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This week’s best new radio: Laura Barton’s Notes From A Musical Island


The Northumbrian folkies known as the Unthanks have a lovely song called Here’s The Tender Coming. If you listen to it repeatedly, the word tender transforms itself from a noun to an adjective and the song suddenly concerns an arrival of remarkable gentleness rather than a small boat shuttling passengers to the big ships in the harbour. This is what happens when folk music is exported from the context that provided its concrete reference points and turned into the stuff of entertainment.

In the excellent Laura Barton‘s Notes From A Musical Island (Saturday, 10.30am, Radio 4), the journalist begins her tour with a visit to the Sunderland area to find out what effect the local topography has on the music that the Unthanks and other local musicians make there. Piper Kathryn Tickell, who opens her back door to allow us to hear the river Rede rushing by, confirms that her music reflects the geography of the area, while Frankie & The Heartstrings suggest the true authentic sound of Sunderland might be a karaoke system with heavy reverb carrying the sound of a Neil Diamond song through a pub door at 10am.

American songs are apt to sound lyrical to European ears because we’re unfamiliar with the context they spring from. Since we can’t really imagine a road trip lasting more than a few hours we have trouble thinking what it’s like to be 24 hours from Tulsa or exactly what bathroom indignities may be involved On A Bus To St Cloud. This is the song that Gretchen Peters chooses to start Sad Songs Make Me Happy (Thursday, 9pm), a one-off that airs as part of Radio 2 Country, a new temporary station available on digital radio and the iPlayer. Peters had never actually been to St Cloud when she wrote the song, much as honky tonk singer Vern Gosdin had probably never been in the “tear in your beer” situation described in his Set ’Em Up Joe and Angaleena Presley hadn’t really stood in line at the eponymous grocery store described in her song. Nonetheless, it’s a strong selection of tracks ancient and modern, and Peters links them well.

Many of the new stars of country music were college-educated kids who grew up far from the heartland and came to the narrative tradition of country via artists such as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell. Not so Loretta Lynn, who is In Conversation (Monday, 10pm, Radio 2) with Bob Harris. The original coal miner’s daughter, Lynn came from Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, was married at 15 and fashioned many of the songs that made her the queen of country from the ups and downs of her 48 years of marriage to Mooney Lynn, a husband every bit as unreconstructed as his name suggests. Now in her 80s, with great-grandchildren, she continues working and has just signed a new deal with Sony, of whom she says, “Sony owns Loretta Lynn, and I’m glad because Loretta loves Sony”. As a token of this esteem, and because she couldn’t be bothered to choose songs, she’s given the company new recordings of 93 tracks that are particularly close to her heart.

Joe Queenan returns to Archive On 4 with A Brief History Of Disobedience (Saturday, 8pm, Radio 4). Queenan is the kind who likes to point out the idiocy of the times and gets called a grumpy old man for his pains. This particular effort starts with a No Parking sign at his local station in New York State. It is, he points out, more long-winded than the 95 theses that Martin Luther attached to the door of the church in Wittenberg in 1517.

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