Mysteries of music and faith

Ricky Ross’ new autobiography is no ordinary rock star memoir. It details the remarkable life of the Deacon Blue frontman and broadcaster, and his Faith plays a surprisingly consistent part.

This story begins in Dundee. But it’s a Dundee that’s not there anymore. Disappeared like fog on the Tay.

Reading the early chapters of his memoir Walking Back Home, Ricky Ross’ tales of his strict Plymouth Brethren upbringing seem like another world. Revival meetings every Saturday, but banned from setting foot in a cinema – or a Catholic church.

“Even if I wanted to go back somehow into that world, it just isn’t there anymore,” he said. “I was in Alabama a while back and I took a drive out into the country and saw this big tent, a tent revival meeting.

“If I went in there I might get a flavor of the world I grew up in, it’s not anywhere in Scotland.”

Though as a youngster he at times bridled at the strictness of his upbringing, one part was a blessing.

“In the church atmosphere, music was always there,” he reflects. “We were lucky that we had musical people around us. People would sing spontaneously. Music is an organic thing and that idea that you don’t have to wait for other people to do it was a blessing.”

Life and music took him out of Dundee and to Glasgow, where he taught as an English teacher at St Columba’s High School in Maryhill in the early 1980s.

“Despite the rough area, and an eclectic staff, his stories of the hard charging head teacher Jim Docherty leap off the page, as does his own delight at the strong sense of community and the ‘openness to mystery’ he found among the pupils.

“Anyone who is wise knows that there’s so much stuff in the Reformation that was good,” he said.

“But somewhere along that line that great tradition of spirituality was taken away from people. A lot of people that I know, on the Protestant side of things, do have that deep longing to experience a mystical sense of faith.

“That sense of a deep unknowing. I think that’s what I picked up from the kids. They had that sense of mystery, through the liturgy that they’d experienced all the way through primary school and church.”

Teaching couldn’t hold him and music was calling. Deacon Blue would become one of the biggest Scottish bands of the 80s.

Amid all the challenges in that, he suspects the biggest was being a bandleader.

“Being in a band, it’s sort of a democracy, but you’ve got to lead it, you’re the songwriter,” he said. “You’ve got to try and focus it. And yet, you’ve got to allow people to have their say. When you get it wrong, it goes really wrong.”

His biggest hit of that era and likely his most famous work is the song Dignity, about the man who works for the council with dreams of a little boat.

“At a certain point with a song like that, it becomes a folk song,” he said. “People will know that song and not know anything about me, anything about Deacon Blue. It’s just part of the fabric of people’s lives. Now, in 10 years time, it may be that’s not true. But for now I’m quite proud of that.”

There was a time, however, when he was much more tired of it, when he didn’t want to play the hit. And what changed his mind was a priest who took him to prison.

“In in my head, I was thinking, ‘Oh, well, you know, playing the hits, that’s just playing the hits, you should be doing something more interesting and creative,” he said.

“There was a turning point, and it came together with doing the Exercises of St Ignatius, which was a very important sort of transformation. And it happened in prison.”

Fr Joe Boland, with whom he’d been doing the Ignatian Exercises, was also a prison chaplain. And he persuaded Ricky to go behind the walls to do a gig in Kilmarnock prison.

“They loved it. And it was a lightning strike for me, ‘Why wouldn’t I play these songs, why would I be reticent about all of that?’”

Throughout his life, going from Brethren to Kirk to Catholic, he’s stuck with organised religion.

“I think that if we lose organised religion, then we withdraw a little bit from society,” he said. “My kids don’t go to church, but they did go to church when they were younger. And one of the things that I thought was important for them was that they sat beside people in their 70s and 80s.

“People who have different experience. Life has become increasingly insular. You live in areas where you have the same kind of people around you. Churches, and I think not just the Christian religion, open you up to people of all types, some of whom are oddballs!

“But also the lame, the people who are very needy people, people who are very generous, all kinds of other folk. And I’m not sure that there is another bit of society that does that.”

In addition to the book he has a new album out, he’s never off the radio, particularly his country show on Radio Scotland, and he’s an enthusiastic ambassador for SCIAF, writing movingly about the final trip he took before Lockdown to the DRC to see the charity’s work there.

Asked where this drive comes from he chooses a musical metaphor. “As a musician, it goes back to the song,” he said.

“If a song happens, you have this deep sigh and because you know ‘I’m gonna have to sit down and finish this and record it and all the rest of it goes with it.’ So once something starts…

“However I became a grandfather in the last few weeks and I wonder if maybe one or two of these characters might come along and occupy a bit more!”

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