JOHN GRAEME LIVINGSTONE: more than words
by Norman Warwick
I first came to know John Graeme Livingstone as the owner, editor and chief writer of a magazine called Stillwater Times, an informed fanzine about singer writers that became, and remains, the template for my own publications over the years. Such was his pedigree as a journalist that he had gathered good writers around him to write, edit and publish this off-centre little magazine. It would be a little later that I came to also know him as a musician who had recorded a fine album.
In fact, it was a mutual friend, Ian Johnson of Stampede Promotions who made me aware that JGL not only promoted excellent singer-writer gigs at The Priory in Ulverston (see our cover photograph) but also had pedigree as a musician. With great stars what you see is usually what you get, but with (John) Graeme Livingstone, agent and musician, it didn’t quite work that way.
Your first impression might be of a quiet, reserved character, somehow quintessentially English who would surely be more comfortable in a hotel than a honky tonk and would be more likely to be found spotting trains than to be discovered writing some of the best damned Americana songs any Englishman ever wrote.
There is somewhat more to the man than that, however. Livingstone is a singer-songwriter mostly working around his home in the Lake District. Wings Of Fire was a powerful single, influenced by his love of John Stewart. Ship Of The Sky, a track off his first cassette release, is about the courage of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy, Terry Waite. There was, in the mid nineties, even strong talk of a new album, Innocent Bystander, featuring Wes McGhee and Cathryn Craig, (artists we have followed down Sidetracks & Detours in 2020) being set for release. Livingstone also completed a series of songs, Just A Little War, about soldiers fighting Napoleon’s forces in Spain.
Livingstone owns Stillwater Records and Fair Oaks Entertainment. He has brought singer-songwriter Dave Mallett and Don-Oja Dunaway to the UK as well as promoting concerts by Bill Zorn, now with the Limeliters. Our top photograph shows him with Katy Moffatt, an American singer who regularly played his venues when touring in the UK-
What you get in concert, though, is that indefinable quality we call stage presence. Whether affectionately parodying Jimmy Buffet with Margarita or taking an oblique look at the state of the world from his own Ship Of The Sky, Graeme entertains !
That his songs have a distinct country feel there is no doubt and titles like Queen Of Montrealand Hearts That Burn reflect his love of that musical genre. On the other hand, compositions such as Lisbon Ladies and Mother Spain use folk traditions to explore Man’s lust for glory.
Whilst growing up in Cumbria, after his family moved from his birthplace in Nelson, Lancashire, maybe didn’t afford him the opportunity to live out the archetypal sex, drugs and rock and roll scenario, it did give him plenty of time to listen to the radio.
From that he learned that there was more to music than the three chord thrash that lesser talents were too ready to settle for. After learning to play guitar he was inspired to write his own material after hearing the works of artists like Shel Silverstein, who had written much of the material for one of Graeme’s favourite groups, The New Christy Minstrels, but who later became known for writing so many of the ironic hits of Doctor Hook.
Graeme’s first album was massively acclaimed in the media, with Country Music Round Up, Folk Roots, Manana and our own Detour publication among the host of music journals to proclaim the excellence of House Full Of Strangers. Full of his own material, the collection drew on the superb musicianship of friends such as Neil Johnston on harmonica and Dave Walmsley on bass.
Not household names and, like Graeme, self-effacing out of the spotlight, these players and singers hit harmonies from heaven, evoking battlefields of valiant defeats and heroic victories of the past and, from their imagination, describing the America of Woody, Ramblin’ Jack and Tom Paxton and, you know, they are far more than just hoboes in their minds. Graeme’s powerful vocals are perfectly suited to his lyrics of lost loves along the endless highways.
I can pay no higher compliment than to say his best work reminds me of his friend Wes McGhee and even favours his idol, John Stewart.
Graeme Livingstone’s music is about more than words on paper. Rather it is a piece of the heart of the man, and the best way to understand what makes him special is to catch him in concert. What you see before the show is the quiet guy, sitting politely, waiting to be introduced. One of the bureaucrats, or a tax man, perhaps,… then …what you get is that tax man suddenly leaping into life to sing and dance like there is nobody watching.
And what you are watching is magic.
Away from the world of Americana music John Graeme Livingstone was an almost Hobbit like figure, quiet and demure and living in a landscape that could have passed for Middle Earth. He had in him a streak of heroism, it is true, but he could not have been any further removed from the apparently larger than life characters he would later promote at Ulverston.