When Susan Rey first met Jerry Donahue 35 years ago, she was an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, and he was already a 6-string legend, thanks to his otherworldly Telecaster mastery with Celtic folk-rockers Fairport Convention and sideman stints with Elton John and Gerry Rafferty, among others. The two remained friends as Donahue gained a higher profile with The Hellecasters, and Rey became an in-demand performer and song stylist.
After reconnecting in 2012, Rey and Donahue enlisted drummer Tom Walsh and bassist Matt Malley to form Ashgrove—a band that reimagined material from Donahue’s tenure with Fairport Convention, Fotheringay, and The Hellecasters, as well as Rey’s extensive cover repertoire. Gigging and recording intermittently between their other professional commitments, the band was about to begin mixing its first CD when tragedy struck. In July 2016, Donahue suffered a severe stroke that left him unable to speak or move his right hand. Saddened but undaunted, Rey was determined to see the project through to completion.
“After Jerry’s stroke, I decided to take over the engineering,” says Rey of the Ashgrove Sessions [Susan Rey Music]. “It was not something I had ever done before, so I had to learn. But I have good ears, and I understood what Jerry’s original vision was, and how to stay true to it. When I played him the final mix for the first time, he began to tear up. It’s the only disc he keeps in his CD player. Nobody is allowed to touch it.”
How did you choose the material for Ashgrove Sessions?
It was a combination of songs from Jerry’s and my repertoire that had special meaning to us. For example, “Long Road” is a tune by Ventures guitarist Gerry McGee, who was Jerry’s guitar teacher when he was a teenager. Their guitar duet at the track’s end is the first time they’ve ever recorded together. One track that became especially significant to me was our version of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page.” Originally, Jerry tracked the solo in an understated way, but after playing it live a few times, I think he had a better understanding of the intensity I was going for, and the re-recorded solo is one of my favorites.
How did working with someone of Jerry’s caliber inspire you as an artist?
It got my chops together as an accompanist for sure. When we formed Ashgrove, we decided we didn’t want to rely too heavily on a second guitarist, so I learned mandolin specifically for this project. I did play rhythm behind some of Jerry’s instrumentals like “Hellecaster Stomp,” and he’s a stickler about getting the tones, tempo, and phrasing just right. Last spring, he asked me to accompany him when he opened for Albert Lee. Knowing he trusted me to play behind him was a real honor and a confidence builder.
How far along is Jerry in his recovery?
He’s making steady progress. He can’t use his picking hand yet, but he’s still very cognizant musically. When preparing for the CD release show, I struggled to learn our version of Fortheringay’s “The Sea” because of all the open-tuned chords he used. Jerry picked up a guitar, retuned the strings, and fingered all the chords along with the CD recording with his left hand. I said, “I struggled for hours with this, and you could have taught me to play it all along?” He just smiled. With one hand he’s still probably better than all of us! Bonnie Raitt was kind enough to donate an iPad loaded with several speech programs that he’s working with, and we also have a Sweet Relief fund that fans can donate to. Jerry has a long journey ahead of him, but he is a very determined man, and he has a lot of love and support behind him.