'Excited? Nah, not really, but it should be good fun," says Nic Jones, with his trademark infectious giggle. "Be nice if they don't jeer me off though." He sounds as if he's contemplating karaoke in his local pub. Instead, he's talking about something he hasn't done for a very long time, something that nobody who loves folk music dared dream of seeing – Nic Jones back on stage.
It has been 30 often difficult years since Jones's last appearances in his own right, but he maintains a carefree nonchalance about the fate that wrecked his career. He remembers nothing of the gig at Glossop in February 1982, the road between Peterborough and March in Cambridgeshire on the way back, the lorry he collided with head-on while closing in on home. He was in a coma for weeks and in hospital for six months while they tried to reassemble him. "Everything on my right side was bust," he says cheerily. "Eyes, ears, arm. Elbow smashed to bits. Wrist. Everything had to be replaced. I've got a metal arse, a false eye, false teeth, everything is false. I'm an illusion. The only thing that wasn't bust was my guitar."
And he's really not nervous about his comeback? "I've never really suffered with nerves – the family are more nervous about it than me."
At the time of the accident, Jones – then 35 – was at the top of his game. With his percussive arrangements, relaxed vocals, an ear for a potent song and an enlightened, freestyle approach built around progressive open-tuned guitar, he was one of the star attractions on the vibrant British folk circuit. His fifth and most recent album, Penguin Eggs, had taken the genre to a new level, with Jones channelling his inner rock psyche into the unlikely format of a solo singer playing mostly traditional songs on an acoustic guitar.
With two young kids, no income and a body to reconstruct, the following years were traumatic for his whole family; their survival is largely down to the stoicism of Jones's wife, Julia (when Jones was presented with the Good Tradition Award by the BBC in 2007, he thanked Julia for transforming him "from sub-human to paranormal"). It was she who appealed to fans to send her bootleg recordings to play to Jones to bring him out of his coma. The response was so good that some of those tracks ended up being released on her home-produced compilations In Search of Nic Jones (1998) and Unearthed (2001), which – with his first four albums still largely unavailable – helped to introduce him to a fresh audience.
The decades following Jones's accident were largely barren for British folk music, but when a new generation of musicians started to come through, one thing was notable – they all appeared to carry a copy of the one Nic Jones album they could easily get their hands on, Penguin Eggs. And while Jones himself contented himself swimming, playing chess, taking the dog for walks, fiddling with his guitar and trying to get his fingers to work, his reputation as a bona fide folk legend began to take off in earnest. Emerging young stars such as Kate Rusby, Seth Lakeman, Jim Moray and Jon Boden cited him as a seminal influence; Bob Dylan and Marianne Faithfull covered two of his most iconic Penguin Eggs tracks, Canadee-i-o and Flandyke Shore; John Wesley Harding recorded a whole album of Nic Jones covers; and in 2001 Penguin Eggs was named second-best folk album of all time (behind Fairport Convention's Liege & Lief) in a BBC poll.
None of which remotely impresses the laconic Jones, always a determinedly anti-establishment figure with no patience for celebrity culture or the self-seriousness that often attaches itself to the folk revival. He once wilfully confronted the famously rigid musical policy of Nottingham Traditional Music Club by playing big-band standard Chatanooga Choo Choo. Another time he turned his back on an inattentive audience and sang to the wall; on another occasion he stopped halfway through his set to ask the promoter of a particularly unruly gig how long he was required to play. "Play as long as you like," said the promoter. "OK," said Jones, picking up his guitar and walking off.
"I'm a fraud, an impostor," he says. "I came into folk music by accident. I wanted to be in a rock group. I was a Buddy Holly fan and I wanted to be in the Shadows … except I could never do the dance."
He got into folk when a schoolfriend invited him to join a popular folk group called the Halliard. When they split, he reluctantly undertook his first solo bookings, moulding himself in the image of Martin Carthy. "I was useless," he says. "I couldn't speak to audiences and I hated it."
Gradually his confidence grew and his personality came to the fore. "I just thought: 'What's the point of singing songs about Napoleon Bonaparte?' I never knew him, I didn't know what he was like. I'm from Essex!' So I tried to sing more normally and moved from being a fake traditional singer to a fake rock guitarist."
Like other singers of the day, he scoured old books and visited London's Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, to listen (and surreptitiously record) the riches of traditional material in the library there. Yet he had no qualms about messing with the tradition, rewriting tunes and lyrics wherever he saw fit – one of his most acclaimed songs, Annan Water, changed so much along the way that it virtually became a completely new song. "I got bored with singing something the same way all the time so I'd change it. I'd try out different chords to make it more interesting and so it would evolve. It's what the folk process is all about, isn't it?"
By the time of the accident he was fully embracing contemporary song and so hooked on Bob Marley he was even contemplating folk-reggae fusions. Entertainingly self-effacing, he has little regard for his former self, even damning his classic Penguin Eggs album with faint praise. "It's all right," he says, "but people only go on about it because I wasn't around after that. I was interested in a more modern sound and I think I could have come up with a more interesting record after Penguin Eggs. Me having the smash-up made it more popular."
He's scathing, too, about his guitar playing. "It wasn't until after the accident that I realised what an inept guitarist I was. I never played straight tunings, it was always open tunings, which I think now was a bit of a fake way of playing. Listening to jazz guitarists made me wish I could improvise like them. Diz Disley made me realise how bad I was. And Django Reinhardt – he could speak with his guitar and spin a mood, a shape, just by walking with his fingers."
As the years passed, all hopes of seeing Jones performing again faded, but the groundswell of interest among modern revivalists helped, in 2010, to inspire Sidmouth Folk Week to hold an In Search of Nic Jones tribute concert. It was there that Pete Coe – one of Jones's compadres in Bandoggs, a short-lived folk "supergroup" of the 1970s – persuaded the great man to join his adoring acolytes on stage and sing along with the choruses.
It was a night flooded with emotion but Jones enjoyed it enough to agree to another helping – albeit with a different line-up of performers – at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall last year. Beaming throughout ("I like hearing other people do my stuff, especially when they try to do something different with it"), he shocked everyone by getting up at the end to sing a couple of songs with his son Joe Jones on guitar and Belinda O'Hooley on piano.
It wasn't the Jones of old, of course, but it was impressive enough to plant the idea that – accompanied by his son and O'Hooley – he was in good enough shape to play a few full sets over the summer. "But it's not a comeback," he emphasises. "I'm not going back on the road or anything."
He says he won't be delving too far into his back catalogue either ("It's boring, so what's the point? – I like new songs"); and, despite namechecking Kate Rusby, Lau, Karine Polwart and Jim Moray as favoured representatives of the modern age, admits he doesn't listen to much folk music these days and much prefers Radiohead – pride of place in his new set will be Radiohead's Fake Plastic Trees.
"I won't be playing guitar on stage. I know what to do but the right hand won't do what I ask. I do all these exercises before I get up and I'm getting better but I still have problems with rhythm. I still enjoy singing and playing and writing songs, though – you don't need to be up on a stage to do that, do you?"
Nic Jones appears at Warwick Folk festival (26 July), Cambridge Folk festival (29), Wadebridge festival, Cornwall (3 Aug), Towersey Folk festival (25), Cecil Sharp House, London (22 Sept).
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