String Jam Club celebrates 20 years of live music

Amythyst Kiah at the String Jam Club earlier this year.
Amythyst Kiah at the String Jam Club earlier this year.
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In 1997 local singer-songwriter and guitar teacher Allie Fox approached Helen Calder at The Salmon in Galashiels to ask if she could hire the upstairs room for a monthly acoustic music session.

Allie’s modest idea was to run a small club where her guitar pupils and young local musicians could meet up to network and play together, as well as stage the occasional guest night for emerging singer-songwriters.

Twenty years later, the String Jam Club is now one of the best-known small Scottish venues on the live music circuit, has been voted the second best gig in the whole of the UK by the Guardian, beating Oasis, and was Club of the Year Nominee in the Scots Trad Music Awards in 2007.

Over an eventful two decades it has hosted a veritable Hall of Fame, welcoming world-class musicians from across the globe covering many different genres, as well as more than 1,000 local, amateur and semi-professional musicians who have performed opening sets in the club’s coveted support slots.

From 1997 to 2013, the String Jam Club met monthly at The Salmon, where Allie took the role of compere and organiser, as well as resident musician with local folk-rock band Eclectic Shock, featuring Frank Usher on guitar, Gavin Dickie on bass and Dave Haswell on percussion. Bringing other musicians together nurtured many new collaborations between younger musicians at a time when there were very few other venues offering open mic sessions. The String Jam Club provided an environment where young singers and guitarists could network, hone their performance skills and get experience of performing through a professional sound system in front of an audience, not to mention conquering their nerves!

In 2014, the club moved to its new home at the County Hotel in Selkirk after extensive refurbishments at The Salmon meant that the function room was no longer available. “It was a very sad day for all of us,” says Allie, “but we landed on our feet when we discovered the County.” The String Jam Club is noted for the eclectic quality of the music it presents and its friendly atmosphere, its longevity and for the welcome it gives to everyone who loves acoustic music.

The club has come a long way since its started out in 1997, and in 2017 it celebrated its 20th anniversary year, hosting a perfectly-packed programme of some of the world’s most adventurous and original music, beginning with South African guitar virtuoso Derek Gripper who had played at New York’s Carnegie Hall only a few days before.

February saw Amythyst Kiah from Tennessee, pictured, come to Selkirk on her first major solo UK tour. Her impressive performance earned her a standing ovation and a return visit five months later in July, while she has since played the main stage at Cambridge Folk Festival.

The following months saw legendary blues picker and songwriter Wizz Jones take to the stage, followed by best duo nominees at the BBC Radio Two Folk Awards, O’Hooley and Tidow, who made a deep impression with their wide-ranging songs and delicate harmonies and humour.

Later in the year the club welcomed back Nashville’s Mary Gauthier for her third visit and in September regular guest Preston Reed, one-man-miracle-man, whose innovative double-handed percussive style inspired a whole new generation of guitar players, returned.

The irrepressible five-piece band, The Coal Porters, came back for a fifth time in October and Mary Coughlan, arguably the greatest singer to have emerged from Ireland in recent years, returned to the stage the following month.

The final night of the club’s 20th year featured songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Rory McLeod, the man who opened its first night at its new home in the County Hotel back in 2014, providing a fitting end to the special year. After 20 years, Allie said: “It’s all about teamwork. A whole group of volunteers are now involved with organising the events and we’re always looking for more!” The club’s regular sound engineer is David Little, from Sound Station Studios, there’s a lighting team and there are people who help out on the night.

“Borders Chartered Certified Accountants print and help distribute over 200 posters to our poster teams throughout the Borders. Professional photographer Michael Fitch of Hainingside Gallery in Selkirk takes photos of each event.

“The club is especially grateful to the County Hotel and its staff who do so much to help and always go the extra mile, including discounts on hotel restaurant meals for String Jam ticket holders.”

She added: “It might sound like an obvious thing to say, but we really are so grateful to all who come and support the club, and in doing so help to keep music live in the Borders.

“People are the lifeblood of String Jam Club and their presence is the beating heart of live music.

“Without you, we wouldn’t be here.”

On January 13, the String Jam Club ushers in the new year with a celebratory open house evening showcasing some of the best local talent, especially those musicians who have supported the club’s headliners in recent years.

The line-up is still being finalised, but will include Kathy Stewart-Kennedy, Ali Rae and Deleerit, duo Neil Macleod and Colin Macfarlane, Seoras Ashby and Frank Usher, and Al James and Sue Bremner, with more acts still to be announced.

Anyone interested in playing, get in touch at stringjamclub@vixenrecords.com.

Doors open 7.30pm. Tickets from the County Hotel in Selkirk, by calling 01750 721 233, or pay on the door.