Steve Ashley has influenced the evolution of British folk music for nearly four decades. A member of the short-lived Albion Country Band in the early '70s, Ashley has continued to perform in a variety of settings. In addition to leading his own bands, Ragged Robin and the Steve Ashley Band, he performed with a duo in the 1980s that he shared with future Fairport Convention multi-instrumentalist Chris Leslie. His harmonica playing can be heard on albums by Plainsong, Marc Ellington, Richard Thompson, Ashley Hutchings, and Mike D'Abo. While Folk Roots claimed that "Ashley's freshness and vigour are constants," Melody Maker declared that he was "one of the finest singer/songwriters in Britain, if not the entire English-speaking world."
Ashley was still in his teens and a student at Ealing Art College when he began singing traditional folk tunes in West London folk clubs. Moving to the town of Maidstone in 1964 to study graphic design, he quickly became friends with Peter Bellamy of British folk trio, the Young Tradition. Together with Bellamy, he founded the Maidstone Folk Club. Inspired by American blues, he played with an Art College blues band, the Tea Set. Graduating in 1967, Ashley accepted a graphic design position with the Observer. Around the same time, he began composing his first tunes. Forming a duo, Tinderbox, with guitarist Dave Menday, he recorded an unreleased single, "Farewell Britannia," in late 1967. Ashley's first radio session was for the BBC with Tinderbox and Shirley Collins.. He continued to be involved with Collins following the breakup of Tinderbox, singing on Shirley & Dolly Collins' 1969 album Anthems in Eden. Signed to a publishing contract with Harbrook Music in 1971, and his first success came when Anne Briggs recorded his tune "Fire and Wine." For three weeks, he appeared as a regular guest on the BBC show Start the Week. Although he performed with several influential bands, Ashley struggled to be heard on record. A member of the Albion Country Band along with Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Dave Mattacks, Royston Wood, and Sue Draheim, he recorded an album in 1972 that was not released until 1974. Ragged Robin, which he formed with Richard Byers, Brian Diprose, and John Thompson, may have developed a devoted following during their six-month residency at the Howff in London's Primrose Hill, but they only recorded one unreleased album before disbanding in October 1973. Ashley has had much better fortune with his own albums. His debut full-length recording, Stroll On, was chosen as Contemporary Folk Album of 1974 by Folk Review. After recording his second album Speedy Return for the Gull label in 1975, he recorded a single, "Old Rock & Roll," with members of Fairport Convention. Beginning in the early '80s, Ashley increasingly focused on political and social issues. He recorded two anti-nuke albums for the U.K. Peace Movement. The first album, Demo Tapes, recorded in 1981 with members of Fairport Convention, was followed by More Demo Tapes two years later. Ashley continued to collaborate with Dave Pegg, Fairport Convention bassist and co-owner of the Woodworm record label. Pegg served as co-producer of his fifth solo album, Family Album, in 1982; the album was reissued on The Road Goes on Forever in 1991. After recording his sixth album, Mysterious Ways, in 1990, Ashley began to tire of the demands of the music business. He announced his retirement two years later. Despite his self-imposed hiatus, Ashley has continued to surface from time to time. He composed and recorded the instrumental soundtrack of Roger Deakins' documentary about horse racing, Stable Lads, in 1995, and did the string arrangement for a tune, "It Don't Bother Me, that appeared on the Bert Jansch tribute album, People on the Highway. In April 2001, Ashley released his seventh solo album, Everyday Lives. ~ Craig Harris, Rovi