This is what you might call an unashamedly biographical (often very much autobiographical) concept album, but one that comes without the turnoff factor that hoary tag normally carries with it. It took me a couple of tracks before I could make sense of Jimmy’s vision, but once I was convinced by the irrepressible, undeniably genuine nature of his story it became much like one of those books that’s impossible to put down.
Although Lee’s musical pedigree stretches from the embryonic London folk scene of the 1960s through to wider Nashville success in the 70s, he has latterly become known for running a prestigious venue in West Sussex, the Blue Coconut Music Club, where the album was recorded. The general feel of his music now is that of Irish balladry, but with pronounced slants of Americana and contemporary country underpinning the inescapable overt Irishness of expression in the delivery. Gritty and rough-hewn, the quality of Lee’s vocal entirely reflects the nature of his own personal story – prior to the above-mentioned involvement in music, he literally became a teenaged runaway after being variously taken into care, joining the navy, deserting and being discharged, travelling to America and thence across to Ireland.
His songs prove rather classic: The Granuaile is a reminiscence of a fearful sea trip, Hard Man is an emotional portrait of his dad, while When I’m In Need is a no less harrowing entreaty that seems almost too painful for him to sing. No Flowers For Geordie (couched in the style of a country ballad) tells of a young boy washed overboard during his first few hours at sea, while The Chalk Stream laments the loss (due to the building of a pumping station) of one such remembered from Lee’s childhood. Strange though it may seem, Sweet Mystery has something of the aura of a Roy Orbison number, and Written In The Sand is a more reassuring and positive slice of life-philosophy. The instrumental The Ballerina forms a neat companion piece to the wistful waltzer Eileen, which relates a touching ballroom fairy-tale. The pithy tale of Hamlet proves quite jaunty by comparison, as does the closing instrumental medley which culminates in an almost carefree Turkey In The Straw. It’s interesting that musically speaking, nothing in Jimmy’s world ever really sounds on the edge of chaos, however difficult to categorise it proves in the final analysis.
The album’s musical backdrop comes courtesy of a number of sterling musicians from the current UK folk scene (among them Gary Holder, Jon Wigg, Melanie Wells and Harry Bogdanovs), and draws its limpid colourings both from Irish traditional music (fiddle, banjo, whistle, guitar, accordion), and the wider world (sax, tuba, drums, keyboards) as well as classical tradition (cello). There’s something very compelling about Lee’s writing, and his performing mode is both stylish and intensely involved and yet somehow quite powerfully understated. The final effect is at times profoundly moving – unexpectedly so, in fact – and The Runaway turns out to be one of those rare artistic ventures that really convinces with its integrity and uncompromising honesty.