Shirley Collins, though almost unknown in the United States, was an immensely important figure in Britain's early-'60s folk revival and the golden age of British folk-rock in the late '60s and early '70s. She is one of British folk's most golden-throated vocalists, and one of its most eclectic, handling traditional fare, Renaissance music, and folk-rock. Any discussion of her recordings must also note the important contributions of her non-singing sister, the late Dorothy Collins, who was co-billed with Shirley on several albums. Dorothy, who played keyboards, also devised the arrangements for the albums of Renaissance-influenced folk that the pair released to high critical acclaim in the late '60s.
Shirley actually made her first album way back in 1959 for Folkways. For a time, she was a companion of noted folklorist Alan Lomax, whom she accompanied on trips through the American South that produced some of the most widely praised field recordings of traditional American folk music. In 1964, she helped point the way toward a more eclectic approach to British folk music by recording with guitar wizard Davey Graham on the album Folk Roots, New Routes.
Shirley made her true mark when she teamed with sister Dolly to offer several albums of medieval-based folk music. The most widely hailed effort in this direction was 1969's Anthems in Eden, a suite of sorts combining traditional material and original instrumental interludes. 1970's follow-up, the similar Love, Death & the Lady, was just as good; both albums, interestingly, appeared on the Harvest label, a company most noted for its British progressive/underground rock acts. The affiliation wasn't as unlikely as it might appear, for Shirley had already helped direct British folk-rock acts such as Pentangle to traditional folk material. Therefore, it wasn't a total surprise to find Collins turn up in bona fide folk-rock groups, particularly as she had married Ashley Hutchings, a key early member of both Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. With Hutchings, she sang in a couple of the mid-'70s most traditionally oriented British folk-rock outfits, the Albion Country Band and the Etchingham Steam Band.
After appearing on Lark Rise to Candleford by the Albion Band, released in 1980, Collins retired from recording outside of occasional guest appearances on sessions for other artists, and she withdrew from live performance after she froze on-stage while performing in Flora Thompson's Lark Rise at London's National Theatre. However, she continued to be cited as a major figure in the U.K. folk community. Artists as diverse as Billy Bragg, David Tibet of Current 93, and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists have cited her as a key influence, and in 2007, she received an MBE for her services to British music. In 2016, after being rediscovered by a new generation of music fans, Collins made a comeback, releasing her first album in nearly four decades, Lodestar. ~ Richie Unterberger