How The Waterboys kickstarted UK Americana

The Waterboys once jostled with U2 for space in the mainstream. But they ditched the middle of the road and headed for the country with the release of 1988’s ‘Fisherman’s Blues’. Not only is the seminal record their best-selling release, it’s also the one that defines them. Not an evening goes by on a Waterboys tour without the title track bringing fans to their feet as they howl along to the wordless second half of each chorus.

“It’s all about process.” That’s Colin Meloy, main man of modern Americana heroes The Decemberists, talking about ‘Fisherman’s Blues’, his favourite album. “It finds a band at the very height of their powers,” he has said. “Like many Americans, I was drawn to the music of The Waterboys as I was learning to bridge the gap between my love for punk and my love for the traditional Irish folk music that had been part of my Hibernophile upbringing.”
It was that unbuttoned rebellion of punk meeting the fastidiousness of folk that gave birth to ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ and a renewal of interest in the roots music culture that once clashed when Bob Dylan and The Band moved Fairport Convention and Eric Clapton to get it together in the country. Rock, prog and disco had replaced country, folk, and blues in the UK and “country & western” had become a pejorative term by the mid-1980s. Mike Scott and his Waterboys were about to change all that. “It’s fascinating that Mike was a Celt looking to America in order to write and record one of the most iconic Irish records that country would ever produce,” laughs Meloy. “I imagine a lot of my fellow American listeners had him pitched somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, heading eastward.”

UK listeners had him pitched somewhere similar as the album’s grab-bag of country covers, olde world waltzes and rocking originals defied categorisation whilst climbing to the top of every chart around. Big in America, too, The Waterboys took off on a US tour that would take in many college towns that were providing fuel to the burgeoning alt-country movement. The defining guitars and violin of The Waterboys went over big on said circuit and the Scots-Irish rockers were leaving quite the footprint behind. “When I saw the picture on the cover of ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ my curiosity was caught and bound,” says Meloy. “A ragtag group of gentlemen holding traditional looking instruments… it revealed the real thread of Americana running through the record.”

The music inside the grooves of the album revealed that principle songwriter Scott could also write and carry a country tune in the spirit of Hank Williams or Ernest Tubb (‘Stranger To Me’, ‘Has Anyone Here Seen Hank?’) whilst being savvy enough to hire Dylan and Johnny Cash’s old hand Bob Johnston to produce. As ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ continued to sell, the music industry started to sit up and take notice and suddenly – especially in the UK – acoustic guitars and roots rockers were back in fashion: Fairground Attraction shot to the top of the UK pops with the rockabilly bounce of ‘Perfect’, Hothouse Flowers came out of nowhere with the most successful debut album in Irish history and The Waterboys’ old friends U2 traded in their atmospheric moods for the harmonica-driven number one roots rasper ‘Desire’.
Back in the US, sales were helped by another ‘Fisherman’s Blues’ tour in 1989. “It was our third North American tour and it was really successful… we did 22 shows that were all sold-out” Said Mike Scott. The band hit many towns not usually visited by all-conquering rock bands, but never hit Illinois. Which was a shame, as just around that time a band called Uncle Tupelo were recording an album called ‘No Depression’ for release in the next year and the new decade of 1990. By then, The Waterboys had left their mark. But bands from both sides of the Atlantic would continue to follow their tracks for years to come.