This one’s been a favorite of mine for a long time but its relative obscurity has always bewildered me.
Steve Ashley is today known for being a fine British singer-songwriter in his own right as well as being a former member of The Albion Country Band and Ragged Robin. Although not released until 1974, Ashley’s first solo album, Stroll On, was recorded in 1971 with some of the finest names in English folk rock. Joining the sessions were several members of The Albion Band(s), Fairport Convention and Pentangle as well Robert Kirby (of Nick Drake and Vashti Bunyan fame) on string arrangement and conductor duty for the London Symphony Orchestra.
The resulting sound of this grand collaboration is a very full and diverse one. From the jaunty, fiddle-lead Morris Dance-like “Silly Summer Games” to the fiercely epic Celtic-rock of “Fire and Wine” (made popular by Anne Briggs) and the stunningly gorgeously orchestral “Springsong,” every track here features a vastly different yet rich and vibrant arrangement.
In the same way, the range of influences on Stroll On is daringly unique. British and American folk and rock traditions have been seamlessly blended in with elements of Irish and classical music as well. Perhaps the best example of Ashley’s wonderful merging of tastes is the jewel that is “Springsong.” Ashley’s starkly echoing vocals sometimes harken back to Celtic choral singing while Kirby’s string arrangement is reminiscent of the Pastoral composers, like Ralph Vaughan Williams. Meanwhile the only percussion present in the song is a tabla being played in the traditional Hindustani style. While this combination of sounds and cultures may seem random and destined for failure, it actually works beautifully here, making this an absolute highlight of the record.
Even though the whole point of this series is to feature folk music that I play during the fall, I have always found that this album reminds me more of the later, snowier part of the season. The album’s hushed and calm production often makes me think of frosty, moonlit forests and cozy villages under early morning flurries.
It’s worth seeking this album out on vinyl of course, but there’s also a CD reissue, Stroll On Revisited, which is also essential due to the inclusion of multiple bonus tracks.
If you find yourself taking a stroll through some lonely country roads on a bleak November day and it’s cold enough to see your breath, then you’ll find that this album will be the perfect addition to your journey.