We love seeing rural life as quaint and cosy. From Heartbeat to the Singing Postman, Doc Martin to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage, it's all apparently about thick knits and ruddy-faced white guys, with a muddied welly boot firmly in the grave. Perhaps because of that, it's easy to think of rural Britain as a faraway land that bears only passing resemblance to the Pret-a-Mangers and chain pubs that bubble up like pustules in this nation's seemingly endless urban sprawl. The countryside we're shown is a sort of homogeneous patch of hay-bales and old blokes rocketing down hills in bathtubs, a place where flatcaps, sheepdog, and beetroot crops have the lay of the land.
In fact, according to research conducted by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the population of rural England nearly numbers 10 million out of about 65 million people. That's a substantial sum. Country life can be, and often is, precarious, isolationary, and difficult. Brexit, whenever it eventually hobbles over the line, will cause severe economic headaches for the agricultural community; the business rates set by massive beer manufacturers will continue to shutter swathes of drinking dens; young people will carry on making the journey to towns and cities in search of work. It's a bit like a Mumford and Sons song except it goes on forever and ever and ever. Things are looking bleak.
If things looking bleak now, they've always sounded psychedelic. As the acid-laced optimism of the late 60s slumped into the nuclear comedown of the early 70s, a string of artists sprung from the dark heart of rural Britain. Albums like Basket of Light by Pentangle, The Incredible String Band's Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, or First Utterance by Comus, hum with cosmic vibrations, and those vibrations reverberate to this very day. Listen carefully and you'll hear them today in the newer music of acts like Bendith – a Welsh folk collab act – Richard Dawson, who roars over a detuned guitar like someone who's just stood on an upwards-facing plug and octogenarian legend Shirley Collins.
The staunchly individual approach to folk acts like the trio above have – as different from one another as night and day – is redolent of a very British approach to the macabre and horrifying. From tall occult tales about Black Shuck, the Green Man, and Gogmagog to the sodden and scary novels of Benjamin Myers, Samuel Palmer's unsettling paintings of Shoreham to Ben Wheatley's luridly lysergic film A Field in England, there's long been a tradition of imbuing the pastoral ideal with a disquieting sense of paranoia – the countryside is squeezing in on you, always getting closer and closer. This is rural Britain as a site of the lurid, the warped, the malcontented. This is what lies in the fields, moors, and downs.
Music can be understood as a testimony, rooted in a specific time and place, borne of context and culture, and few styles have such embedded roots, than folk. Folk, despite its inherent focus on tradition and traditional forms, can still reflect the now, even when it's cocking an attentive ear to the past. Carwyn Ellis is one of the four members of Welsh band Bendith, whose 2016 self-titled debut album – an enveloping, low-key masterpiece of narcotic-tinged bucolic folk – garnered much-deserved praise. "We all see and hear things differently," he tells me over email, of how his Carmarthenshire upbringing bled into the music he now produces. "But we as a group are profoundly aware of our roots, and exploring our identity through music turned out to be a very rewarding experience."
Ellis is keen to acknowledge that the advent of the internet – a thorny issue in some rural areas, even in 2017 – has had an impact on country life, rendering the divide between that and its urban cousin near invisible. For some, Ellis included, music is a means of preserving moments that have lapsed into the abyss of the past. Memory, as we know all too well, is a distorting prism through which to see anything. "My perspective of the Bendith album is one mostly of longing for a place that exists in my memory and in my heart," he said. "It's not necessarily in reality now."
Memory, of course, exists both in and out of time, supplanting it, turning temporality into something mutable, something literally timeless. Timeless is a word easily applied to Shirley Collins, an 86-year-old living legend, the gauzy-eyed real deal, battling through hedgerow. Last year indie label Domino released the beguiling, downbeat Lodestar, Collins' first full LP in three decades. A spare, lonesome thing, it tells of infanticide, rot and ruin. Notions of the quiet of growing up permeate her work as they do Bendith's. Collins describes her childhood in Hastings to me as, "slow, peaceful, neighbourly," adding that back then she could "see the Milky Way in the night sky" – and so she is firmly embedded in both place and tradition. In fact, her oeuvre is is fixated on a very particular version of place in the past. "I source songs from from the rural labouring classes of southern England," she says. "They're all pre-Industrial Revolution." This is a version of England, set to song (and prone to being romanticised), slowly fading from view.
Heard here in 2017, those aging folk songs take on the air of lamentations, evocations of an era that's unknowable. They're accessible only through whatever shreds of tradition are clung to in the environments where tradition still counts for something. That temporal, social, political and industrial dislocation imbues Collins' work with a timelessness that reflects the way rural life often works – left to your own devices, cut off from built up communities, you're free to drift on a different plane.
And so if Collins has a spiritual successor, he's waiting somewhere deep in the gorse and bell heather of Northumberland. With his music Richard Dawson, coincidentally also signed to Domino, conjures hallucinogenic inner landscapes torn from the mythic realities of the English past. His most recent album Peasant sees him burrow deep into British history, hurling us somewhere between 500 and 700AD – the period that followed the retreat of the Roman empire from the part of England's northeast that Dawson calls home. Except we're not really home. We're in in the fictional kingdom of Bryneich. The result is music that heaves and bellows and scorches the earth around it, dripping with mud, sweat, and tears. In an interview with The Quietus, Dawson described the period he set the record in as one where "things reverted back to this almost tribal state of affairs, because the whole country was in great flux".
And like Collins, Dawson finds himself drawn to songs of the soil; workers' tunes abound on Peasant which, as the name suggests, is thematically concerned with the kind of work that was commonplace at the time. There are weavers and prostitutes, all bound together in the creation of what their author thinks of as, "ritual community music". There's something incredibly apt about that phrase, encapsulating as it does the essence of the darker side of the folk spectrum, the side that rejects the hey-nonny-nonnyisms in favour of looking at the drudgery and darkness of a working life in the face, canvassing the warts and all.
What connects Bendith, Shirley Collins, and Richard Dawson's music is the sensation of hearing a side of life we're usually shielded from. Theirs is music as far from Countryfile quaintness as you can get; anguished, embittered, and ever-so slightly terrifying. This is what it sounds like when you're left to your own devices, out there under darkening skies that never end. Out here, you make your own fun, however gruesome it might be. And, let's be honest, however dark or disturbed, it'll never be as truly gruesome as Mumford and Sons, will it?
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