’s composer, Calum Martin, a Leòdhasach singer-songwriter whose credentials range from Gaelic folk-rocker to Free Church precentor leading the extraordinary sound of Gaelic psalmody.

Martin wrote and recorded the song, Blue on Green, back in 2009, and decided to produce a new version of it to mark the 21st birthday.

Now available as a free download from the HebCelt website, the new arrangement features local singers Iain “Spanish” MacKay and Sean Harrison, with pipes from Lewis piper and indie musician Iain Morrison, while transatlantic input comes from country and western fiddle star Jason Roller and Nashville multi-instrumentalist Scott Neubert (who played on the original) contributing banjo, guitar and dobro, as well as producing the song.

If you wonder how an artist so rooted in his native Lewis has such ready contacts at the home of country music, Martin’s New World connections are many. He co-produced two of his own albums, including last year’s An Dealachadh, in Nashville with Neubert, as well as his daughter Isobel Ann Martin’s album Duslach is Òr.

He has also taken his ongoing Psalm Project to sing with black Baptist choirs in North Carolina and brought the Americans back to Scotland.

Martin wanted to update the song for the festival’s 21st birthday. “Because HebCelt does a lot of work encouraging young musicians, I thought I’d use two young singers from here, Iain and Sean, then I got a lot of favours from my pals in Nashville. We stripped everything back from the original song except pipes and percussion; then we got Sean and Iain to record the singing here and Scott mixed and mastered it in Nashville.”

Martin wanted to give a sense of the world converging on Stornoway, but Blue on Green is “only a wee thing”, he stresses.

His sights are set firmly on 27 August when he and the Psalm project join forces with classical and folk musicians and the internationally renowned composer Craig Armstrong for a concert including a new Gaelic psalm commission, Ballantyne, as part of An Lanntair’s Creative Places award-winning Bealach project.

Martin won’t be singing at HebCelt, but his daughter, Isobel Ann, will be, in a special re-assembling of the Hebridean Women show, alongside Julie Fowlis, Cathy Ann MacPhee, Mary Smith and Kathleen MacInnes.

It wasn’t so much transatlantic links as a family treasure trove which has been inspiring another notable name on the HebCelt bill, Eddi Reader. A few years ago, Reader discovered a hoard of songbooks amassed by her great grandfather, Charles Reader, who died in Glasgow in 1916 and apparently used to sing in halls and lodges across Scotland. “He loved singing and collecting songs,” Reader declared recently, adding that the pedigree of the songs he collected ranges from 480AD to the 1890s. “I now have 50 or 60 books on songs which are part of our cultural heritage and some of them are just beautiful.”

She hasn’t performed any of them on stage yet, but with the considerable back-catalogue she has these days, who knows what might emerge when she performs with her band at Stornoway’s An Lanntair? She’s been known to take requests over social media before a gig.

• HebCelt runs from 13-16 July, see www.hebceltfest.com