In March 2016, for Shine a Light, his eleventh long-player (and third in explicit collaboration with another artist), Billy reunited with Joe Henry for a trip across America, and through Americana, guided by the lights of the mythic American railway. They boarded at Chicago’s Union Station and set out for LA, ‘looking to reconnect with the culture of American railroad travel and the music it inspired’; 2,728 miles later, the result was a series of field recordings that hymned the very act of getting from A to B. The Observer called it ‘a muscular chronicle’, and it reached No. 1 in the UK Americana album chart. The US tour, which began in Nashville in September, would cover even more ground, and steam across the UK and on into Australia in 2017.
The intervening three-and-a-bit decades had been marked by numerous milestones and waystations for Billy, political and personal, including going to number one, having a street named after him, being the subject of a South Bank Show, appearing onstage at Wembley Stadium, curating Leftfield at Glastonbury, sharing spotted dick with a Cabinet minister in the House of Commons cafeteria, being mentioned in Bob Dylan’s memoir, meeting the Queen, and getting royally upstaged by his son Jack’s guitar solo at a gig in the East End with his proud Mum in the audience.
Just as the young Billy cut a unique figure in the image-conscious 80s – one firebrand and his guitar, available for weddings, parties and benefits, occasionally seen busking under his own, shoulder-mounted PA (the fabled ‘Portastack’), all the while, in the words of Melvyn Bragg, ‘making a virtue of simplicity’ – so, the elder statesman of today, bearded and ‘ruggedly handsome’ (according to one fan on his Facebook page), refuses to slip into the dotage of self-parody. In his fifties, neither the fight nor the fight songs have left Billy Bragg.
Named Trailblazer of the Year at the Americana Music Association UK Awards in February 2016, Billy was subsequently awarded the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music at the Americana Music Awards in September, co-presented by the First Amendment Center. In his middle years, he really did start to straddle continents.
What’s seen him through 13 studio albums, eight compilations, two box sets, and countless tours across countless international borders, has been a driving sense of compassion – what he himself christened ‘socialism of the heart’. For every protest song (‘Between The Wars’, ‘There Is Power in A Union’, ‘Never Buy the Sun’), there is a declaration of love (‘Must I Paint You a Picture’, ‘Brickbat’ or, from Tooth and Nail, ‘Chasing Rainbows’). At their best, Billy’s songs present ‘the perfect Venn diagram between the political and the personal (the Guardian). These are what Billy considers the songs you’d stake your life on. Countless fans around the globe feel the same way.