THE BLACK Country in the English West Midlands - so called because of the Industrial Revolution and the outcroppings of the coal scarring the soil black - is concentrated in and around the cities of Birmingham, Coventry, and Wolverhampton.
It’s a region with a distinct accent and dialect, a strong sense of independence, and a rich musical history that has contributed greatly to British rock. Wolverhampton alone has produced Slade, Cornershop, and Beverley Knight. Jamelia lives there as does the blues and rock influenced singer-songwriter Scott Matthews.
Scott Matthews - who came to attention with his 2006 debut album Passing Stranger and won an Ivor Novello Award in 2007 for his song ‘Elusive’ - plays a solo acoustic show at the Róisín Dubh on Friday December 5 at 8pm.
In his teens Scott worked in a warehouse, shifting boxes, before completing a graphic design course at Stourbridge Art College. It was only in his mid-20s that he began to pursue the idea of becoming a musician.
“The music scene here in Wolverhampton has its ups and downs but there’s a vibrancy at the moment and you get inspired,” Scott tells me during our Thursday morning interview. “I took a gamble and music has proven the right path.”
Scott’s 2006 debut Passing Stranger was well received by critics and tracks received airplay from the BBC’s Bob Harris, Jo Whiley, Dermot O’Leary, and Zane Lowe. The album’s appeal lay in it’s mix of acoustic blues and a soulful, distinctly British style of songwriting which owed a debt to Paul Weller.
“My dad’s record collection had a lot of 1960s classics and my mum liked Motown,” Scott says. “There was always good music in the house. I got into the guitar and discovered Led Zeppelin. I was really into their acoustic stuff like Led Zeppelin III. I got a lot of inspiration from that and the kind of ethnic stuff they did as well.”
Zep’s Robert Plant was from West Bromwich in the Black Country and Scott himself is something of a ‘Black Country patriot’ with Wolverhampton being to his identity.
“The place keeps you rooted. I know where I come from and I still live here,” he says, before adding with a laugh, “I know what side my bread is buttered. Slade were from here. You still see Dave Hill knocking around. That fringe has receded a bit, the hat keeps it covered these days, but he’s a real character and so down to earth. I may move to the States to experience a different cultural atmosphere but I’ll always be from Wolverhampton.”
Scott is also a passionate follower of Wolverhampton Wanders FC - or Wolves, as they are better known - managed by former Republic of Ireland manager Mick McCarthy. “Mick McCarthy’s doing a great job,” says Scott. “I definitely think he’s the right kind of character for the club and hopefully we’re heading for the Premiership next year.”
Wolves are currently top of the Coca-Cola Championship, ahead of both Birmingham City and Coventry. For a Wolves fan that must be satisfying.
“To be honest I’d like to see all three back up in the Premiership and see West Brom stay up,” says Scott. “So many of the same clubs are there that it can become boring. I’d like to see some Black Country spirit in the Premiership.”
In September Scott finished recording his second album. It’s entitled Elsewhere and should be released in March. It will also have a Led Zeppelin connection as it will include a duet with Robert Plant.
Scott and his band played support to Plant and Alison Krauss on their Raising Sand tour and he became friendly with the blond haired rock god, who in turn was impressed by Scott’s vocals.
“I have some issues with my vocals,” Scott admits. “Maybe it’s a little insecurity on my part but a lot of people tell me that my voice suits the kind of music I do. Robert Plant himself said that was one of the things he noticed and that he really liked my voice. That was such a good thing to hear and a real boost to my confidence.
“I got to know him before recording the second album and I had a song in mind for him called ‘12 Harps’. It has leanings towards acoustic Led Zeppelin with mandolins. For me to be singing in the same room with Robert Plant - I was so scared. With Page, Jones, and Bonham behind him, what he did with his voice back then in Zeppelin is pretty untouchable. The sheer range and dynamic he’s got. He’s 60 now and his voice is more mature and has a real resonance in it. It’s one of the stand out tracks on the album!”
Stylistically Elsewhere will be different from the acoustic blues and soul of Passing Stranger.
“I’ve tried to be more diverse. There’s more gritty electric guitar. There will be a brass band and more country leanings,” says Scott. “I think it ties together more than the first album did and lyrically it’s stronger. I have confidence in it and I hope people will enjoy it. I can’t wait to get it out.”
Scott will be performing mostly new songs on this Irish tour and Ireland remains a special destination for the singer.
“Ireland is where I’ve been best received,” he says. “In Belfast they were just singing back the songs and Galway was no different. I didn’t know what to expect but when that happens it makes it all worthwhile.
“The songs on the new album are very layered but I’ll be just doing them on an acoustic guitar. It means I’ve had to learn them to play them again for one guitar but I think the songs have the quality to let me do them on my own.”
Tickets are available from the Róisín Dubh and Zhivago.