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Something to sing about

Written by Lavinia Graham

Surrounded by landscapes that inspired AE Housman's Blue Remembered Hills and lent the setting for many of Mary Webb's novels, a talented teenager turns the South Shropshire countryside into the inspiration for her music.

From mournful sea shanties to lively jigs, the range of melodies 16-year-old Harriet Bartlett squeezes out of her accordion is as startling as the sight of a pretty young girl playing what many would consider to be an old soak's instrument.

But living in the back end of beyond is no hardship for young Harriet. As an only child growing up in sleepy Bromlow on the far side of the Hope Valley, she filled the endless hours teaching herself to play the piano accordion.

And this is no passing teenage phase. A mere 18 miles away at the MVC music store in Shrewsbury, Harriet's debut CD, Eyes Wide Open, commands a whole stand as testament to her growing celebrity on the folk music scene.

Just down the road from MVC is the music shop where Harriet aged eight, spied her first accordion winking at her from the top shelf.

"Dad had taken me with him to buy a banjo book," she recalls with a giggle. "He was always teaching himself to play one instrument or another but his lack of coordination usually let him down."

She still remembers her first accordion: "It was really pretty with little bluebirds on it. I badgered my parents non-stop for months until they finally bought it for me as a birthday present."

Fellow accordionist Chris Bartram remembers Harriet in her early years attending sessions in nearby Priestweston: "She had an accordion she could barely peep over, and couldn't close the bellows without using her knees to help out."

Five years of trips to Telford for weekly lessons in classical accordion failed to dampen Harriet's enthusiasm, although she quickly realised she preferred playing folk music. Joining her parents year after year at many of the major folk festivals meant Harriet has always felt at home in the folk community and today counts such folk legends as Phil Cunningham and Aly Bain as best friends.

"What I love about the scene is that the performers and followers are like one big family," she says. "No matter how famous artists like Phil, Kate Rusby or bands like Capercaillie get, their egos don't seem to grow with them unlike in the pop world."

With a physical appearance that belies her 16 years and her apparent ease with people of all ages, it is easy to forget that as a songwriter Harriet has had relatively little life experience from which to pen her music. Instead she takes inspiration from the people and country life which surround her.

Starting with the menagerie at her hillside home where the family keeps dogs, quails, canaries, cats and the odd visiting pheasant, Harriet composed a lively jig for her Quaker Parrot Charlie and wrote the title track, Eyes Wide Open, on her CD about a brood of hatching quails.

"Dad once found a day-old chick on the A49 and brought her home. We named her A49 and I nursed her for weeks until she was strong enough to live outside. She turned into a bad-tempered old bird who scared everyone including the dogs, but I was still sad when she got eaten by a fox so I wrote an aria for her."

Like many folk musicians, much of Harriet's performances are made up of traditional Scottish and Celtic tunes which she enjoys playing and likes to stamp her own identity on.

Reading comments by folk reviewers of Harriet's debut album further paints a positive picture for the Bromlow beauty's future career. "A mix of traditional and more modern tunes, she has also included some of her own compositions which have the depth and maturity of an older person," said Box and Fiddle Magazine. "Every few years we see a young musician rising to great heights for their tender years. Harriet is one such youngster - a cracking first CD."

What has perhaps set Harriet apart from most other box-players is her recent addition of vocals to some of her music. It was at Warwick Festival in 2002 when popular folk comedian Keith Donnelly suggested to Harriet that as good as she was, 40 minutes of music was somewhat boring so could she sing as well? Harriet surprised herself and her comrades by finding a voice which complements her distinctive-sounding instrument, although she admits she is still struggles to choose songs which suit her developing voice.

Fortunately mum Diane, who is as dedicated to Harriet's career as Harriet herself, is also her harshest critic. "I rely on my mum's judgement and know she will always be honest. She knows my music well because she and dad have to drive me to every one of my gigs or festivals," says Harriet - a stark reminder that the Shropshire prodigy is still a year away from holding a driving licence.

In January 2003 proud parents Len and Diane did not hesitate to drive Harriet overnight from a Whitchurch gig to Edinburgh through a snow storm to accept the coveted Danny Kyle award at the Celtic Connections festival. Even Harriet was surprised to have beaten 80 hopefuls in the open stage contest, but one year on the young musician was back performing to a crowd of 2,000 when she launched her CD at the popular folk festival.

"I love being on the stage and I don't get nervous at all, but this time I did ask the crowd to pose for me while I took their picture because it was such an amazing sight," says Harriet.

With bookings for Bromsgrove, Bromyard and Fylde festivals this summer as well as numerous club gigs, Harriet hopes to further the work performers like Kate Rusby have done promoting the changing image of folk music.

"People often say they don't like folk music because they think it's all old men in big jumpers with a finger in their ear playing oom-pa-pa," explains Harriet. "The newer, rockier-sounding folk often shocks people, but it's great because now there are more and more young people getting into it. The music is still traditional in essence but with new elements that people like me use to bring new tunes into the folk scene."

Meanwhile back in peaceful Bromlow the Bartletts' neighbours are just pleased the years of garden practice are starting to pay off!