Hard to believe that it’s been almost 25 years since I went to England with Nancy Covey. Covey was a manager at the fabled McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif., where she met and later married the legendary British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson. (Cultural reference point for the young: Richard Thompson is the father of singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson.)
After her marriage Covey started a music-tourism business, Festival Tours International, and her showpiece tour was a folk-music spin around the U.K. that let Covey accompany her husband through his native isles while he performed, and get paid for it.
Nothing wrong with that; Covey ran a great tour, with plenty of opportunities to interact with Thompson and the other musicians who put in guest appearances. We cruised down the Thames in London with a concertina player, toured breweries with Jethro Tull’s bassist, and spent a couple of days at the Cropredy music festival, which is best described as Woodstock with citterns and two-liter bottles of Theakston’s Old Peculier Ale.
The tour staggered, physically and geographically, from Cropredy to Northumberland and finally to Scotland. I loved everything about Scotland except the truck-stop haggis, and especially loved the Isle of Skye, where we spent a couple of days at the hotel owned and run by Celtic accordionist Phil Cunningham.
You may not know much about Cunningham, or the Celtic accordion, or the bands he played in (Silly Wizard and Relativity) with his late brother Johnny, but Phil Cunningham is the best Celtic accordionist in the world, and one of the best accordionists, period. He’s so good that after I returned home I practiced like mad trying to achieve a tenth of his prowess and then disgustedly threw the accordion in the corner. (I was single then. That changed after I threw the accordion in the corner.)
Cunningham’s hotel was on the water, nestled in a nook among bare rolling hills, and we were there two days because a couple in our party was getting married at the hotel. The day of the wedding I went for a walk early in the morning. The sun was coming up over the water; we had two sunny days there — the first back-to-back sunny days in decades, if the locals could be trusted. As I walked past an outbuilding I heard beautiful music coming from inside. The building was a studio, and Cunningham was composing and finishing a song for the wedding. The combination of the sun and the sea and the music created one of those moments that even at the time I knew would stay with me forever.
The wedding was glorious, beautiful, perfect, capped off with toasts of Drambuie from the distillery down the way. I left the tour the next day, took a bus to a ferry to another bus to a train to another bus to a plane back to the states. (But only eventually; the Spanish air-traffic controllers were on strike and Heathrow was the world’s largest flophouse.)
Cunningham sold the hotel, and his star dimmed. I don’t know if there have been back-to-back sunny days on Skye in the long years since. But the song he created in that shed on that day, “The Wedding,” is still as breathtaking and moving as ever. It’s best listened to with a Drambuie in hand. And if you keep these images in mind while you listen, you may get transported part of the way there. But not all the way there, because it’s not there anymore.