From rural roots in Northern Ireland to hard rockers The Almighty, Ricky Warwick rose to prominence when he joined the last Thin Lizzy line-up in 2009. With a palate spanning the punk of Stiff Little Fingers and the bluesier likes of Johnny Cash, he’s never been easily pigeon-holed. He now plays in Black Star Riders, and his latest solo album is a double whammy – comprising the classic rocking, Elvis Costello-nodding When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues), and the rootsier Hearts On Trees.
Growing up on a farm in Northern Ireland, what was your first taste of the blues?
It was really my father and his buddies. Like any working class kid back in the 70s, it was a case of work all week, then Friday came along and the horse came in, the guys would come round in the car, and as a kid I’d get to be the DJ! I’d be playing all the records while they’d be smoking and drinking and playing cards. It started with Patsy Cline and Dusty Springfield, things like Guy Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams… We played some bad stuff too, but it was mostly really cool stuff.
You’ve talked about discovering a lot of music through your older sisters’ records…
They were more about the rock, like Wishbone Ash, Bad Company, Free. I had music coming at me from all angles. I think that’s why I’ve got such a wide taste in music.
Did political tensions at the time affect you on a personal level?
They did, but I didn’t realise they did, because you didn’t know any different. I was born into it. Seeing soldiers on the streets, hearing gunshots at night, being searched going into every store, public transport in turmoil… that was just everyday life. But you get used to it, and you don’t really think it’s affecting you until you move away. So it wasn’t really until I moved to west Scotland; though I did get asked on my first day at school what religion I was… I remember going into shops for the first time in Glasgow and automatically putting my hands up to be searched, then realising that didn’t happen there. It was great!
Can you remember the first blues record you ever bought yourself?
I think it was Van Morrison. I just fell in love with his voice and his songs, and then worked back and discovered he was in Them, so I picked up their stuff. That was a big influence on me. And then I discovered Lead Belly; somebody played me Where Did You Sleep Last Night and that was brilliant, the emotion encapsulated there.
“Joe Elliott of Def Leppard suggested I go acoustic.”
What singers do you look up to?
Obviously Phil Lynott. He was a huge influence on me, regardless of the band situation I found myself in! And Van Morrison; it’s funny, Phil was a big Van Morrison fan as well, you can hear that in a lot of phrasing and delivery. And I’ve gotta put Lemmy in there for the growl. And people like Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker… I loved the attitude of Joe Strummer, and even Elvis. Some of those raw Elvis records, his voice is just stunning.
If you could play with any artist, alive or dead, who would it be?
I’d love to have played with Gary Moore, and Rory Gallagher. That would have been phenomenal. They’re my countrymen, but who they were and what they did and the effect they’ve had, it goes beyond that.
The second half of your new album, Hearts On Trees, is rootsy compared to the rock of Black Star Riders. How did you fall in love with playing acoustically?
It was forced upon me. It wasn’t my doing. The Almighty had split up, I’d gone to Dublin and started another band called (sic), which blazed brightly for about 18 months, then went down like the Titanic in a drug-fuelled whirl of bad decisions. And I was left with no management, no record deal, nothing at 31 years old. I had no idea what to do, because the thought of me doing a solo acoustic show, I laughed at that. I was just lost.
What was the turning point?
It was Joe Elliott of Def Leppard who said ‘Why don’t you strip it down and just play acoustically?’ So I gave it a go, and suddenly this whole new world opened up; I was going back to Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, and now there was Steve Earle, bands like The Jayhawks, all that Americana opened up to me. And I thought, ‘I can do this. It’s just me and guitar. I can go round the world and not have to argue with anybody!’ I just totally fell in love with music again. It saved my life, musically.
If it did all end tomorrow, what would you do instead?
I don’t have a lot of training. The farm’s gone; my father sold it a number of years ago. But I am a fully qualified fitness instructor. I’ve never practised it, but I passed the exam. I can’t remember any of it though, it was so long ago. I think I’d like to be a writer though; maybe I’d try some screenplays or something like that.
When Patsy Cline Was Crazy (And Guy Mitchell Sang The Blues) and Hearts On Trees is out now on Nuclear Blast.