Interview: Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg on the band’s first 55 years and the ukulele bass

He may be only the bass player but he has helped create the British folk rock genre.

Fairport Convention may have defined British folk rock but their mix of traditional music with the sounds associated with rock music has had an influence well beyond these shores. If you are in any doubt about their influence on American musicians just ask the members of Los Lobos and Jay Farrar of Son Volt. As well as being the prime originators of British folk rock Fairport also included two of Britain’s greatest songwriters, Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson, and also the groundbreaking guitar playing of Thompson and Denny’s unique vocals plus the genre-busting fiddle playing of Dave Swarbrick. Fairport were also renowned during the ‘70s for the number of different line-ups and personnel the band had before going on hiatus and subsequently coming back in the ‘80s with a much more stable approach to their line-up. Dave Pegg joined the band in 1970 just in time to record the classic ‘Full House’ album, which will be played in full at this year’s Cropredy Festival with Dave Mattacks on drums and Richard Thompson on guitar both of who played on the original recording, and he has remained a constant in their history since with founder member Simon Nicol, who briefly left the band in the late ‘70s. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Dave Pegg over Zoom as Fairport gear up for a tour celebrating their 55th anniversary to talk about the highlights of their long history, the importance of their annual Cropredy Festival, and how he and Simon Nicol will be playing with Richard Thompson on the Rhine later in the year. Dave Pegg may have established his reputation as a bass player but he is also a great raconteur with a nice line in self-deprecating humour, as he reminisces about key parts of Fairport history and cold calling Bob Dylan’s bassist and bandleader.

How are you?

Fine, we have literally only just got back to the UK from Brittany, where we spend most of our time. I’ve got an interesting story about our time in Brittany where we have had a house for fifteen years, because of Brexit and COVID we’ve been kind of stuck over there, not that we minded that, and I had to become a French resident which is the rule if you are there for more than twelve months. It is a long process to become a French resident, and it involves Newcastle-upon-Tyne a lot because you have to get this thing called an S1 Form which shows you are an English pensioner, and the French medical authorities accept that as being sufficient funding to get someone onto the French medical system. It took me about nine months to do all the paperwork for all of this stuff, and I had to keep phoning up Newcastle-upon-Tyne and you would wait for an hour to get through sometimes. Eventually, after about nine months I got my S1 Form which meant I could get my medical card to be covered by the French medical system, I was like, wow, that didn’t take too long just nine months and a lot of stress, haha.

Then I realised my partner, Elin, wasn’t named on it, and I thought, oh shit, I’m going to have to do all this again. I contacted the Newcastle-upon-Tyne office again and bizarrely  I got through in five minutes, I told them the story and they said it can take about three months even though I already had an S1. I asked them to email me to let me know just how long it was going to be but Erin really needed to get on the medical system. Then the guy said give me your email address, and I asked him if he was in Newcastle and he said no he was working from home in Blackpool because of COVID, and I gave him my email and I told him peggyonthebass, etc. and then he asked if I was a musician. I said not really, I’m a bass player and we don’t consider ourselves musos, it is only one above being a drummer, haha. The guy then asked if I knew Lindisfarne because they were mates of his, and I was like, of course I do, I’ve known them for years. He then explained that one of his best friends was a bass player who used to play with Jethro Tull, and I was like, really what’s his name, and he said it was one of his mates from Blackpool called Tony. I was thinking, oh God, I’ve blown it here because Tony was a mate of Barrie Barlow’s, and when the bass player I replaced, John Glascock, was ill Tony dep’d for him for about three or four gigs, and I then auditioned and got the gig. So I ostensibly nicked Tony’s job, haha, and I thought I’d better not mention this but I did, and he was like, it is such a small world and he went on that he was also a muso having been a guitar player in a professional band. When I asked which band he explained it was the Nolan Sisters, and I said I thought that was an all-girl group, and he came back with he was the brother, haha. It is just a fantastic story and he said he would do what he could and I said it had been great talking to him, and we’d had a really good laugh talking over this stuff. It was only five days later that I got the S1 form through in Brittany during COVID, so it’s who you know, haha.

And you are here in the UK now and ready to tour.

Yes, we have 31 gigs in six weeks, and we have quite a few days off. Normally when we tour we have Mondays off, and we work every other night, but this time we have two breaks of about four days each so that is OK. Elin and I live in Banbury when we are not in Brittany, and Chris Leslie and Ric Saunders live near Banbury as well, so Banbury is still kind of our base, and Cropredy is kind of the central place for Fairport and has been for many years.

How has Fairport dealt with the pandemic, what has it meant for the finances of Cropredy?

In 2020 we just managed to finish our tour to support the ‘Shuffle and Go’ album in March 2020, and we then had to cancel Cropredy 2020 and 2021. It was amazing that all the acts that we had booked were able to come back so they will all be back this year, apart from Richard Digance who has a new book out and he is booked to do the Edinburgh Festival, and he asked if we would mind. Richard always does the opening Saturday spot at 12 o’clock and it is amazing what he does when he gets the crowd morris dancing with handkerchiefs with like 15,000 plus people all waving their handkerchiefs. If they don’t have any handkerchiefs, it is not a good time during Richard Digance’s set to try and use the loo because there is never any toilet paper in there because everybody raids it so they can wave it in the air, haha. Also, 10,000 people kept their tickets from 2020, and that is how loyal our Cropredy crowd are, it is fantastic, only 7% of people asked for a refund. None of the money came out of the business because we didn’t want to spend anybody’s ticket money in case things went really wrong. Luckily we haven’t touched any of the ticket money and the government gave us £300,000 in two payments, which has helped to keep our warehouse and office going, and a couple of staff who are essential. A festival takes more than just that weekend to keep it going, haha, it is a year’s work. You have to look after the land, you have to look after the trees, there is a lot of stuff in maintaining all the equipment. We have a wonderful crew who have been there for many many years, and they all come back, and Cropredy is a very special thing and it is unlike any other festival, it is very much a big family. I think I know most of the people who go there, haha, and I have to be very careful when I go to the bar because I have been known to enjoy a drink, haha.

Fairport has always had a great rhythm section and you invented British folk rock. What are the dynamics between your bass and Gerry Conway’s drums?

It may sound silly to say this, but we don’t do much work around rehearsing or analysing what we do. I’ve played with Gerry for probably 50 years, the same with Dave Mattacks who was also our drummer for many years before he moved to near Boston. Dave still gets a lot of work, and he is much in demand with singer-songwriter type people, it is his forte, and I suppose mine is as well. I have not been influenced so much by technique but more or less by the music and songs. I have always enjoyed being a band member, rather than being a kind of soloist, and I have had a great kind of career being able to back people like Nick Drake, John Martyn, Ralph McTell, Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and over the years we have never really analysed what we have done as a rhythm section. I can’t even remember sitting down with Dave Mattacks or Gerry and going you play that, or it would be good if you played this. There has only been a couple of occasions over that whole period where there have been songs, for example on the ‘Fairport Nine’ album there is a song called ‘The Hexhamshire Lass’,  and it is a traditional song we learnt from Bob Davenport who is a great traditional singer in the North East, and it is an incredibly complex arrangement, most of which was put together by Dave Mattacks. That took about a couple of days to actually put together in Cropredy village hall. That is the only song I can remember sitting down to actually work it out. Things like ‘Tokyo’ which was a Jerry Donahue bluegrassy type instrumental. Jerry was the American guitarist who sadly had a stroke and has never been able to play since, and he was an incredible guitar player who could mimic a pedal steel guitar and did these multiple bends, preposterous multiple bends, and he was also in a group called the Hellecasters with Will Ray and John Jorgenson, three fantastic guitarists.

We had them at Cropredy one year, and the problem with Cropredy is that we book all the bands and so we book everybody we like, but we forget how good they are and then we have to follow them, haha. It is like, shit, why did we do that. It hasn’t been our downfall luckily, because Cropredy has gone from strength to strength and it is still something we are incredibly proud of. The fact it hasn’t gone on for two years means that this year we are in a sticky predicament, we always try to keep our ticket prices down and they are still the prices they were going to be for 2020 but the cost of doing everything has escalated so much, especially diesel because you can’t use red diesel now for the transport to get everything to the stage and all the generators. It is going to cost us £1,000s and £1,000s more than we estimated when we did the figures for 2020. It is going to be just great to be on that field again, it is going to be such a glorious weekend, bright sunshine of course.

You may not be an original member of Fairport like Simon Nicol, but you may as well be. Is there any sense of old and new Fairport?

Even the new guys have been in the band a long time, I think the newest guy is Chris Leslie who joined 26 years ago, and he’d been involved with Cropredy for many years before and had played in Whippersnapper, Dave Swarbrick’s band. They are still called the new boys, haha, and the old boys are me and Simon Nicol. Simon was an original member, and the name Fairport Convention came from his house in Muswell Hill, I missed the first three years and when I joined it went downhill, that was it really, haha. The determination for the band to have a hit means we are still trying after all this time, unsuccessfully I might hasten to add.

The original  Fairport had a fairly fluid line-up, but you have shown remarkable stability since your ‘80s reformation, what changed?

When Fairport split up in 1979 I was going to build a little studio and record bands, that is what I wanted to do. But then I got an offer to join Jethro Tull, which was obviously such a big thing, they were such an enormous band, and they looked after me, Ian and Martin, certainly financially, and it gave me the ability to build a studio and move house. We moved to a place called Barford St. Michael and we set up a little studio called Woodworm Studio, and we had already set up a record label because Fairport had been dropped by Island, and then Phonogram, because we weren’t selling shit. We were making good products, and the last two albums we made for Phonogram, or rather Vertigo which was an offshoot label of theirs, ‘The Bonnie Bunch Of Roses’ and ‘Tipplers Tales’, were really two nice little albums. They were very traditional and very English-based, but we couldn’t sell them in the numbers to make the suits who had now taken over record companies happy.

My ex-wife Christine and I set up this little label Woodworm Records, ostensibly to put out our own albums which we did and we sold them at gigs. In 1979 I joined Tull, so Fairport only really existed in terms of once a year in August we would get together at Cropredy and have like a reunion concert which we organised, and it carried on until it became more of a festival, it just got bigger and bigger. It started off with just 500 people, and then when we split up in 1979 there were 4,000 people at the gig. I remember the day very well because on the morning we had played at Led Zeppelin’s Knebworth, we were the opening act which was pretty scary because there was us lot, a load of folkies, in front of 100,000 people, most of whom had very strange face paintings so we looked a bit strange shall we say. Mind you, we had various substances to kind of put us in the right mood, which meant that our set which was meant to last an hour only lasted 40 minutes. We played every jig and reel, and every up-tempo song and tune we knew, and then said ta-ra. The audience really liked it and were asking for more and all we had left to play was like long ballads. They accepted us, and I still meet people who say we saw you at Knebworth, and thanks to Led Zeppelin we were one of the few bands that day who got paid. We told everybody we were flying from Knebworth up to Cropredy to do our farewell gig, but the helicopter resembled a rusty transit van, haha, happy daze.

Fairport have stayed friends with Richard Thompson over the years.

Oh yes. Next month we are going on a boat cruise down the Rhine organised by this wonderful company called Harmony Cruises who do musical tours. We did a couple of nights in Amsterdam last month, which was fantastic on one of those big riverboats, and they have booked Richard Thompson. Richard is such a big star now, and deservedly so and it took him a long time to be recognised for the amazing talent he is as a guitarist, writer, and singer, and it is unusual for him to agree to do one of these things because it is like 100 people on a river cruise, and you play for four or five nights in the bar. They are a very attentive audience, and they obviously come from all over Europe and America, and Richard is doing the one the week before us, which starts off in Koblenz or somewhere and finishes in Amsterdam. We then do the week after starting in Amsterdam and finishing in Koblenz. Simon and myself are invited to do his last night, so I’ve got to give him a buzz later to see what we have got to learn. It will be great fun because it will be acoustic, and I can only take my ukulele bass along because I am going to France on the train, and I’m not carrying a big long heavy bass.

I have a Kala uke bass, which sounds incredible, just like a double bass but much more transportable and they are being used so many times, ukulele orchestras use them, and mine is absolutely phenomenal, and I use it on record, I used it on the last Fairport album ‘Shuffle and Go’. So that will be fun and the last night of Richard’s thing will be the trio, it will be two hats and a guy with hair, haha.

With Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny, you had two of the greatest British songwriters. How do you feel about playing some of the greatest British songs?

It is something we have always done, and Sandy’s song ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ is the one that people really love to hear. It has always been such a great song, and the band didn’t always play it and we don’t play it at every gig, but it obviously means so much to people and we have our own kind of arrangement of it. Things like ‘Meet On The Ledge’ we can never not do, and if we get an encore that is the song people expect us to do. Both of those songs mean so much to people, it is very moving to do them, you never get fed up of doing them, I certainly don’t. I love doing stuff from the ’Full House’ line-up which was the album I was first involved in when I joined the band in 1970. We hope to reproduce that at Cropredy this year because Richard is coming over to do his set and join us for ‘Full House’, and Dave Mattacks is as well. Chris Leslie, who worships Dave Swarbrick and was in his band Whippersnapper, does a very good impersonation of Dave Swarbrick and luckily he is a non-drinker if you get what I mean, haha.

Are there any plans to record the ‘Full House’ concert?

We always film Cropredy, we have like two big screens and a four-camera shoot. A guy called Nev Bull puts the stuff together with the screens for the audience, and that is always great. It would be nice to have that as a record but I don’t know about putting it out as CD or anything like that. If it was good enough it would be nice, and it would be really interesting to see what Chris does, and obviously, it is so many years on I wonder what  ‘Sloth’ will be like. That is back in the set on this tour, it is one of those things that Fairport didn’t really do much, improvised stuff, though you had Swarb and Richard when I first joined the band who would play off each other. The way the fiddle and the guitar worked was just brilliant, especially with Richard because he had got this kind of style even then which was like nobody else, and nobody else can play like him. It is frightening when you listen to it, and that is the great thing about being a bass player and why I consider myself really lucky, to be able to stand six feet away from these people just listening to this magic stuff coming out, and being an ex-guitar player myself, I really appreciate what they are doing. Jerry Donahue as well, I mean Jerry you can’t do that, it is not possible to do it, it is just amazing and you have to pinch yourself really when all that is going on and you are on the same stage. People like Martin Barre when I was in Jethro Tull, it was the same thing, I consider myself to be really lucky to be a bass player, and as I said before, only one above the drummer, haha.

When I was in Birmingham before I joined Fairport I played with John Bonham in a group but we only did twelve gigs because we never got booked back because we were too loud. Bonzo, apart from being one of my best mates, was just unbelievable as a rock drummer. Luckily most drummers appreciate that, certainly Dave Mattacks worshiped Bonzo, and vice versa, John thought DM was an incredible drummer. Doane Perry, who I played with in Jethro Tull, was a fantastic drummer, and drummers kind of stick together and I think bass players do as well, you get your own little kind of gang, haha. Drummers are certainly very cliquey with each other, they have a lot of respect for each other and, obviously, they are all so different stylistically in the way they play. Gerry and Dave Mattacks were both fantastic in Fairport, although their approach is totally different. It is great being in a rhythm section where you don’t really have to think, and you know whatever your partner does it is going to fit perfectly. When we rehearse stuff with Fairport to record more or less the first time we play it through is what finishes up being recorded, maybe it is because we are old and can only do things one way, I don’t know, haha. It certainly works because there is not much, hang on, I can’t say there isn’t much thought that goes into it, but you know what I mean I hope, haha.

I’ve spoken to a few American americana musicians who have cited Fairport as an influence for their own exploration of their own musical roots, and Los Lobos were signing Fairport’s praises from the get-go, what do you think of Fairport’s influence on American music?

An interesting one is Chic, there have been a couple of programs about Nile Rodgers on TV recently which I’ve seen and he mentions Fairport Convention. He said, “I wanted to have a band like Fairport Convention”, and I’m like, hang on a sec, haha. It is interesting, it is just amazing that Nile Rodgers credits Fairport Convention as an influence. Also, when we talk about the English influence on americana Dolly Parton is interesting. A friend of mine Gordon Roberts, who is an English guy who works in America, and he was the Sales Director for the guitar and mandolin manufacturer Eastman Guitars but he now works for the Dolly Parton Foundation, and he explained that they are doing a documentary about her influences from England, stuff she has picked up on. Gordon rang me up and said you can help me because you know a lot about folk music, and I was like I haven’t a bloody clue, I might have played it off and on for fifty-odd years but scholarly is not my way, I can tell you what people drink and that’s about it, haha. I did say I know someone who can, Nigel Schofield, who is kind of a folklore expert. He knows more about Fairport and traditional music in England than anybody, and Nigel is helping them out so watch out for it when it is released.

‘Shuffle and Go’ is still your latest album, will you be featuring it on the tour?

We’d just finished recording it when we went out on tour in 2020, and then when COVID happened we never got the chance to play it as often as we would he liked. It is an album that has got some really nice songs on it, there is a lovely song called ‘Moses Waits’ written by Rob Beattie, who has written a couple of songs for us in the past, and Chris Leslie is coming up with some fantastic songs such as ‘Moondust and Solitude’ and ‘The Year of Fifty Nine’ about the sighting in Banbury of what people thought was a spaceship, haha. There are some really nice songs on it and we still like playing them, and we are doing about six or seven of them on this tour coming up because for us it is still current. We will do another album next year but it won’t be this year because we have too much going on, and we all do other things as well. Simon and Chris Leslie do their Christmas shows with The Albion Band and Chris has Saint Agnes Fountain and Feast Of Fiddles. Ric has a nice duo and trio with Vo Fletcher, and I’m just happy in Brittany and we like to be over there as much as we can. I’m also learning the cello and I’m really bad at playing the cello so I’m trying to get better before its first public appearance. It may make only one public appearance, haha.

I thought you needed special knees for a cello or something.

It is like your knees are actually important, I blame my dodgy cello playing on having a hip replacement because when the weather is on the change the left hip doesn’t function as well as it should do, and I blame that for my bad intonation and the scraping of the bow, and maybe if I get the right one done they will match up, haha.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?

My favourite most recent album is Bob’s ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ because I think it is the best thing he has ever done. When I got the copy of it I literally played it about ten times a day for a month, and the playing is phenomenal. I had the great honour of talking to Tony Garnier Bob’s bass player the other day because when Gordon Roberts called me up over Dolly Parton he said he had been to see Dylan recently and he was on the tour bus and he said the bass player Tony Garnier is a mate of mine, and he is also the musical director for the band. Gordon then tells me Tony Garnier knows me and knows about Fairport, and then he said I will get him to email you so you both can link up as fellow bass players. I didn’t think Tony would email me and he didn’t and the next time I spoke to Gordon I told him Tony had never gotten in touch and said here’s his phone number just give him a ring, and I was like I can’t just give him a ring, I’ve never met the guy. I’m just going to be calling Bob Dylan’s bass player for the past ten years or whatever, out of the blue, come on I don’t think so. One night after I had a bit too much Aperol it was  6 o’clock and I thought it will be lunchtime in New York so I will give him a ring. So I phoned the number and said, “I hope you don’t mind me calling, but I am a friend of Gordon Roberts and my name is Dave Pegg and I’m the bass player with Fairport Convention”. Tony was like I know you and all that stuff, and he was really friendly and said I had caught him at a bad time because he had a two-week-old daughter and 13 and 15 year-old teenagers who are on holiday from school. He said it is absolute chaos here, I can’t wait to get back out on the road, haha. That album is just fantastic and it is what I’m listening to most of the time.

I listen to a lot of music all the time, and I love American music, and my favourite two American albums by American singers are  ‘Aretha’s Jazz’  which is phenomenal, and Dolly Parton’s ‘Little Sparrow’ which has ‘I Get Get a Kick Out of You’ which starts off with this incredible dobro solo by Jerry Douglas, and it is not possible to play that dobro introduction and it goes up and up, and then Dolly’s singing comes in and all the harmonies on it, it is just really phenomenal. I often play that if I just want to wonder why I should have the right to carry on doing music really, haha.

Just on Dylan, you had the Dylan Project for quite a while,  is that over and done with now?

That hasn’t existed for maybe three years. It was fantastic while it was happening, but it didn’t work out in the end, it was great fun when we started but it became a bit of a slog, to be honest at the end, trying to make it work and get gigs and stuff got harder and harder. It was monster playing and Steve Gibbons is such a great singer, and he had his own take on it, and it wasn’t like a tribute band. We had some great gigs, and we made an album ‘Live At The Citadel’ which was the last thing we did. It was like an old nunnery or something in Gloucestershire which a guy had spent a fortune converting, but unfortunately, they went bankrupt, and it was a fantastic venue with a studio and we played there one night and recorded it all, it was a double CD.

Cropredy seems to have really become part of the festival circuit with the mainstream media taking note of it, you are now part of the summer season.

And quite rightly so because Cropredy was way ahead of its time in terms of it being family-friendly, and a nice event to go to. It took a long time for it to get recognised for that aspect of it, but I think the media thought, oh the Fairports and it is kind of a fashion thing, and sometimes it was fashionable to knock Fairport and say non of the originals are left, or it is just a bunch of old folkies, but now I think we are kind of a bit more accepted for what we do. We still come up with new music rather than just covering our own songbook, even though there is so much music there that we could get away with without ever having to record anything new, haha. There is also the fact that some of the songs of various old line-ups take on a new life with a new line-up. The current band is very happy and we hope we will be doing another album next year.

You toured ‘Babbacombe Lee’ in 2011, did you enjoy that?

That was interesting because there was only Simon and me who had played on the original version of it, and it is a hard thing to do because you can’t take one song, it has to be the whole thing or nothing at all. It can be a bit of a pain for an audience to listen to 45 or 50 minutes of one subject, it is not like a crowd-pleaser when you are in concert. We would do ‘Babbacombe Lee’ as the first half, and then hope people would stay for the second half, haha. Dave Swarbrick but most of the stuff together, although Simon,  Dave Mattacks, and I wrote different parts for it as well, and it gave us something to work on at a time when Richard had just left, because when someone like Richard Thompson leaves a band you think, crikey, what are we going to do now, haha, how are we going to get the songs and you are missing a lead instrument. You can’t replace Richard Thompson, you can’t replace Sandy Denny, you can’t really replace Dave Swarbrick, though we have had a pretty good go with Swarb being such a big influence on Chris Leslie. Chris can cover what Swarb did very adequately, and we have the benefit of him bringing all his songs and his multi-instrumental ability because he plays everything well. We are lucky we have him, and he still has hair, haha.

Fairport Convention’s ‘Shuffle and Go’ is out now on Matty Groves Records.
Fairport Convention tour dates can be found here.

About Martin Johnson 389 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Fascinating and enjoyable interview, thanks. All being well, we’re doing one of the Richard Thompson Harmony Voyages cruises in July – but Danube, not the Rhine, so no mini Fairport reunion for us!


Will do. It promises to be interesting on a number of levels!

It’s been (altogether now) a long time coming, as we originally booked the cruise in November 2019.