Coincident with his recent 75th birthday, Pat Francis, one of Britain’s most experienced bluegrass musicians, is retiring from stage performance.
He was born in Wimbledon, a district and town of southwest London, into a home where in the early 1950s, with the encouragement of his enthusiastic mother, who even corresponded with the artist, Francis listened to their collection of Jimmie Rodgers records.
In the following decade and a half, he enjoyed the Carter Family, Hank Williams, bluegrass and Cajun music, and other ethnic and cultural variations of these musical genres.
Francis was attracted towards the guitar initially and he formed his first band; one that consisted of half a dozen reluctant conscripts from his class at secondary school. They made their debut entertaining at the Wimbledon Welsh Club at their Christmas party in 1962. Their repertoire was mainly Americana, folk and bluegrass music.
He played in different versions of this group for about three years, mainly at Youth and Folk Clubs in the local area.
Over the years Francis became adept playing almost every stringed instrument, adding mandolin to accentuate his bluegrass repertoire before focussing on dobro, the first of which he bought in 1980.
During that decade Francis attended his first Edale festival, for many years the premier bluegrass gathering in Britain, and so began his emergence as a prominent and potent force in British bluegrass music.
At various times throughout the past 35 years, Francis has been a member of one sort of band or another; three of these (Fingers & Co. [1988-1992], Grassfire [1992-1995] and Blackjack [1997-1999]) being with a long-time friend Gary Payne and Gary’s wife Sherryl.
He recorded with each group, although those with Fingers & Co and Grassfire were for special sampler projects; compilations for the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and for the British Bluegrass Music Association (BBMA). While part of Blackjack, Francis contributed to a dozen tracks made available on a self-released CD.
After the demise of Grassfire, beginning in early 1995 he had a brief, but very enjoyable, interlude with a much broader based music as part of a trio called Panhandle Conspiracy (with Andrew Perry and Dave Jordan). As you might imagine, their music had a strong west Texas flavor.
Andrew Perry is succinct in his assessment …..
“[Pat Francis] is renowned as the finest Dobro® player in Britain.”
The trio dissolved in 1997 and Francis re-joined the bluegrass mainstream (although they reformed somewhere around 2013).
Following the passing of Editor Jan Jerrold in 1993, Francis took on the role as the Production Manager of British Bluegrass News (BBN) magazine. Before work pressures imposed themselves, he continued to do this for about two years, earning the BBMA’s 1995 Jan Jerrold Award for this and other invaluable contributions to British bluegrass music.
Towards the end of 2003, Francis and Perry got together again, firstly as a duo, then they added a bass into the mix leading to son-in-law David Rozzell joining what became a band called Yonder.
While still performing with Yonder, Francis, his daughter Clare (lead/harmony vocals, double bass, and melodeon), and Rozzell (lead vocals, guitar and mandolin) would often get together to do some after-dinner picking. These sessions were formalised with the birth in 2003 of the family band Wood, Wire and Words. The trio created a unique sound, blending traditional folk, bluegrass, and acoustic Americana, characterized by Francis’s instrumental skills (dobro, mandolin/mandola and guitar), David Rozzell’s excellent song-writing, and vocal pairing with Clare.
Wood, Wire and Words has released three CDs, the first of which, Riding The Rails, received a four-star review in Maverick Magazine and regular airplay on radio stations around the world.
Multi-talented on and off stage, Francis did the graphic design work for all three of the trio’s albums.
In 2008 Francis again took on the responsibilities of Production Manager of BBN, duties that he continued to fulfil until 2012. During that time, he served as the BBMA webmaster also.
Overall, his musical career spanned about 45 years, and throughout that time he has performed at many of the best bluegrass events in England and Wales, with multiple appearances at bluegrass festivals at Edale, Yorkshire Dales, Didmarton, Orwell, the Surrey Mini-Fest, and Cornwall. Other venues include the Ironbridge Roots & Bluegrass Festival, the North Wales Bluegrass Festival, Bluegrass By The Shore, the London Bluegrass Club, the Mole Valley Festival, the New Forest Bluegrass Festival, Winterfest, the famous Willows Folk Club, the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, and the South Essex Bluegrass Festival.
With 1995 Great British Country Music Award nominees Grassfire, Francis participated in the BBMA CD launch party at the Battersea Arts Centre …
In 2006 Wood, Wire and Words played at two prestigious European bluegrass festivals, in May at EWOB, Voorthuizen, The Netherlands, and in August at the La Roche Bluegrass Festival, in the beautiful alpine region of Haute-Savoie, France.
Clare, his daughter, remembers ….
“My earliest memories of dad and the bluegrass scene are from the early festivals we always went to as a family. Edale, in its different locations, Slapton, Ironbridge and all the old familiar friends we camped with, Alan Wakeham, John Ligerwood, Hutch, Roger Blackbourn, Charlie Reading, the Collins’s, Jeanette and Alison, and of dad playing his dobro for hours on end, well into the night.
There are other early non-festival memories of dad playing, the picking sessions at Alan Wakehams for Boxing Day, an annual occurrence. All dad’s friends and band mates would be there too, and it was as much a mass picking session as a BBQ. At first, I would just watch and listen to these sessions and dad playing, but the later garden parties, particularly after we became a band, I got to join my dad in the session.
The band was really the first time actually playing with my dad, instead of listening and watching him playing with others. I grew up with dad playing acoustic guitar to my sister and I, and I always loved him playing Freight Train for us. I spent most of my growing up around bluegrass events and going along to gigs for whichever band dad was playing in, and would spend hours listening to him rehearse.
The 18 years we have had as Wood, Wire and Words are my most treasured memories of playing music. The music I got to play with my dad took us to places and countries that I would never have dreamed of visiting. I loved being in a family band with my dad and husband. I can’t imagine I would ever have played the big UK and European Bluegrass festivals, or indeed Shrewsbury Folk Festival [August 2017] otherwise.
Being around bluegrass was just part of my childhood, it was normal to go to festivals and camp and go round others houses or parties, with jams going on. It shaped my musical influences, and I am grateful for the introduction to bluegrass and all forms of acoustic music that my dad gave me growing up.”
Richard Holland (Contraband, Blossom Hill, and currently North Drive and Banjo Bounce) recently released a solo album An Arm & A Leg (2020) ……
“I started to learn to play the banjo in 1987 – and in my attempts to find out more about bluegrass I found a local band playing at South Hill Park, Bracknell.
The band was called Fingers & Co – the Collins family band. Pat Francis was the dobro player, along with Richard Collins (banjo), and Richard’s mum and dad [John and Diana], and Gary Payne (mandolin). The band left a lasting impression, and over a period of time, I began to appreciate what was going on! Pat was clearly one of the best British dobro players at that time, and his subtle clean style – his musical support for the band made him something quite special. Never overstated – his dobro contributions always seemed right for the occasion. Pat’s last few years of public performance have been with his family band Wood, Wire & Words – anything Pat was involved with was always of the highest standard!
Pat and his wife Steph have also played a big part in supporting the BBMA – producing the magazine and acting as Membership Secretary – both jobs demanding a lot of time and commitment.
He will be sadly missed on stage after being such a big part of the British scene. Once the festival situations improve – we look forward to sitting down and playing some tunes together!”
Internationally renowned resophonic guitar player Sally van Meter, in England with Good Ol Persons sometime in the mid-1980s, reflects ….
“Pat Francis was the first dobro player I met in the UK, while touring over there back in the ’80s I believe it was. I could tell quickly that he had a love for the instrument that was genuine. I could quickly tell that he did not intend to be a ‘flash in the pan’ player, that he really respected what the instrument was meant to do, and I sincerely have always appreciated that about him. He was also very kind and gracious to me as an American musician coming over to the UK for the first time not knowing what to expect. That means a lot to an American bluegrass musician, and I’m really glad we have been able to keep in touch over the decades now.”
Eugene O’Brien, a fellow member of Grassfire, shared this bit of personal satire …..
“Knowing Pat as a friend and as a musician is one of life’s great pleasures. Playing in the same band was equally joyful.
I think his only disappointment was at the time when Eurodisney opened, and he applied for a job with Snow White. Sadly, Pat’s world-renowned humor and optimistic outlook on everything in life worked against him as they were looking for someone who could be very grumpy indeed, and perhaps just a little shorter.”
Due to the pandemic his last gig with Wood, Wire and Words was in December 2019.
Fingers & Co
- Smoky Mountain Memories
- IBMA Presents Long Journey Home – A Collection of Bluegrass from Around The World (No number, released 1992)
- Day, Day And Night
- The British Bluegrass Album Volume 1 (BBMA 1001, 1994)
- Where There’s A Will (released 1999)
Wood, Wire And Words
- Riding The Rails (Self-released, no number, 2008) – see BBN Winter 2008/09
- It’s A Barbeque Day (May 2015)
- The Boy With The Smile (2019)