Terry Hiscock is drinking tea from a large mug, adorned with guitars, as I Zoom in for our chat on a beautiful early-spring morning. He tells me that he has a collection of such mugs: “When you’re a musician, it’s the sort of thing people buy you for your birthday. I suppose if I wore ties, they would buy me ties with guitars on.”
Even without a tie, Terry looks dapper and relaxed as we settle down to our conversation. Apparently not fatigued by his newly revived, and busy, post-pandemic live performance schedule (of which more later), Terry has a calm manner that barely covers his enthusiasm for what we agree to call “acoustic music”.
Spending his early childhood in west London before moving to Sussex and then going on to study in south-east London, Terry made his name as a founder of the folk-rock band Hunter Muskett but has latterly forged a career as an acclaimed solo singer, songwriter and guitarist. He regularly appears at folk clubs around London – with gigs coming up at Romford Haverfolk and Loughton Folk Club.
I quickly come to understand that Terry has an encyclopedic knowledge not only of the contemporary scene but also of its evolution since the late 1950s. He talks about this history with the clarity of the teacher that he once was – he obviously wants his interlocutor not only to know the facts but also to understand how the whole story comes together.
So we talk about Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Lonnie Donegan. We talk about his progression from playing a Tommy Steele plastic ukulele (a childhood Christmas present before the guitar tea mugs started appearing in his stocking) to turning three-chord tricks with a group of school mates in local village halls where the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran and Bobby Darin along with Cliff, Marty Wilde and Billy Fury provided what we would call today the “intellectual property”.
So what was it like playing Horsham church hall to hordes of screaming girls, I ask? “I wish!” replies Terry. “I think there were three lunchtime drinkers at the bar at our first gig – but when you are 14, it’s an audience!”
He goes on to recount the night when he got his Cuban heels wrapped up in a cable, crashed the equipment and broke the neck of his guitar in two. “Now, this was a guitar I’d spent three years saving up for. I mean, it was £15, this is not money to be laughed at.” Through such adversity are careers forged.
‘I want to rework some parts of our first album – I mean, can you believe that we had a symphony orchestra on it?’
It was at college that Terry found himself in the midst of the eclectic mid-1960s music scene and where his horizons broadened. He mentions several times his chance finding of Davey Graham’s second album, Folk, Blues And Beyond – an encounter that seems to have been the “aha” moment when Terry realised that there was unlimited potential in the field.
It’s not that Terry’s eyes mist over as he talks of all-nighters at Les Cousins in Soho, of the burgeoning folk revival “with folk clubs everywhere” and of learning about Irish and Celtic tunes from Jim Younger (later of the Peelers) – rather, these are the cumulative experiences of a young man honing his skills as a performing musician.
He co-founded Hunter Muskett with Chris George, Doug Morter and Roger Trevitt in 1969 – and the group has been a constant in Terry’s musical life ever since. And now the stories come. From anyone else it would be name dropping but this is really just the way it was for Terry.
Ralph McTell played the college folk club for a fiver – and Terry learned from him about using different tunings; the band played support gigs for Lulu and The Who; personal friends played with Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. I feel that we could go on in this vein for all our allotted time, so I effect a subtle key change and move the conversation to Terry’s own songwriting and performance.
I ask how he goes about writing a song. He tells me that he plays around on the guitar until a melody suggests itself then, once he feels that it is nearly there, he finds words to fit the tune. As Terry himself says, it’s really the same approach as Tin Pan Alley – where stressed tunesmiths and lyricists crafted, step by step, standards which today are still “in the canon of the world’s greatest songs”.
Terry says that he has a file of tunes waiting for words to fit them, implying that finding the words is the harder part of songwriting, but he does succeed very well at putting deeper meaning into his texts.
Lyrics to what he considers his best songs are available on Terry’s website and are well worth looking up. Terry’s criterion for a good song is what he calls “completeness” – where nothing needs to be added nor taken away. He says (and I readily agree) that he achieves this in No Where Else To Go, which he calls “a short song of just four verses” which “didn’t take very long to write, just a couple of weeks – well, that’s like speed writing for me”.
It is clear that Terry is happy composing what he calls “love songs”, and such they are, but for me many of Terry’s songs are actually about how we experience love rather than how we declare it.
Terry is particularly proud of North Of Clear Lake, which is not a love song. It is about the death of Buddy Holly and rather cleverly never mentions the legend’s name yet, in performance, allows the first-time listener to slowly work out what the song is about. Complete indeed.
We go back to talking about Terry’s live schedule and he is already pretty well at pre-pandemic normal. In the week that we spoke, he had done two live gigs and had four booked for the coming week.
From March to December he has 25 gigs booked, solo or with Hunter Muskett, all around the country – from Rhyl to Cumbria, including four dates in and around London. There is also a plan to tour Denmark in July with Hunter Muskett and for a couple of festivals over the summer.
Coinciding with the Denmark tour, the band will record a further album to add to their four from earlier years and to Terry’s solo album Falling More Slowly.
‘Increasingly, because pubs are closing down, village halls are good alternative venues. Don’t put village halls down’
Terry is also planning to re-record some tracks from past Hunter Muskett work on his own, but with a more contemporary feel – “I want to rework some parts of our first album – I mean, can you believe that we had a symphony orchestra on it? The record company insisted – and there we were, a band playing the Dog and Duck and suddenly we were landed with this.”
I empathise and say that I look forward to reviewing the new versions of the songs.
Our conversation has been via Zoom. Is this the future of folk, I wonder? Terry has enjoyed Zooming, doing up to six sessions a week during lockdown. He believes that Zoom has created an attractive space for people from dispersed locations and diverse communities to meet and sing.
Terry says that “between live gigs I am still doing Zoom sessions … because I think they have been great. They have introduced me to people like Tom Reid and a whole host of others.
“Next week I am going to see a live gig with a couple from Derbyshire – I never knew who they were and suddenly, two years ago, they appeared on Zoom – and they’re just great.” That would be Steve and Julie Wigley, I say. “Yes, that’s them!” Well, I met them on Zoom too, I tell Terry! It’s a small Zoomer’s world. But Terry also detects a revival of village halls, rather than the pub, as venues for folk clubs. “Increasingly, because pubs are closing, village halls are good alternative venues. Don’t put village halls down – a lot of the folk world now, ourselves included, play village halls.”
I mourn the demise of the pub and Terry adds: “I was playing last night over in Kent, in a vestry, which is a kind of village hall, in Sevenoaks. About a hundred people there, and if they all pay £10 to get in then you’re covering the hire of the room and paying the whole staff to run the bar and everything else. It’s great.” Funny how life takes you back to where you started from, I remark!
However, Terry does worry about whether the scene remains attractive for young musicians, but he recounts several positive conversations with new talents who appreciate the friendliness of folk audiences. He thinks that this inherent welcoming atmosphere that folkies create, the internet and the thriving festival scene offer opportunities for an optimistic future.
As we end our conversation, I ask Terry about any musical ambitions that he has. He says he is still trying to master the middle section of Apache. I don’t believe him … I think he had it sussed many moons ago.