The Barrstools

Ayrshire’s Folky Foot-tappers

Gill Sherry

There are certain sounds that instantly put a smile on your face. It might be waves crashing against the shore, or a blackbird singing outside your bedroom window. Perhaps it’s the popping of a champagne cork, or the theme tune to your favourite TV show. Or maybe, like me, you find yourself beaming when the sound of live music greets you in your local pub.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a pre-advertised, official evening set. It’s just as satisfying to stumble across an impromptu jamming session on a Sunday afternoon, something The Barrstools are more than happy to take part in.

The Barrstools is a seven-piece band, the members of which are based in Girvan and its surrounding villages including, needless to say, Barr. I’m chatting with Stewart Robertson, the band’s accordion player, and drummer, Kevin Borland.

“I call it Celtic folk music with a touch of country,” Stewart says of The Barrstools’ style.
Kevin then offers an alternative description: “Someone described it to me as… folky foot-tappers, which is quite apt.”

The selection of instruments used by the band lends itself pretty well to this particular characterisation: double bass (Harry Sheddon), bagpipes and whistles (Hamish Denham), keyboard (Jim Meredith), banjo (Cutty Fyfe), and guitar (Dave Sherry). Add Stewart’s accordion and Kevin’s drums and you’ve got the definition of ‘folky foot-tappers’ right there in a seven-piece band!

“We play quite a lot of traditional stuff but with a twist,” adds Stewart. “Everything’s got a wee bit of a twist in it.”

The Barrstools cover a variety of songs including those by The Dubliners and Johnny Cash and although they haven’t written the songs themselves, they do add their own interpretation with their instruments.
“I think we’d like to do our own music,” Stewart says, “but if we play something that we know is a popular tune and re-do it, we know it’s going to go down well. Whereas if we try and do our own stuff, it’s one thing doing it and another getting folk to like it.”

Kevin agrees: “If you’re constantly paying festivals and things like that, you don’t know the crowd and they don’t know you. They’re not going to get behind your own music that they’ve never heard before, whereas everybody’s heard stuff by Johnny cash and Springsteen.”

Writing songs is also a time-consuming exercise and spare time is something the band members don’t have much of. In fact, finding the time to rehearse is often quite a challenge.

“It’s quite difficult,” Stewart admits. “Myself, Harry and Kev have all got young kids. We all love it, but you’ve got somebody at home watching the kids while we’re all enjoying ourselves. We need to be conscious of that really.”

And it’s not just family commitments the guys have to consider. Other than Dave and Cutty, who have recently retired, the others all have full-time jobs. Hence why the gigs themselves can sometimes double-up as rehearsals.

“If we have a run of gigs” says Stewart, “we don’t need to practice so much because the gigs are the practice, but if we haven’t done anything for a wee while, we try to get together.”

The band has grown in size since original members, Dave and Cutty, first began to perform. Stewart joined them about six years ago forming a trio and it then expanded to a six-piece until Jim joined last year, making seven. The name, however, has remained unchanged.

“It’s amazing how many just call us the Barstools with one R,” says Kevin. “The amount of times we’ve thought of changing our name to The Two Rs!”

But one thing that’s not in any doubt is the band’s popularity. Having performed at numerous festivals including Burnsfest at Rozelle Park and the Festival of the Sea in Dunure, The Barrstools have secured quite a following.

“We seem to get a lot of gigs in Dumfries and Galloway and in Girvan,” Stewart tells me. “And The Ghillie Dhu in Ayr. We’re hoping to get over to Arran this year… and we’ve applied for a new festival in August. We’re trying to get in the Clachaig Inn in Glen Coe, they do a lot of live music. We’re keen to get there this year.”

“It’s quite famous for the live music scene for our style of music,” adds Kevin. “That’s where a lot of bands start out.”

Although the band plays mostly in local pubs – most frequently in The Ghillie Dhu – they’ve also performed further afield in places such as Loch Aline and in The Tigh Na Truish on the Isle of Seil near Oban. However, being a seven-piece band, space is sometimes a problem.

“Harry’s good at leaving his double bass in the most inappropriate places,” Kevin says with a smile. “In the middle of the stage or right in the middle of where people are walking. Harry the hazard we call him!”
That said, they’re still just as comfortable sitting down to an improvised session in the local pub as they are on a big festival stage. That was, after all, how The Barrstools started, as Kevin tells me:
“Yeah, pub sessions, a jam, a get together as a group of pals. We’ve kind of lost that, we’ve been busy with big functions and gigs and that kind of thing. We’d like to get back to doing more of those informal sessions this year. It’s like practice for us, we’ll try stuff we haven’t done before.”

“We played in The Queens in Girvan a few weeks ago,” Stewart adds. “We just wanted to meet up and play a few tunes. We put it on Facebook about ten in the morning for playing about three in the afternoon. The pub was filled!”

Another benefit of these informal jamming afternoons is that they allow for a little flexibility. The chances of all seven band members being free to play are slim, but as Kevin points out, they can manage without one of the team, even if they would rather not.

“It’s not the same. The audience maybe wouldn’t necessarily miss the instrument that was there, but we do. We feel the gap.”

It’s clear they all get on really well together, not just as musicians, but as friends. Stewart and Kevin went to school together, were then apprentices at the same place and now work for the same company. All seven recently enjoyed a boating holiday and, when time allows, they enjoy weekends away. I’ve no doubt this friendship and mutual respect is reflected in their foot-tapping music.

“We don’t take it too serious,” says Stewart. “I think if that changed and we weren’t enjoying it…”
“If you put pressure on it,” Kevin concludes, “you lose the fun. It’s always been about the fun for The Barrstools.”

I guess that just about sums it up. I can picture it now… a packed pub, the audience singing along to ‘The Irish Rover’, hands clapping to ‘Falsom Prison Blues’, everyone on their feet for the ‘Loch Lomond’ encore… I’m smiling just thinking about it.
To find out when and where The Barrstools are playing or to make a booking enquiry, visit The Barrstools on Facebook.