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Reviews of VT159CD 'An audience with the Shepherds'

When Northumbrian fiddler Willie Taylor died in 2000 it felt like the end of an era. He was the last surviving member of ‘The Shepherds’, who delighted audiences with their wonderfully rhythmic, tight playing, born of decades of playing together and an encyclopedic knowledge of the particular and specific requirements of playing for dances in North Northumberland.

Northumbrian piper Joe Hutton, ‘rnoothie’ (mouth-organ) player WilI Atkinson, and Willie Taylor all worked as Shepherds in Northumberland and had strong family as well as musical and work connections. In retirement, they joined together and during the late 1980s and early 1990s they travelled all over England and beyond, playing at concerts, clubs and festivals, led initially by concertina player Alistair Anderson. Under the collective appellation ‘The Shepherds’ they soon gained an enthusiastic and loyal following who appreciated not only the music but the warmth, comradeship, and humour of the musicians themselves.

There have been other recordings of Atkinson, Hutton, and Taylor but the title ‘An Audience with The Shepherds’ gives a clue to the fact that by the end of the final track of this CD you feel that you have been back at one of their performances listening to their music and enjoying their company. Joe Hutton’s succinct, spoken introductions contribute to this live concert atmosphere, as does the audience response and Willie Taylor and Will Atkinson’s occasional cryptic comments!

The tracks were recorded live, mainly in Derby in 1988 and at Whitby Folk Week in 1990, although there are single tracks recorded at Will’s Barn, Denby Dale, and Chestnuts Folk Festival, London. Despite the fact that the recordings are from different venues and different years, the tracks flow very naturally in a concert format. The tracks and ordering have been carefully chosen to promote this sense of one single complete performance. The CD has a generous sixteen tracks usually consisting of sets of two or three tunes. Eight of the tracks are of all three musicians playing together, while the other eight feature solos and duet performances.

I listened to this CD in my car while travelling from Cambridge to Northumberland and was struck by how clearly I could hear all three instruments, including the (characteristically rock-steady) drones of Joe’s pipes. It was, of course, even better on my home system, where the quality of the recordings was more apparent and the atmosphere of live performances came across more fully.

There is so much that is memorable on this CD, from ‘Rothbury Hills’’ and Swindon’ played as understated yet emotional slow airs, to Atkinson’s impromptu duet with Tyneside guitarist Tom Gilfellon, to the Shepherds playing the ‘Roxburgh Castle’ dance set which flows with meticulous fingering into the ‘Hesleyside Reel’ (played, of course, as a rant) through into an infectious ‘Spootiskerry’ — music to set your feet and heart dancing.

Much as I loved the joint sets it was the solos and duets that most affected me: Joe Hutton’s set of hompipes, ‘Whittle Dene’, ‘Remember Me’, and ‘Rowley Burn’, his playing rock-steady, but the music flowing and dancing just like the Rowley Burn chuckling along (lovely, too, to hear the meIlow tone of his pipes on this solo set); Will Atkinson’s rhythmic and precise ‘Duke of Fife’s Welcome’ set, exquisitely played on mouth-organ; the tunes ‘Tich’s Reel’, ‘Pearl Wedding’, and ‘Nancy Taylor’s’ p!ayed with customary verve, by their composer Willie Taylor.

Their lives span the period 1908 to 2003 and the CD is a wonderful tribute to their playing. it is no museum piece, however, but has life, lift, and spontaneity, while also featuring the understated, measured, and delicate sides of their playing. The transitions between tunes are seamless and a model for us all. Atkinson, Hutton, and Taylor know exactly what they are doing from years of playing together and have no need for tricks or artifice.

The recordings here are a good representation of their repertoire: mainly Northumbrian and Scottish dance tunes, some original compositions from Taylor and his contemporaries, and a few favourites from further a field such as the Tombigbee Waltz and ‘Aunty Mary’s Canadian Barndance’.

Great credit must go to Veteran for the production and design of this special CD. John Howson’s sleeve notes are exemplary, with useful information on each set of tunes. There are detailed and accurate biographical notes, with evocative photos of the Shepherds. This is a quality production which deserves a place in any collection of traditional dance music. Atkinson, Hutton, and Taylor influenced and inspired a new generation of musicians and are sadly missed. Put on this CD, however, and the sheer musicality, vitality, and joy of their playing will leave you smiling.

Kathryn Tickell - Folk Music Journal


Compared with her Celtic neighbours, England has relatively few recorded dance tune musicians who learned their tunes and style before the folk revival. Recordings of three such musicians playing together are even less frequently heard. Hearing a trio of English traditional musicians playing functional dance tunes at this high standard makes this album even more rare and more of a delight. The three are a fiddler, a mouth-organ player and a Northumbrian piper – Willie Taylor, Will Atkinson and Joe Hutton. The two Wills are cousins and Joe is related to them through marriage.

The main part of their repertoire is from their native Northumberland, traditional or composed locally including some of their own tunes. A good sprinkling of Scottish tunes has also been chosen but characteristically, they are played in the manner and style which the musicians find comfortable.

The sixteen tracks are mainly of tight ensemble playing but solos of all three are also included. Some tracks include their straightforward, no-nonsense introductions.
We owe a great debt to Alistair Anderson as the prime advocate for these three musicians. Once he had introduced them to a wider audience in the 1980s, they became
much busier and more widely travelled in their retirements than they might otherwise have been. Great thanks are also due to John Howson for seeking out these private recordings, selecting these gems from them and then releasing them in a manner so well designed, well programmed and informative.

The album serves as a reminder to those us who were privileged to hear them playing together live, of what a privilege it was to be in their company.




Northumbrian shepherds Will Atkinson (mouth organ), Willie Taylor (fiddle) and Joe Hutton (smalipipes) were three of the finest traditional musicians I have ever had the good fortune to encounter. Individually, all three had featured on 1 970s compilations of field recordIngs on Topic. Then in 1983 they recorded a studio album, Harthope Burn, which I consider easily the most accessible recording ever made by English traditional performers. By rights, it should have done for Northumberland what Buena Vista Social Club did for Cuba. In practice, it probably sold just a few hundred copies, and has not, as far as I know, ever appeared on CD. Which makes this new disc all the more welcome.

The CD is drawn from live recordings made at festivals and concerts in the eighties and nineties; the sound quality is good throughout, and it’s worth emphasising that these are not field recordings. but recordings of concert performances. After a lifetime of playing for dancing, the trio’s playing, of course, is superb. Jigs and reels are played at a lovely steady pace, with that ever-present hint of notes being dotted, and the most incredible swing. This danceability is achieved on melody instruments alone, without the need for accompanists to provide rhythm and chords. Players of any instrument, who want to study the way traditional dance music should be played, should get hold of this record.

In terms of repertoire, there’s some overlap with Harthope Burn, but plenty that’s new. I particularly like the opening set of 6/8 tunes, and the rather cheeky ‘Patchwork Polka’ played by Willie. And it’s a treat, finally, to have a recording of Willie’s own composition, ‘Alistair J. Sim’. there are some lovely slow airs, which highlight in particular Joe’s skills as a piper.If you’ve ever heard the Shepherds, you will want this CD. If you haven’t, then you need this CD. My record of the year so far.

English, Dance & Song


Veteran have gained a well-deserved reputation for producing CDs of field and concert recordings of traditional singers and musicians. This latest release featuring three accomplished Northumbrian musicians in concert is an absolute gem.

Joe Hutton (Northumbrian smallpipes), Will Atkinson (mouthorgan) and Willie Taylor (Fiddle) all worked as shepherds in Northumberland. They had known each other over many years through their work, their music, and indeed through family connections. Will and Willie were first cousins, and Joe was related indirectly through marriage. The comprehensive sleeve notes compiled by John Howson give much more detail about their lives and their music. At this year’s Sidmouth festival they were also the subject of a very interesting talk given by Alastair Anderson. He was often with them when, after their retirement from shepherding, they joined together to play at festivals, clubs and concerts all over the country as ‘The Shepherds’ during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Sadly, Joe died in 1995.

Their music is very pleasing to the ear – melodic, tuneful, bouncy, clear and precise phrasing, all guaranteed to get your feet tapping. No wonder they were so popular in playing for dances. The tunes are not all Northumbrian in origin – the opening track features two French Canadian tunes, Danse de Chez Nous and Aunt Mary’s Canadian Jig , and there are popular Scottish tunes, such as Cadham Woods. Nor are the tunes necessarily traditional. Many are of much more recent composition, with some written by Willie Taylor. No matter – the provenance of each tune is clearly given in the sleeve notes. Most tunes, apart from Roxburgh Castle and Morpeth Rant and those mentioned above were unfamiliar to me, but I’m pretty sure I shall be adding to my repertoire from these recordings.

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