As Good As Guitar Gets

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

2002 was a good year for British guitarist Martin Simpson.

He released a CD, “The Bramble Briar," which won the BBC Radio Folk Album of the Year award. He also won the BBC's lnstrumentalist of the Year award, which coincided nicely with his return to the United Kingdom after more than a decade in the United States.

The man whom the Chicago Tribune described as "the best guitarist on the planet" is, however, currently back in the United States on tour. Acoustic guitar fans have three opportunities to see him in concert this coming week, and he’ll be accompanied by his wife, American singer-songwriter and poet Jessica Radcliffe Simpson.

Martin Simpson was bprn in Scunthorpe, a steelmaking town in northeastern England. Growing up in the middle of the 1960s English folk revival, Simpson began learning guitar and performing at an early age.

He recalled: "All over the country in the early- and mid-’60s, these folk clubs sprang up… some of them were in pubs, and fate was on my side because the folk club I started to go to was not in a pub. I wouldn’t have been allowed in, since I was only 12."

The young Simpson's early performances did not always get the kind of response he elicits from audiences today. He began, he says, by playing at the club‘s open mic evenings. “I was doing what was called a ‘floor spot‘,” he said. “... Sounds like something the dog does, and occasionally it WAS like something the dog does. So I got up and played ‘Mary Hamilton,’ and then over the succeeding years I practiced.”

By age 15, Simpson was playing professionally and released his first album, “Golden Vanity,” in 1976 at age 22. That year, he went on tour with Steeleye Span as its opening act. The following year, he toured with June Tabor, with whom he worked for 10 years and recorded three albums.

In 1985, Simpson married Jessica Radcliffe, and two years later they released "Truth Dare or Promise" as a duo on Topic Records.

Shortly afterward, they moved to the United States, first to Ithaca, NY, where he recorded two albums, then to Santa Cruz. In Santa Cruz, the Simpsons recorded their second album together, “Red Roses," and formed a band called Band of Angels, which released an album of the same name.

During this period, Simpson also released several solo albums and a recording with Chinese pipa (a type of lute) player Wu Man.

Another relocation, this time to New Orleans (in 1998), and the Simpsons formed their own record label, High Bohemia Records, on which they released a number of successful CDs including a solo album by Jessica Radcliffe Simpson.

Following the success of “The Bramble Briar,” the Simpsons decided to return to the north-east of England. They currently live in the coastal town of Whitby, in a Victorian house overlooking the ocean.

In addition to being a recording and touring artist, Martin Simpson is a renowned guitar teacher and gives workshops and master classes all over the world.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, February 13, 2003

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