Nic Jones: From coma to folk music’s greatest comeback

After a head-on road crash, Nic Jones never thought he would sing again - but now he's back with a top award

When Nic Jones lay in a coma after the car crash that nearly killed him in 1982 it seemed unthinkable that the acclaimed folk musician could ever perform again.

But his quiet determination to return to the stage after years of rehabilitation has been rewarded after Jones was named Folk Singer of the Year at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards.

With his finger-picking guitar style, innovative rhythms and laidback vocal style, the Kent performer, 66, became a giant of the 70s folk scene. Bob Dylan covered one of his traditional arrangements.

Jones’s career was wrecked though, when driving back from a gig at Glossop Folk Club, his car collided head-on with a lorry.

He suffered brain damage, broken bones and remained in a coma for weeks. He suffered eight months in intensive care as doctors “rebuilt” him. “Eyes, ears, arm. Elbow smashed to bits. Wrist. Everything had to be replaced,” Jones recalled.

With the help of his wife Julia, who played bootleg recordings of Jones to help stir him from his coma, Jones began years of physical rehabilitation, occasionally daring to see if he could grasp a guitar. 

The crash cut short a career in ascendant. His 1980 album Penguin Eggs, with its progressive guitar open tunings, contained "Canadee-I-O", the song Dylan went on to cover, and has been voted the second best folk album of all time.

His legend grew during his absence from the music scene, with contemporary folk artists Kate Rusby and Seth Lakeman citing Jones as a major influence.

Then to the surprise and unbridled joy of the audience, Jones got up unannounced at the 2010 Sidmouth Folk Festival and sang a couple of his old songs during a tribute concert in his honour.

Emboldened by the response, Jones went on to perform his first solo concerts in 30 years, appearing at the Cambridge Folk Festival, performing sets which mixed old favourites with his take on Radiohead’s "Fake Plastic Trees".

This week he performed in Glasgow, walking on stage with a limp and reading his lyrics from a music stand.

Jones’ son Joe filled in on guitar, since the musician has still not been able to regain the dexterity in his hands. Yet “the weathered voice was unmistakably, wonderfully his,” according to a review in The Herald.

Tonight Jones accepted the Folk Singer of the Year award, at the BBC ceremony, held at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

“I’ll celebrate with a beer or two,” Jones told The Independent. “It’s very exciting. But I really want to thank all the people who’ve helped and supported me.”

The musician doubted he would perform again. “I didn’t think I would ever get back on the stage. I thought I was a complete washout,” he said. “Just being able to sing songs that you love to an audience is amazing. It’s all about communicating with an audience.”

Having his music played to him when he was in a coma was itself a novel experience. “I never listened to the sound of my own playing until my wife played me those recordings,” disclosed the singer, who now hopes to record a new album.

Jones’ early albums have been unavailable for years due to licensing issues but Julia released two home-produced compilations from the bootleg recordings, which allowed a new audience discover her husband.

Dylan’s version of "Canadee-I-O" prompted a debate over whether the American star should have paid royalties to Jones for appropriating his distinctive arrangement of the Canadian and English folk standard. The White Stripes also performed their version of the song.

Jones first began playing guitar and fiddle in the mid-60s folk group the Halliard. Releasing his first solo album, Ballads & Songs, in 1970, Jones’ intricate, picked filigree guitar approach became more ambitious, incorporating open-tunings and percussive slaps.

Before the accident he was seeking to incorporate the reggae rhythms of Bob Marley in his music and has claimed that he always really wanted to become a rock musician and wandered into folk by accident.

Billy Bragg, Roy Harper and Kathryn Tickell were among those honoured at the awards, which can be viewed at www.bbc.co.uk/radio2/ or via the BBC Red Button from Thursday night.

The Radio 2 Folk Award 2013 winners:

Folk Singer of the Year

Nic Jones

Best Duo

Kathryn Roberts & Sean Lakeman

Best Group

Lau

Musician of the Year

Kathryn Tickell

Best Original Song

Hatchlings – Emily Portman

Best Traditional Track

Lord Douglas – Jim Moray

Best Album

Broadside - Bellowhead

Lifetime Achievement Award

Roy Harper

Lifetime Achievement Award For Contribution to Songwriting

Dougie MacLean

Roots Award

Billy Bragg

BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award

Greg Russell & Ciaran Algar

Lifetime Achievement Award

Aly Bain

Horizon Award

Blair Dunlop

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