The ebullient yet supple-voiced “ramblin’ rover” who made his name during the glory days of Silly Wizard, Andy M Stewart went on to become a highly respected performer in his own right and in partnership with Manus Lunny or Gerry O’Beirne.
An intuitively sensitive interpreter of traditional song (as well as a rapid-fire banjoist who could hold his own amid the ranks of the headlong Silly Wizard charge), he was also the writer of utterly authentic-sounding songs in the traditional idiom, from rollicking come-all-yes such as The Ramblin’ Rover to the yearning of The Valley of Strathmore.
It could be argued that traditional song was in his very blood. Born in Alyth, in ballad-rich Perthshire, he absorbed songs through extended family and friends, picking them up at ceilidhs and gatherings. He always used the “M” of his middle name, Macgregor, to avoid any unlikely confusion with that other Andy Stewart, the entertainer whose approach to Scottish music was somewhat different from his own.
It was at Blairgowrie High School that Andy met numerous fellow enthusiasts for traditional music, Martin Hadden, who would become bassist with Silly Wizard (and now runs Birnam CD) and his brother Kenny (later of Ceolbeg), Ewen Sutherland (who later recorded with Sheena Wellington) and Dougie Maclean, the singer-songwriting and fiddling composer of Caledonia, who would serve in the Wizard ranks for a spell following the departure of Johnny Cunningham.
Initially, however, the Perthshire youngsters spent much time listening to Scottish folk – then very much considered “minority music” and lent an ear to the burgeoning Irish instrumental scene, before forming a group called Puddock’s Well, in which Andy developed his skills on vocals, banjo and mandolin and which became the house band for Blairgowrie Folk Club. When an early incarnation of Silly Wizard visited the club from Edinburgh, bonds were formed,
Silly Wizard’s previous vocalist, Maddy Taylor, left the still evolving band in 1973 and Andy joined in 1975. With the Cunningham brothers Johnny and Phil injecting fearsome instrumental dash, the Perthshire singer brought an immediately identifiable voice to the rapidly rising band, as well as an urbane style of wit and charm that could match the well-honed ribaldry of the Cunninghams in the band’s on-stage banter.
As a singer he brought a delicate lilt to songs such as Broom o’ the Cowdenknowes, The Blackbird or his elegiac Valley of Strathmore, while bringing the requisite swagger to The Queen of Argyll and narrative wit of of his other compositions such as The Ramblin’ Rover and his arrangement of a droll chronicle of congregational anarchy, The Parish of Dunkeld. His songs have become staples in the repertoires of singers across the world all over the world, including Wolfstone, the Dubliners and Grammy-award-winning country star Vince Gill, who covered Andy’s song Donegal Rain.
Martin Hadden realised from their earliest acquaintanceship that Andy had a special gift for traditional song: “Not only was he a truly great singer, he seemed to know hundreds of songs, and all by heart. I didn’t realise it then, but he was one of the country’s last remaining true traditional singers. The songs he knew had been picked up at ceilidhs and parties, or taught to him by members of his family. I don’t remember Andy ever writing down the words of a song. If he heard someone sing a song which he liked, it was as though he could somehow absorb it in its entirety and sing it back word for word.”
“The Wizard” became one of the most innovative and influential Scottish folk bands of the Seventies and Eighties. During his 12 years with the band, Andy made six studio albums with them, as well as live recordings. During these years, the group developed from being the house band at Edinburgh’s Triangle Folk Club to spending much of their time playing to vast and wildly enthusiastic audiences in North America and Europe.
In her 1983 Listener’s Guide to Folk Music, music writer Sarah Lifton stated, “Nearly all the Scottish bands of note can boast excellent instrumentalists and at least one or two fine singers, but only Silly Wizard has all that and Andy Stewart.”
Hadden recalls warmly the camaraderie of his Wizard days: “We loved performing that music together and we delighted in each other’s company, but for the rest of us in the band, there was the added bonus of being thoroughly entertained every night just by being onstage with Andy.
“None of us knew, any more than the audience (or, indeed, Andy himself), what ludicrous and side-splitting turn his introduction to a song would take next. Just as fascinating – and admirable – was watching how he would somehow bring the rambling tale back to the original subject. He was a true master of many arts.”
For his part, Andy once described his time in Silly Wizard as “like spending 12 years in a Marx Brothers movie”.
After the band broke up in 1988, following yet another successful US tour, Andy went on to combine a career in lighting for theatre and television with pursuing his singing career, recording such well-received albums as By the Hush and Man in the Moon, as well as an album of Robert Burns songs. By the Hush was declared Melody Maker Folk Album of 1983, with Stewart being presented with his award by the perhaps unlikely figure of James Callaghan, former Prime Minister.
He went on to collaborate with Capercaillie’s Manus Lunny to tour and to record Fire in the Glen, Dublin Lady and At it Again. He later teamed up with another Irish guitarist, Gerry O’Beirne, with whom he toured for several years until he was beset by crippling health problems.
Andy became paralysed from the chest down owing to a debilitating combination of medical problems, not least failed spinal surgery in 2013. A stroke in December 2015 was followed by pneumonia and he died a few days before the New Year.
For those who know his music, his voice, his wit and his contribution to the “carrying stream” of traditional music, however, the rover rambles ever on.
Written by Jim Gilchrist 2016