Tom Holmes has been involved with The Star Folk Club in Glasgow for the best part of 20 years, although he has been an attender since its early days in the 1970s. The club, now resident in the Admiral Bar in Glasgow, provides a weekly platform and an audience for folk and traditional music in the city – only taking a break over Winter for Christmas and then picking up after Celtic Connections. Supported by a small committee, Tom plays a vital role behind the scenes, booking both well-known performers and up-and-coming artists.
Born and raised in Glasgow, Tom first remembers hearing Scottish traditional music on the wireless at his Granny’s house, on the BBC Home Service as it was then. Growing up, he played the drums in the Boys’ Brigade Pipe Band in Springburn and remembers being aware of the tunes they played. As a youth, he was very much into The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and when it comes to folk music, he remembers listening to records of the likes of Johnny Cash and Tom Paxton. “The music I was listening to was much more American and bluesy, the likes of Greenwich Village scene,” he remembers. “As I got older I began to appreciate the different strands and links between it all.”
The Star Folk Club was started in the late 70s by Arthur Johnstone and others, finding its first home in the Communist Party premises in Calton Place. It has moved to many different venues in its life. “For a while, it was at the Society of Musicians building, but that closed and there was a question over whether it would continue to exist or not…that was when Ken Caird took over,” Tom remembers.
Tom worked in the NHS at that time, in Yorkhill Children’s hospital, and was very much involved with the Trade Union movement. After getting married and having kids, he drifted away from the folk club scene for a while, but as his kids got older he soon found his way back. “People think it’s always old people that go to the club, but they were all young once!” he laughs.
The Star later moved to the Riverside Club, and by that time, Tom was a weekly attender. “When Ken took a step back, I was sort of the last man standing,” he laughs. Tom retired from the NHS at age 60, but had already been running the club for 5 or 6 years before then. He’s 74 this year. “It’s very strange, it doesn’t feel like 20 years!”
After the Riverside, The Star took up residence in St Andrew’s in the Square for a number of years. “That was a great venue – a beautiful big place – but something wasn’t quite right; it wasn’t intimate enough for a folk club. We ended up in the Admiral bar, a downstairs venue – a good size, good sound system, nice size for acoustic gigs.”
The Star Folk Club has a committee with a membership officer and treasurer, but Tom does all the bookings. “It’s a really nice gig! Over the years, you get to know so many people. Being able to be amongst people, together with other people who share the same interests as you, these are things that are crucial for building community. With covid, that’s what I’m really missing right now.”
“One of the things I really love is watching people develop their talent over the years – it’s a real pleasure. Giving people a platform and an audience, playing a wee part in their story as an artist, helping them find their voice, it’s special.” For example, he remembers giving a platform to the Young‘uns early in their career, and then later watching them perform at Celtic Connections. “That was a fantastic gig, highly emotional, a stand out,” he says.
Tom reflects that the Folk Club scene has changed over the years. While some of the artists and big names from the early days are still around (and doing the rounds!), there are lots more up-and-coming artists on the scene – and not just from Scotland; from all over these isles. “They’re all part of the same continuum of the folk scene” he says.
One of the biggest changes in Glasgow was the start of the traditional music course at RCS. Tom often goes to the student concerts, inviting folk to do an opening spot. “ It’s very different playing at a session in the pub and playing in front of an audience who have come to see you, so having the club is a great space to hone your skills.”
In the past, most artists had day jobs and very few were making a living doing it full time. “I really feel for artists today,” he says. “The question for folk clubs now is, how do we accommodate them all? How do we sustain these artists and give them an income? There’s a regular audience that does come, a community of folk, but then there are new faces that come to see an artist or band. Our job is to entice them back.” In terms of challenges, as must be the case in any large city, there is always competition, always something else on. “We’ve got more competition than the smaller clubs I think. I remember one night we were competing with Kate Rusby in the West End and Bob Dylan and the Barrowlands!”
Looking to the future of the folk club scene, Tom says, “as long as people want to perform, there will be folk clubs. Folk clubs are there to support the artists, and as long as we put on quality artists, people will come. Hopefully, once covid restrictions are out of the way, we’ll get back into live performances. I can’t wait.”