Phil set for Kelso jaunt

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For someone of the musical stature of Phil Cunningham, you’d be forgiven for thinking he gets shuttled between gigs aboard a luxury tour bus.

But that’s not Cunningham’s style and the accordion maestro happily admits preferring to drive himself and long-time musical collaborator, Shetland fiddle legend Aly Bain, around Scotland every summer during their annual tour of the country.

Phil Cunningham''Photographs by Alan Peebles.

Phil Cunningham''Photographs by Alan Peebles.

And that will be the transportation arrangements when the duo make their yearly pilgrimage to Kelso at the end of next month. Cunningham and Bain will pile into the former’s Land Rover Discovery and head south.

“I like to be in control of the car – and it’s a lot more fun doing it that way. So it’ll be me and Aly with the usual salt and vinegar crisps and a bottle of Coke for him, cheese and onion and water for me,” laughed the man who did more than anyone, in Scotland at least, to rescue the accordion from where it was languishing – an instrument confined to a peculiarly Scottish hell of country dances and the White Heather Club.

A fine keyboard and whistle player, Portobello native Cunningham, who made his name in the late 1970s with his, now late, elder brother Johnny in seminal Scots folkies Silly Wizard, has numerous strings to his bow.

An award-winning composer, he’s also an accomplished television and radio presenter, record producer and director.

Phil Cunningham''Photographs by Alan Peebles.

Phil Cunningham''Photographs by Alan Peebles.

And while he is almost as well known for having concert audiences from Wick to New York in fits of laughter with his breezy banter as he is for his prodigious musical talent, the Grammy award-winning Cunningham takes his role as elder statesman of Scottish traditional music extremely seriously.

A Doctor of the University of Stirling and holder of the MBE, he is the current artistic director of Scottish music at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

It’s all a far cry from Portobello High in Edinburgh, where, as he often recounts to concert audiences, he left at 16 with his music teacher’s dismissal ringing in his ears that he was a waster, who would “do nothing, and go nowhere”.

But Cunningham has clearly had the last laugh. His relationship with Bain has lasted 27 years and seen the pair play to packed concert halls on both sides of the Atlantic, with their names known around the world for their anchoring of BBC TV’s annual Hogmanay show.

Phil Cunningham''Photographs by Alan Peebles.

Phil Cunningham''Photographs by Alan Peebles.

Cunningham says he always looks forward to Borders gigs, with those attending shows in this part of the country having a great understanding of the music.

“They seem to know about it and they know what they like,” he told The Southern this week.

He went on: “But we’ve had a long association with the Borders, mainly through our association with Peter’s family (concert promoter Peter Ferguson) who started bringing us down to do gigs in Denholm many years ago.

“And Kelso’s Tait Hall is a lovely place to play, with a really nice atmosphere.”

And Cunningham admits that, these days, the box of requests for songs left in the dressing room now more often than not have the odd request for a particular funny story.

He told us: “It’s a way of connecting with your audience. We don’t want our audiences to sit there and feel they’ve been played at. We want them to join in.”

Asked why he thinks the partnership with Bain has lasted so long, Cunningham says with both having been in bands, they are well aware of the pitfalls of touring.

Phil revealed: “It means we are able to focus very much on the way we want to do things – we like it as streamlined as possible in terms of both the music and the logistics.

“As a result, we both still love doing the tours and we don’t get jaded.”

And he is thrilled to see so much musical talent coming through in Scotland, with youngsters able to pursue a viable career in Scottish traditional music.

“It’s now cool to be involved in the traditional music scene – it’s no longer the provision of bearded folkies wearing sweaters, which was more the case when I started in 1976.”

And he says the Borders is somewhere he’s long considered worthy of further musical exploration: “I’ve long said that the Borders has been overlooked when it comes to its music. I think there’s a lot of hidden musical gems waiting to be rediscovered.”

z To win one of three pairs of tickets we have to giveaway for the Kelso gig, answer this question:

Which islands is Aly Bain originally from?

Send your answer, full name and address and phone number to or post to Aly and Phil Competition, The Southern Reporter, The Hermitage, High Street, Selkirk, TD7 4DA by Thursday, September 5. Usual Southern rules apply.