A Review of the John Munro CD
"Plying My Trade"

"Plying My Trade"
by John Munro


This review is written by Dai Woosnam, daigress@hotmail.com, 8/07

To many regular readers of these pages, John Munro will need no introduction. But I am still going to give him one: not in order to pad out the review, but because this website constantly attracts readers who are new converts to the Folk Scene and who genuinely may never have heard of the man. But I will keep my introduction brief as there is much I want to say about the album, and space is limited.

Munro left Glasgow and emigrated to Australia when he was just 18. There, he quickly found the folk haunts and was soon immersed in the music. He was a founder member of Country Express in 1969 and later, Colcannon (Australia).

But it is as an accompanist to the great Eric Bogle that John is best-known here in the UK (from where I write). After all, they have toured the UK six times together. And I have written before on just what performance gifts John Munro brings to the table: Eric without John is still a considerable force, but WITH him, the duo become a world-class act.

Right, that is the introduction dispensed with. Now, down to business with the review.

Amazingly, this is Munro's first solo album. In the liner notes, he says that although he has participated in over 50 recordings of other people, he has always preferred to be in the background until now. But Ian Green (the boss of Greentrax) suggested this project, and John agreed.

Now, was he wise to agree? Well, before I answer that, let me not let the moment pass (seeing as I referred, en passant, to the liner notes) without saluting Greentrax for notes that are a model in “how to do it well”. John Slavin's design and use of white print on a black background should become the template for all these labels who insist on psychedelic colours and almost illegible typeface that reviewers (like me) soon give up on reading. Here however, it was a true pleasure to read the text.

And a pleasure, not least because Munro's explanations as to what made him write the songs, are every bit as interesting as the songs themselves.

But hey, I hear you ask, “what about his performance? Do we detect a big BUT rearing its head?”

No, have no fear. Yes I know that the precedents are not necessarily good! I can name you – but I won't! – one accompanist who was coaxed into finally making a solo CD, and turned out to sing so badly that one deaf acquaintance of mine refused to watch his lips move.

But there was never any danger of that with John Munro! The fact is that one is staggered that it has taken him so long: indeed he should be flogged for his lassitude (I don't buy the “modesty” thing: the man must surely KNOW that he is pure class).

Pure class as a “performer” that is. But what about his song writing?

Well, here one is less emphatic. Having listened closely to this album several times, I have to say that the “jury is out” on his song writing abilities.

Oh, they are all well crafted songs, alright. Good use of rhyme and an ear for reasonably distinctive melodies. But, if I am honest, I cannot imagine many of them being taken up and sung by floor singers in your local folk club. Good, earnest songs though they are, they don't generally have that “wow” factor.

And then, I look at what I have just written, and breathe those words back in! Why? Well, because there are two songs here that are close to top-drawer. And both of them bring to mind ANOTHER artiste whose brooding presence I felt throughout the album. I refer to John Wright. Munro and Wright sound to me like brothers: such is the shared vocal DNA.

“She Waits For Me” is a fine song that you can just hear the John Wright Band (of blessed memory, circa 2000/2001) really going to town on. On the surface, this is a very personal love song from Munro to his wife Alana, but trust me, this could be the theme song of all professional troubadours who spend half their year away from the spouse they love.

And then there is a song almost its equal: “Sisters” is a song he wrote about the two 29 year old Iranian conjoined twins, whose tragic final days were lived out in the glare of the world's TV cameras, a couple of years or so back. What Munro does here is not just dwell on the tragic facts, but gets to the essence of these two brave women: shows that they were a credit to humanity, and that their courage frankly humbles us all.

As befits a John Munro album, the musicianship is of the highest order. Emma Luker (from Colcannon) stood out from an already stellar field: her violin and cello work is of such distinction that she didn't just “hit me for six”: she hit me for seven, and counting.

Munro closes the album with a non-self penned number: the perennial song that closes The Cambridge Folk Festival every year. “Wild Mountain Thyme”. And he does something rather special with it.

Whether it was his big arrangement, I don't know. But he succeeded in making me listen to this while NOT (for once) hankering after the first version I ever heard: that from the incomparable McPeake Family, whose definitive version has, down the years, left everyone else's sound as though “found wanting” by comparison.

And thus it is that I hope that like London buses, after an age spent waiting, another Munro album will soon follow in hot pursuit. This one, would be a CD of interpretations of the best “unknown” songs: songs, which are bubbling under, Down Under.

Because for sure, this man has all the gifts necessary, to bring them to a world audience.

Dai Woosnam
Grimsby, England

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