‘They couldn’t get a good accordion player in Somerset so they came to Scotland and got a bad one!’ I’ve only been on the phone with Tommy Banner for less than a minute and he already has me in stitches. His soft Scottish lilt, always a surprise to hear (when you consider how the folk band is synonymous with stereotypical Somerset ‘bumpkin-isms’) tells a good story. ‘Well, we’re going back to the year 1967, back to the time when I was working as a pianist on the cruise liners, and I had just come back to Edinburgh for a family wedding. When in town I’d always hook up with my band, The Melody Makers. We were doing a session in Glasgow when my mate, the bass player, asked me along for a post-gig drink. He started talking about Adge Cutler, and of course I knew of Adge as he used to be the tour manager for Acker Bilk, but I had never heard of his new band, the Wurzels. I guess when you’re out at sea you do get cut off a bit! Anyway, my mate said Adge Cutler was on the lookout for an accordion player, and he asked me if I still played and I said, “well, it all depends on my Mum!” He laughed and asked me what I meant, “well, the last time I came back from a stint on the cruise ships she had got rid of my piano as she couldn’t stand looking at it anymore, so I really don’t know if I’ve still got an accordion!”

Tommy laughs as he recounts going back to his council house in Penicuik on the outskirts of Edinburgh on the hunt for his accordion. Thankfully, it was still there, so he phoned Adge’s manager, John Miles to introduce himself. ‘John told me that the Wurzels just so happened to be up north in Barnsley the following week, so I agreed to catch the train down and meet Adge, though I had no idea what he looked like. John said, “There’s no one else in Barnsley that looks like Adge, he’ll be the scruffiest person at the station” and he was right! Adge didn’t look any different off stage than he did on! He was a right scruffy bugger! I said “You must be Adge” and he said, “You’re Tommer!”, he always called me that, no one else.’

The Wurzels were due to play at a nightclub that evening so Tommy went along to meet the rest of band in the dressing room. ‘In those days you’d have three or four acts on stage in any given night and whilst you’re waiting to go on, you listen to the other bands over the Tannoy speakers. One of the other bands was playing ‘When the saints go marching in’ and Adge said to me “Ere, can you play that?” I said, ‘yeah no problem’ so borrowed an accordion and played along til the song finished to which Adge said “did you want a job then?” Well, that had to be the quickest audition of my life!’ Little did Tommy know that by accepting the job, he’d now, after 57 years, be the longest serving member of the Wurzels. ‘If you’d told me that then, there’s no way I would have thought it! My first rehearsal with the Wurzels was the night before a gig and even then we only practised two songs. The banjo player was late, he turned up stinking of a farmyard and said he couldn’t stay too long because he had to ‘collect his pig swill’ I really did question, what the hell I‘d come to!’

Tommy’s first gig was on November 5 1967 and was very on brand for The Wurzels as they were scheduled to play at The World Cider Drinking Championships in Portishead. ‘All I knew was that Adge was going to bring me some clobber to wear. In my other band we used to wear Italian made-to-measure suits, or kilts of course, but what did I get handed? Corduroy hat and trousers, ankle length wellies, an old grandfather shirt and red polka dot neckerchief!’ After their set (and several ciders) the Wurzels had then been booked to play a second gig at the local press ball. ‘When we got there we realised the banjo player hadn’t turned up, Adge said if he doesn’t turn up we’ll have to go home. And that’s what we did. It was so unprofessional! If I hadn’t had a couple of drinks I would have driven back to Scotland and put it all behind me.’ Tommy recollects how he since learned that Adge had telephoned their manager, John and said, “If Tommer doesn’t go back to Scotland now, then he’ll stay forever.” ‘ I signed the ‘initial’ contract for 3 months. When I say ‘contract’ it was on an old school jotter. Adge used to write songs in a lined notebook with a soft red cover. He tore a strip off and we both scribbled our names. I kept that for years.’

The Wurzels in 1976, Tommy Banner sitting atop the tractor. The Wurzels in 1976, Tommy Banner sitting atop the tractor. (Image: Pictorial Press Ltd)

As the years went by, and Tommy had more than cemented his place firmly in the band, they saw huge success in 1976 with their hit ‘The Combine Harvester’ making the top spot of No.1 in the UK charts. ‘We were recording a TV show in Manchester at the time when our manager telephoned and told us, after climbing up the charts for 13 weeks that we’d finally made it to No.1. We were jumping! I was, and still am, so proud to be a Wurzel - and I’m so proud of what we have achieved. I may not have been born in Somerset but I’m from out in the hills in Scotland so being a ‘teuchter’ (Scottish word for country yokel) is easy for me. And I love it here in Somerset.’

As the county sees Worthy Farm host Glastonbury Festival later this month, I ask Tommy about his experiences there. ‘We’ve done Glastonbury three times now but the last time in 2010 has to be one of my all-time career highlights. Before we were due to go on stage, we heard an announcement over the loudspeaker system telling the festival goers that the Avalon Field was closed to any more people - for security reasons! The crew came up to us and said, “come and look at the crowd, we’ve never seen it like this at the Avalon stage before.” You honestly could not see a single blade of grass. I don’t know how Pete went up to the mic and spoke to them all, I don’t think I could have done it. We just stood there and took it all in. The applause was unbelievable - we couldn’t start for a good few minutes - but it felt like an eternity. But once we got going, we tore the place apart! And then, when we came off, the crew told us that we’d just played to 30,000 people, it was incredible!’

Looking ahead to the rest of the summer, the Wurzels have a packed line up, ‘That’s the thing, people often ask me, “what keeps you going?” and I say, ‘because we enjoy doing what we’re doing, we love it. We don’t try to educate people, we just welcome people for a good night out and as long as we’ve done that, we’re happy.’

The Wurzels are next playing at the Cadbury Hotel in Congresbury on Sat June 29. Tickets are £20 01934 834343 info@cadburyhouse.com